As I have mentioned previously, I quote romantic comedies with a somewhat comical frequency in my everyday life. One of the more unexpectedly profound moments in Sweet Home Alabama (spoiler alert) is when Melanie (Reese Witherspoon) tells her fiancé Andrew (Patrick Dempsey) that she can’t marry him:
Andrew, you don’t want to marry me.
No. No, you don’t, not really. You see, the truth is I gave my heart away a long time ago. My whole heart, and I never really got it back. And I don’t even know what else to say, but I’m sorry. I can’t marry you. And you shouldn’t want to marry me.
So this is what this feels like.
The simplicity of his statement, paired with his shocked expression as he struggles to process everything she’s said and what it means for his life, is a touchstone of cinematic empathy for me (it’s okay to make fun of me for that). I picture Patrick Dempsey’s stupefied face every time I hurt someone or watch someone struggle with disappointment, and I can’t count the amount of times I’ve stood stunned myself in the face of heartbreak, identifying with him completely. His response is most typically how I process let-downs now, usually echoing his exact words to myself. So this is what this feels like.
The scene continues as his overbearing mother, played brilliantly by Candice Bergen, shouts, “That’s it?! You’re just gonna let her humiliate you with some bullshit about an old husband?” Dazed, he replies in the same calm, detached manner, “Yeah, I think I am. Excuse me.”
(I really love this movie.)
For as long as I can remember, I have adopted a style of depersonalization to cope with fear, hurt, upset, anger, disappointment, and so on, detaching and looking at the situation from the outside as an abstraction. I frequently cite a point of trivia from neuroscience that seemingly conflicting emotions, such as dread and excited anticipation, are identical signals in the brain – it’s simply a matter of interpretation whether they are experienced as positive or negative. Stepping outside oneself, upsetting events are still novel, and in a certain light, our capacity to hurt or fear or experience anything intensely can be kind of abstractly beautiful. I guess that’s why depersonalization works. We can step back and say, “Wow, I can actually feel my heart sinking, how about that.”
I have felt myself resisting conscious experiences since the election, either sinking into altered consciousness / escapism, or sublimating and floating somewhere outside of myself. I am either deep under the sea or up in the clouds, with no desire to deal with the sinking ship of emotions in the present tense. Not surprisingly, that has its own problems, especially when so much of my mental health strategy involves being as Present as possible. I am on familiar ground here, and I have caught myself hiding inside my mind, but I don’t want to be emotionally sequestered anymore and especially not for the next four years.
I’ve been reading books on meditation and philosophy lately, especially Thích Nhất Hạnh. They have been incredible and perfectly-timed reminders that we have a seemingly infinite capacity to bear pain or hurt from others and that the resilience of the human spirit comes, always, in compassion and being fully present. Quite literally getting on the ground (through sitting meditation) and being with this moment.
In Pema Chödrön‘s excellent book Living Beautifully: with Uncertainty and Change, she outlines the importance of groundlessness and why we should not resist situations that cause trepidation or an unsettled sense of confusion in the universe. Citing the concept of samsara, which she defines as going around and around, recycling the same patterns, she identifies kleshas as the force behind the samsara turbine of pain. Kleshas, she explains, are the “conflicting emotions that cloud the mind,” such as anger, pride, jealousy, and despair, which are the mind’s attempt to escape groundlessness. When we give in to them, our preexisting habits are reinforced, and the wheel continues to spin, paradoxically keeping us even more inescapably trapped in the feeling of groundlessness.
Instead, Chödrön and everyone who’s gotten further in Buddhism 101 than me recommends trying to be even more present, feeling every feeling, reflecting on ourselves having these feelings, and while not obsessively dwelling on the kleshas or just going numb, living through these moments. By being with them, instead of trying to get away from them, and facing reality head on, we can find meaning and inspiration to make changes. In short, take the Patrick Dempsey approach, “So this is what this feels like.”
I have found myself stepping back a lot, limiting the amount of attention I can give to news items (I suspect there will be no shortage of think-pieces and disheartening headlines on our ensuing chaos), trying to keep political conversations focused and specific, seeking positive action instead of anger or despair, choosing my battles or when to walk away, and trying to get into the present tense with this surreality, which includes a lot of world and existence outside of our government and the unconscionable behavior of some of my fellow Americans. Slowly, I am starting to find a path – not out, but through – that gives me a tiny bit of hope and reassurance. It’s not terribly pleasant, but hey, at least I’m feeling again.
I already resent the amount of mental energy and emotion I have spent on this election and the current state of politics in the world, but I am resolved to not let it be in vain. I’m going to transform it into more beautiful thoughts, ideas to help people and the environment, substantive art, acts of compassion, and energy toward progress.
I am reclaiming my present. So this is what this feels like.