As I walk to the edge of the Earth, thinking that I will eventually fall off, I discover, like many before that there is always another step.
My apocalyptic daydreams have nothing to do with fighting for my life. There is no action packed adventure. I am not running from falling buildings or other crazy human beings gone rogue. I am usually alone, walking, with a backpack on, the real intrigue coming from seeing my world, and the small stream of my life running through it as if for the first time.
I am holding an orange saying to myself, how could I have ever overlooked these little bumps? Why do we call this orange? I dig my nails into the skin and wonder if there is a fountain that squirts up and out of me like there is in this orange.
Nellie, a man in his fifties lost a good portion of his savings during the 2008 economic collapse. The 2008 economic collapse has an apocalyptic ring doesn’t it? I imagine a bright and shiny Coca-Cola can crushed and torn to bits. The first thing Nellie said to me was “I don’t know who I am anymore.” After the loss of income, the death of his mother, and finally the death of his dog, he lost his world as he knew it.
Nellie said he didn’t know how to get out of bed in the morning. He was considering antidepressants and had no passion for life anymore. He kept beating himself up for the money he invested that was gobbled away by a scam. How could he not see this would happen?
Around the same time that Nellie came in to see me, the big Whole Foods in our neighborhood decided to remodel. They extended the store to be one of the largest in the nation. The produce moved to the meat section, the cheese was somewhere on the other side of soups, nothing was the same anymore. Plus, because they were still renovating there were random hallways made of plastic sheets that one might get stuck in, thinking they were being led to quarantine until finally they emerge by the nuts miles away from where they began.
In her article Shock, Uncertainty, Conviction, psychologist, and professor at Naropa University, Karen Wegela, writes about our illusions of comfort, permanence, and stability. Buddhist psychology suggests that most of our suffering is caused by the belief that life should not involve suffering, should stay the same, and should always be safe. Wegela describes three responses to these false realities crashing down on us as they did with Nellie – shock, uncertainty and conviction.
Shock, is the sudden shattering of how we thought things were. Something has changed, something that has been seemingly the same for a long time and that we have gotten used to.
This scrambles our brain and all the ways that we identify with this thing staying the same. It’s as if we have been airlifted from our usual environment and plopped down in the middle of the no-where. We don’t recognize ourselves anymore. There is no right or left, just change.
Uncertainty is the fear that results in not knowing how things work anymore which can cause an array of malfunctioning.
One might lock her keys in the car upon finding out that her husband has had an affair. Or like my dear friend who had to go into surgery and called me at four in the morning from the hospital thinking that she had been kidnapped. We get confused and our bodies wander in one direction, while our heads go the other way.
And conviction is the attempt to solidify what is going into something we can understand. Anything that will provide a spec of relief from the uncertainty we feel. Unfortunately this usually involves blaming ourselves, ‘see we just aren’t good enough’. We have no control, no power over the future.
Bad things happening are a reflection of our stupidity. We try to get our lives back to the way it was by retrieving the person we thought we were before the change occurred. When we can’t do this we might find something else to blame. We become fixed minded as if we want to grip reality in our fists and hold it there grinding our teeth.
Nellie said he wanted to try to figure out what went wrong. He wanted to go back over the years and find the mistakes he made that led to losing his money. He said this will prevent mistakes from happening in the future. He wanted things to go back to the way they were. I wondered if the loss of his mother and dog was falling into the same category as “mistakes made.”
“What if things will never go back to the way they were? What if it is almost a guarantee that you will make another mistake?” I asked.
He looked at me wide-eyed. The look of uncertainty, of I don’t know.
I stood in front of the meat section trying to find my vegetables. My heart was beating fast, and as I looked around, I saw that most everyone in the store had that same wide-eyed look that Nellie had. One woman was yelling at one of the workers wearing the green apron that marked him as a target. “I can’t find anything I need. This is ridiculous! I have to be somewhere in a half hour. All I need is Olive Oil!”
The worker nodded his head sympathetically then took hold of her basket as if he were taking her hand and gently lead her to the olive oil.
Wegela writes, “Moments of freshness may emerge to be recognized as such, or they may emerge to be hurriedly covered over with familiar thoughts.”
I recognize that my fantasies are more of a longing, a psychological game of Russian Roulette. I want to become new to myself again – or for the first time. I want the courage to dangle off my familiar self and see that the world is dangling too.
Am I trying to prepare myself for the end of the world? Or more likely the inevitable—someone I love dying, the possibility of a war closer to home, old age, sickness, death, or my vegetables being moved to a different section in the store.
Are our fantasies of the world coming to an end simply a wise voice inside us saying—it will and it does, over and over again?
Nellie looked different as he described to me what kind of morning he had. “I woke up and said to myself for the millionth time ‘I don’t know who I am anymore.’ I just kept repeating this over and over ‘I don’t know who I am anymore.’ Then I was screaming it. You know, I was really angry lying in bed screaming to the ceiling ‘I don’t know who I am anymore! I don’t know who I am anymore!’ And then something just broke. I started crying and I realized….”
He paused and started to giggle, “I really don’t know who I am anymore.”