I asked a friend of mine the other night who’s been married for some 13 or so years and who still looked totally in love with his wife how on earth that was possible. What was their secret? How had they managed such an extraordinary feat?
I know this kind of thing (love that lasts) happens all the time – out there in that distant land called coupledom – but it’s not something I’ve ever got anywhere near and nor is it something I witnessed when I was growing up. In my childhood world, as far as I understood, love didn’t last and it caused a lot of pain and heartache.
My friend’s answer? One word: faith. Not religious faith, he said, but faith in marriage, faith in the partnership, faith in their bond. Faith (and these are my words, not his) in the universe. Faith in love. A belief that it’s worth holding on even when you don’t want to.
I get it. I understand it intellectually. But I’ve never felt it. Partly, I guess, because I’ve never had enough faith to even try. Because getting to that kind of relationship, making that kind of commitment requires a leap of faith, a rather large risk, a step into the unknown. And as I’m discovering, I really don’t like the unknown.
In fact, if there’s one thing of which I’m certain, it’s that I hate uncertainty.
This was pointed out to me recently by a therapist who’s known me just a few weeks. I’m coming to the end of 12 sessions of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) on the NHS. It’s obviously a short treatment but, despite having done other deeper forms of therapy in the past, I’ve found it really helpful. Surprisingly so. I thought I knew it all already. I’d read a few CBT books and had done plenty of self-analysis, so what more could he tell me? And I’d waited many months for it to come through. If you’ll recall, I had pondered taking anti-depressants (the box is unopened in my medicine drawer) but had decided to give myself a month in Mexico to see if that did the trick and to wait for my CBT.
Perhaps the most helpful thing that has come out of it so far is my new mindfulness meditation practice. When I say it like that, it sounds like I’ve cracked it, that I’m a paragon of peace and tranquillity. But all I’m actually doing is spending about 10-15 minutes each morning sitting still, focusing on my breathing and letting go of my thoughts. I’ve been trying for years to get into some sort of regular meditation, even if it’s just a few minutes each day, but I’ve stubbornly resisted. This time, though, something seems to have shifted. That’s probably because I’ve accepted two things: that I’m not going to commit to it unless I treat it as a discipline and turn it into a habit by doing it repeatedly over a good number of days; and that the more I do it, the more I will want to do it – the more I get glimpses of peace, the more I will want to turn to it in moments of turmoil.
I’m not quite there yet but I hope it will become like water – I will thirst for it and it will quench that thirst in a way that nothing else can. As you know, I have quite a history of trying to fit a square peg into a round hole – when I’ve felt sad, lonely, angry or tired, I’ve tried to satisfy those needs or stifle those feelings by eating excess food or engaging in some other compulsive behaviour instead of expressing my sadness, sharing my loneliness, venting my anger or getting some rest. I’m hoping that meditation can be my new port of call and that I’ll turn to it when I feel anxious, worried, down or depressed. It’s a way to connect with myself, to find some inner peace and to spend time with God.
There’s plenty on the Internet about mindfulness so I’ll leave you to do your own research if you’re interested but here are a few links I’ve found helpful: Be Mindful, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Shamash Aldina and the Mindfulness App for the iPhone.
So back to uncertainty. It was during a 20-minute guided meditation (listening to Jon Kabat-Zinn) that it occurred to me just how much I dislike uncertainty and just how difficult it is for me to cope with it. And it’s because I’ve found uncertainty so difficult to cope with that I’ve tried to control so much of my life – from my body shape to my relationships to what people think of me. But as anyone who’s tried to control the uncontrollable will know, you end up wound into a tight ball and ready to snap at the first sign of things not going your way.
The particular uncertainties I was struggling to deal with the other morning as I tried to practice mindfulness were around my book – will I get a publishing deal or will someone have written it before me? Will I get a decent advance? Will I be able to write it? Will people like it? Will anyone buy it? – and around my life – rather a broad term which I’m using to encompass questions around romantic relationships, my fertility, potential motherhood, future family and so forth.
I confess I find it excruciating not knowing the outcome of things before I enter into them. But the problem with that approach is that you often end up avoiding stuff – not participating in life, not writing the book, not meeting the guy – because of some imagined negative outcome.
Of course, discernment is important. It’s a good idea to enter into things with your eyes open and to check out whether the path you’re taking is in accordance with your values and with your vision for life. But while I like the idea of having a vision for life, of imagining a certain future for ourselves, I reckon it’s important – at least for me – to make sure this vision isn’t too sharply focused, that it’s a little blurred around the edges, that there’s some room for manoeuvre.
People have often pointed out to me that life would be very dull if we knew how it was going to turn out, if we knew the results of all our actions. I get this, but I can also understand why some of us crave certainty – we think it’ll protect us from pain, hurt, disappointment and heartache.
But ultimately it comes down to whether it’s more painful to take part or to sit on the sidelines and watch life go by, because that’s pretty painful too.
Last bank holiday weekend, I had a good experience of participating in life, despite having imagined some pretty unpleasant outcomes. I’d booked to go on a four day camping and cycling trip to Guernsey with a bunch of friends – on paper, it was my ideal break. But as our departure drew near and the weather forecast worsened, I started imagining all manner of calamities: I would freeze to death in the tent and lie awake all night trying to get warm, the journey (cycle to Waterloo, train to Poole, ferry to Guernsey, cycle to campsite) would be exhausting and take forever and why wasn’t I just flying to Barcelona? I would get back far too late on Monday night and stressed about all the work I had to do that week and the cycle back from Waterloo – uphill – would wipe me out.
But as it turned out, the sun shone much more than expected. I wasn’t cold in bed (a good sleeping bag and two hot water bottles helped – a girl has to be prepared). I won the tent lottery and ended up sleeping in a double bed (yes, the tent had a double bed!) instead of on a mattress on the floor. The journey there was easy and enjoyable and the cycle back from Waterloo felt like a stroll in the park after all the riding we’d done around Guernsey. And all I had to worry about the Tuesday morning after the trip was to get myself to a really lovely lunch with an interviewee for my book.
In short, I had a great time, I needn’t have worried and none of the catastrophes I’d imagined came to pass. Of course, the great thing about writing a blog over a number of years is that you have all your thought patterns down in print. So I can see I’ve been here before. In April 2011, I had similar thoughts before heading off on a camping and cycling weekend as I wrote in my post Do more of what you love:
What if my back seized up? Did I have all the right equipment? Wouldn’t I be better sleeping in on Saturday morning after a stressful week? When on earth was I going to pack? What if it rained all weekend? How was I going to get my bike and myself through the London traffic to Paddington station? Fortunately, though, I decided to ignore that voice and all those questions and just go with the flow.
And guess what? I had an amazing time (Once I was on the move, I couldn’t imagine why I’d ever questioned the trip). On that occasion, I did actually freeze in my tent and lay awake all night but it didn’t matter. I’d laughed myself silly before going to bed and I didn’t feel tired on the beautiful cycle the next day.
So the moral of this story is that I’ll probably always be prone to imagining catastrophe but I can remind myself, each time I fall into that trap, that calamity very rarely comes to pass – or at least not in the way I expect. Life, unfortunately, is fall of unavoidable pain and heartache but this often comes out of the blue, while our worst fears – those that keep us awake at night – generally fail to materialise.
So I, for one, am going to try and save my energy for things that are genuinely worth worrying about. I’m going to try and practice some faith in the beautiful uncertainty and serendipity of life.
And if I ever need reminding that my worst fears rarely come to pass or if I need to recall what makes me happy, I can take a look at this smiley picture from the last day of my Guernsey trip.