Each year I look forward to receiving a holiday letter from my friend Kris. In amongst the family news, there is always a bit of wisdom and insight. This year, she wrote of new adventures, travels with friends, and visits from special family members. She expressed that they were grateful to have so much to celebrate. But then she wrote, “Yet, the year was also sprinkled with trials. We’re sure some of you can relate. There were many times we were challenged beyond our comfort level, and brought to our knees in prayer.”
I thought this was well put, especially as I have been struggling for the last couple of months with how to write about why I haven’t posted an essay in over a year. I don’t think Kris would mind if I borrow her phrasing and put it as simply as this: For the first five months of 2014, my family and I were challenged beyond our comfort level, and as a result, I had a lot of trouble staying on my feet. Everyone has those times, do they not? Times when everything starts shifting so fast that you can’t help but be rocked by uncertainty and fear.
It was kind of awful, but at the same time, it wasn’t. Throughout each and every challenge, there was always someone there to steady me with their help, kindness, and love. Sometimes this aid came from those I love best, but just as often, it was offered from a casual acquaintance or a complete stranger. For every challenge, there were a multitude of blessings to soothe the rawness of my heart, and I went to bed each night a little shaken but also filled with gratitude. As my friend Kris wrote in her letter, it is about finding “joy in the pain.”
Fortunately, by summer, the earth stopped shaking under our feet and life resumed—it was different than before but steady nonetheless. Oddly enough, it was in the months after the crises that I struggled the most. I didn’t trust my new balance, and the anticipation that I could be knocked off my feet again at any moment kept me in a constant state of anxiety and fearfulness.
Rick Hansen, in his excellent book “Hardwired for Happiness”, writes that not only do negative experiences overpower positive ones, but painful or fear-inducing episodes actually change our biological chemistry and, as a result, rewire our brain. He explains that “feeling stressed, worried, irritated, or hurt today makes you more vulnerable to feeling stressed, etc., tomorrow, which makes you really vulnerable the day after that. Negativity leads to more negativity in a very vicious circle.”
That was exactly it. All last summer and fall, my poor, vulnerable brain got stuck in a negative loop. The anxious wariness felt deceptively safe, but in reality sucked all the light and energy from my life—much more so than the original crises had. By November, I was drained. Around Thanksgiving, I decided that no matter how fearful it made me, I was ready to take a leap of faith and trust in life again. But how? By chance, that was the week I received Kris’s letter. It was this phrase that I grasped onto like a lifeline: “We stand amidst the messiness of life and we are thankful.”
It was the perfect answer because according to Hansen, the way to retrain our brain is to shift our focus from the negative to the positive. He calls it “taking in the good,” and suggests that we do it several times a day to teach our brain to focus on the beauty, grace, and blessings that are always there to steady us.
In other words, I had to rewire my brain to see with my heart. I had to look past the messy stuff that makes me feel afraid and uncomfortable—the stuff I can’t control—and focus on the abundant goodness that is always there. It is an ongoing process as our brains are protectively attracted to the negative, but when I am vigilant, I can find the courage to believe that each challenge is wrapped within a blessing. When I trust in the good, I can see the grace–such as a holiday letter from an old friend–that keeps me aloft as I fly through this scary, unpredictable, and beautiful life of mine.