Seeing from a Distance for Comfort and Clarity
It’s Monday morning. After discovering that the old canoe I purchased from a neighbor is too heavy to lift onto my truck for transport to our nearby lake, I did the next best thing. I dragged it to the side of our house, drilled holes in the bottom, and planted it with flowers. Today, after rain has fallen hard and steadily for more than 40 hours (and counting), I am regretting that decision. We may need transport out of here – just weeks after we fled from a forest fire.
This morning there are news reports of significant damage from this torrent of rain – formally called an Atmospheric River. Flooded roads, landslides, power outages, closed highways, and, in some regions, emergency alerts about potential orders to evacuate.
At top of mind for my neighbors and me is the declaration that fire season is officially over – and it only took one water-logged weekend to do it. Lest we think Mother Nature is giving us a break, her message of global peril hasn’t changed. In the past year, the West has been radically hotter and dryer than ever before. The welcome snow on our mountain tops today will evaporate and not melt into the ground to feed our rivers as in the past. Rivers, like the Colorado River, and numerous reservoirs are dangerously low, threatening agriculture in California and other western states. California alone has 5.6 billion acres that depend on irrigation to serve 40 million thirsty people.
So, no, we don’t have cause to relax after a welcome drenching that’s chased away the fury of fire we’ve endured. And we’re still rolling out vaccines for an ever-morphing virus. And, nearly all of our top daily news headlines give us more reason to despair than to celebrate. I don’t know how you are keeping all these realities in perspective, but I’m finding it hard to be optimistic. I feel like we’re just learning to juggle three balls when the universe throws us three more. (In case you wonder – the record for sustained juggling of balls is about seven – set by a Chilean guy named Adolfo in 2017).
I am thinking that, had it not been for the profound impact of the pandemic on our personal lives – had it not altered our daily behavior – we might be able to manage, or at least objectify, the onslaught of concerns we face today. After all, water and forest management and greenhouse gas emissions are usually intangible concerns that live outside the structure of our daily lives. It may seem ironic that we are often able to objectify conditions that actually threaten the future of our planet while falling deeply into anxiety over the pandemic life we’ve been forced to live. And this vulnerability, in turn, sensitizes us to the larger picture. It’s all going to hell in a handbasket. Who would not be depressed?
But I am pleased to report – in case you are like me and walk purposefully from one room to the next and forget why) – I’ve learned there is an adaptive reason a personal focus on events isn’t always a good strategy (as just illustrated). When I go down the rabbit hole of daily news on my iPad, I am sliding into a melting pot of doom. I read about multiple events that would make a Quokka cry (more about this later). Is there a point in getting out of bed in the morning? It’s all bad. Out of control. Hopeless.
However, in a scholarly paper with a massive number of references and words with multiple syllables, I’ve found the rationale for creating distance between me and worldly events well out of my control. It’s called self-distancing. For example – with COVID-19, we’ve had to be aware and vigilant. Immersed in keeping ourselves and our loved ones healthy. Dropping the COVID ball can make the difference between health, sickness, and death. However, distanced world events and inexplicable political shenanigans are unmoved by our worry about what might happen next or what we may or may not do right now. It’s not impactful to ruminate about crazy injustices. To become deeply distressed when we imagine a future we will not be around to experience. Ultimately, we lose our ability to reason objectively and, consequently, our ability to affect the changes we wish to see.
The self-distancing proposed by this panel of authors (ironically immersed in the topic of distancing), is to “step back” and look at the experience as if we are “a fly on the wall.” When not trapped by our own emotions and can view the problem from a distance, the brain adapts and frames the issue differently. From narrow focus on a nasty wine stain on the carpet to a wider view that presents options like white vinegar, dish soap, club soda, or, okay, a new carpet.
Some of our concerns, like health and family, require attention, emersion, and action. Here we can make a difference – maybe the difference. Others, like human-caused climate change or global inequities in wealth, health, and opportunities, are issues that can only be addressed by committed groups of people who visualize the challenges from a distance that reveals alternatives to doing nothing and, therefore, a path to effective action.
So, I’m letting go of personal guilt and responsibility for conditions beyond my direct influence. I’ll send money, support people, and causes, but not crumble under their weight. Don’t we all have enough to carry? I think a good way to launch this self-distancing practice is to check out this LINK. No reading required. There, doesn’t that make you feel happier already?
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