It was a warm March afternoon and the world, recently uncovered from under melted snow, glowed yellow in the golden sunlight. I pulled my beat up Versa over on a residential street lined with bare trees and turned around to face my six-year-old. It was time to explain to her what was going on in the world. The pandemic.
Without having all the information or answers or even perspective on what was to come, I at least knew enough to prepare her for the coming weeks. I needed to help her understand what was happening and what our small family could do to help and keep ourselves safe.
Looking back, I realize I myself had no real idea what was coming. I wish I could sit myself down and explain things the way I did for my daughter. I’d tell myself what all this would mean for me. I’d soften the coming blows. I’d reassure myself I had the strength to get through it.
Most of all, I’d say this:
“Choose yourself and those you are responsible for. Even when choosing yourself feels like losing something, or like quitting or giving up. Even if it hurts and feels unfair. Even in the midst of grief and loss, anger and rage — choose to do right by yourself.”
“Settle, let go, and accept. Bend so you don’t break.”
All problems, no good options
Every month this past year brought a new challenge or loss. And yet the world just kept turning. Life keeps happening, and we’re expected to carry on.
And I’ve struggled with how to do that. How do I make the best decision when there are no good options?
I was talking to a friend recently who, like me, is taking a step back. She’s working on a college degree and has just two semesters left. But she’s deferring this spring semester. Similarly, I lost some clients and turned down others to scale back on paid work. I even took a two-month hiatus from Brave Saver (after a couple of unofficial breaks).
We both have wondered aloud to each other, over the months: Is this the right thing to do? Do I really have to make this sacrifice right now? Why is it on me to bear the burdens and accept all the trade offs?
I’m sure many of you relate, and share this feeling. How unfair it is that, once again, it’s all coming down to you. That you are the one who must bend to avoid a break.
Right now, even the “best” solution still hurts
The solution I came to in order to bend and not break was to take a step back from Brave Saver. But the solution brought on its own pain.
I love this project. I want to work on it, I want to pour everything into it.
But I was putting so much pressure on myself to show up every week, and I was starting to feel the wear. In 2020, especially, it started feeling like a treadmill, a perpetual scramble to scrape together some kind of wisdom to share each week. And all at once I knew, on that gut level, that I had to take a step back and get some perspective.
So I tweeted that I was doing so, and wouldn’t be publishing until 2021.
With the tweet sent, I felt relief. But it was followed by a swell of anger. I felt backed into a corner, forced to give up things that were important to me, that mattered most. I didn’t want to have to take a break. I wanted to fight for what matters to me, for Brave Saver, but I knew the fight would come with costs I couldn’t accept.
We’re right to feel mad, but we still have to choose
Calling a truce was so hard and painful. I was so angry that my hand was being forced, made to choose between bending and breaking. It felt like giving up, telling myself no, deferring my goals and dreams. Breaking hundreds of commitments I’ve made to myself.
But I realized a couple of things, also. One, that I had a right to my grief and anger and needed to process it. Two, that this processing probably needed to happen offline, and that I couldn’t make all my big feelings productive if I didn’t make a change.
And three, that my anger and feeling backed into a choice don’t change the reality of the situation. It won’t change the options available to me, or the obligations and responsibilities I have to myself and my family.
Our cherished stories about how the world works are outdated
There’s a story I lived by for a long time: that if I can just find this magical combination or routine, schedule, habits, behaviors, or hacks — that somehow I can control the outcome of any situation. If I do all that, I can fix any problem I encounter.
That is the story, and I liked that story. I built a life on that story. I wanted it to be true. I wanted to have more control and power. I worked myself to the bone to make it so.
But 2020 punched holes in that story the reality shone through:
The fact is that I can’t fix this. There is nothing I can personally do to compensate for a global pandemic.
Limits exist in life. And trying, desperately, to hurl myself past them has only hurt me. The story that once gave me comfort and control now makes me compulsive and fearful. I still want it to be true, but the evidence is mounting. I’m outgrowing it.
Most of us have had moments like this the past 10 months. The ones where we thought the way we always have, felt how we usually feel, did what we habitually do. We followed the same stories and narratives that got us this far.
But the world changed overnight, and the stories that got us through became outdated overnight, too. We’re all losing a core part of our worldview, our sense of safety and security. In the face of loss it’s instinct to grip what we fear losing tighter, hold it closer. The world is changing, and so are we.
Writing a new story
Maybe it’s time to shed what we’re outgrowing and to let go of what we know isn’t working. Maybe it’s time to reach for what might work.
I’m learning to be able to see when I need to bend — when I’ve reached the limits of my control. I’m learning to see when attempts to push past those limits carry a high risk of pushing me too far.
I’ve realized trying to break through the limits might just break me.
I can choose the best path even when it feels like failure. I can actively prioritize and make trade offs, instead of leaving it to the fates to decide.
It’s sometimes felt cowardly, like taking the easy way out. Bending might prevent a break, but it so often still feels like weakness.
I’m not happy about it. But I can be full of rage and sadness in the face of an unjust world and situation and still choose acceptance.
I’m older and wiser than I was in March. I can see the courage it takes to accept what feels unacceptable. To be humble, to be vulnerable, to set aside my ego and do what’s needed first and foremost.
What has helped, has made this easier, even when it’s been painful — is bending. Getting back to the must-haves and letting go of the rest. Settling when I must. Respecting hard limits. Bending so I don’t break.
Most of all, I’m so proud of you and me. I hope we can look back and give ourselves credit for our strength and grace for our struggles, but maybe even find and recognize our quiet moments of courage that we can take pride in.