Almost every night for the past nine weeks I’ve hoisted myself out of my working day as though from a pit. At first, I’d swung the shovel myself like a child digging a backyard hole on a sunny afternoon, energized by the challenge before me, the cornucopia of new things to learn, and the importance of what I’d produce at the end.
Eventually, though, my emotional muscles grew sore as my days got longer and longer. And emerging from those days seemed as hard as the daily tasks themselves.
Finally, one night, as I threw down my tools, I found myself standing at the bottom of a chasm with the surface impossibly far away. The mistakes I’d made that day poked fingers at me like roots from the walls. Fragments of the day’s fraught conversations pelted me like dislodged dirt. And standing there, I could see no way out.
Desolate, I went to bed.
My brain too jumpy to permit rest, I randomly opened a guided meditation podcast. The tranquil voice eased me and I quieted myself in the chasm’s darkness. Then the voice said Love What Is.
I snorted. The accusing roots and raining dirt, the exit so far away: this “Is” is intolerable and I refuse to love it. Nevertheless, over and over, the voice intoned Love What Is. Love What Is. Love What Is. I fell asleep just to stop the noise.
At 3 am, I snapped awake. After a listless 45 minutes trying to will myself back to sleep, I decided to get up and read my book, an extended essay about Williams James, the late 19th century psychologist and philosopher. The book bore the promising title “Sick Souls, Healthy Minds: How William James Can Save Your Life.”
And quickly he did.
First, the author John Kaag offered an aphorism attributed to William James that gave me hope: “Most people never run far enough on their first wind to find out they’ve got a second.”
Hmmm. There at the bottom of the chasm, with my first wind long gone, I realized that, actually, I do have a second wind. Because I had fully depleted my first, I now had created the possibility for a second stronger wind to inflate my lungs and lift me up. I watched as I pressed up from my prostrate position: first to my hands, then to my knees, and on to my feet. I breathed in my second wind.
Second, Kaag told a story about the naturalist John Muir traversing a suddenly impossible rock face, with no exit but the fatal glacier below. After imagining his body taking “a lifeless rumble” from the precipice, Muir’s mind filled with a “stifling smoke.” But then: “This terrible eclipse lasted only a moment when . . . I seemed suddenly to become possessed of a new sense. The other self — Instinct, or Guardian Angel — call it what you will — came forward and assumed control.” And Muir’s limbs carried him across the wall to deliverance.
There, in the cool September darkness, well before dawn, new courage came to me. I had reached my second wind. Gulp it down and use it. I had gazed up at possibility from impossible depths and suddenly found the resources to hoist myself up again and out.
Mine is a short-term problem. I know eventually the imprisoning pit will give way to the foundation of a strong useful edifice. I also know the days ahead will continue to test me, to take even my second wind from me, to scare me with tasks I’ll dramatize as precipice or pit. And I also know that I’ll keep running far enough to find my third wind and my fourth.
And when that fails, my Guardian Angel will carry me the rest of the way.
Readers, now you know why I’ve been so quiet. And to my surprise and delight, several of you have used my hiatus to browse my past essays — almost 100. The easiest way to explore the essays is by consulting the “word cloud” featured at the very bottom of this post. Find a theme or two that interests you and sift through the sands…
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