Dear Donagh, I'm feeling very low and I'm hoping you can help me…. My marriage ended nearly 20 years ago and I brought up my two sons myself, holding down a job to support them. Now the younger one is 15 and all of a sudden I just feel utterly weak and discouraged. I would love to give up my job, I have no enthusiasm for it any more, but I can't afford to give it up. I'm on sick leave at the moment and I feel completely empty and frightened and alone…. I don’t know where to go from here…. Can you help me? Joan.
Dear Joan, what an anguished story you have to tell! I'm truly sorry to hear how hard your life is. In the past we have spoken in person a few times and several times over the phone, so I know more about your situation than the readers do. I know for example that you have had a medical check-up, and that you are getting help and advice from many people.
I'm far from home as I write this. I'm in Norway, and the ground is covered with ice. I've learnt the hard way how careful one has to be when walking on ice. Now I watch the Norwegians. They take short steps and they place their feet flat on the ground. They even have special verbs for this kind of walking: staure and subbe. I went for a walk shortly after reading your letter, trying to imagine myself into your situation; and I realised how different this careful kind of walking is from the usual way. It may be that it holds a kind of secret - or a hint about how to carry on with our lives when conditions are terrible.
When you think about your whole future, as you say you often do, you are trying to take an impossible step. Only very smug people feel capable of doing that. It’s not possible for any normal person living with problems. When you shorten the odds and think just about next week, even then you are taking a long step. I would suggest very short steps: when your mind begins to sweep you away, get up and do some simple task, like cleaning the mantelpiece, or making a cup of coffee, or sowing in a button…. These may sound like trivial pursuits, but they have clear boundaries and they let you taste success within minutes. I know from experience that ordinary tasks carry a kind of redemption. When we are upset we tend to look over the rim of things, away into the abstract; and the vision we see is just an image of our own discouragement. I would say: believe in what is immediate. Spend time with small things. This is like putting your feet down flat on the ground. No spring forward, no leaping or bounding. Just this sip of coffee. The taste of it. It takes time to taste things. Then the slow realisation that our life is entirely made up of brief moments. They won't all taste the same, but all of them are brief. Break your time down into brief moments. This is not a gimmick, it is what meditators are always attempting to do. You have a lot of company.
Another useful practice is to look at something - a tree in your garden, for example - and keep looking at it until the word ‘tree’ is no longer good enough to describe it. The word ‘tree’ is abstract; it fits every tree in the world. How does it do that? By not fitting any of them really. Words are like that: one size fits all. When you dwell in words and descriptions - particularly gloomy descriptions - you are allowing yourself to be pulled away from the very things that can bring you reassurance and healing. Everything real is particular. Pay attention to particular things.
We have talked about these things before. I hope that seeing them in print may be helpful to you in some way.
God bless and support you, Joan