One of the most prominent questions a long-term traveller has is should I stay or should I go? The Clash had something to say about this. The reality is that we are all long-term travellers, whether we stay in one place our entire lives or move consistently from country to country. No one stays in one place, geographically or psychologically, for very long. Life is a journey that demands change, whether we like it or not. The problem is that sometimes, in the wake of change, we are forced to remain in a particular place much longer than we’d like.
Anyone familiar with discomfort? Wanting to change current circumstances to feel more at ease? Get the fuck out of the dentist’s chair? Anyone who has sat through a bad haircut knows this feeling intimately, which is to say that all of us have trouble with change unless it guarantees a reward.
We are living in a year that appears to be extending into something like 689 days instead of the usual 365. And I can guess that every single one of us has at some point wished they were somewhere else, doing something else.
I had a moment (actually several of them) this year that saw me plastered to my kitchen floor, drowning in a puddle of misery with the certainty that I could not bear the way I was feeling and the circumstances that inspired such misery. At some point during that battle with reality, it occurred to me that just by being alive in the choiceless awareness that accompanies suffering, I was, in fact, bearing that misery. My body was still intact, my mind was still doing its cyclonic thing, and my toenails still needed cutting. The dishes were still in the sink and the sun was still shining and the whole world was still going about its business. My conscious mind wouldn’t allow anything other than total presence and tolerance.
During this moment I had something like an epiphany, which may not seem very profound at first mention. But as that simple seed grew into a tiny green shoot in the following days, I realized that the simplest messages are often the most life-changing.
Stay. That was the epiphany.
When every bone in our body tells us to run we’re presented with a conflict: is it the wise voice inside telling us to leave an uncomfortable situation or is it fear that remaining in it will crush us to a fine pulp or, equally disturbing, blow us to pieces? Unless we’re facing what logic tells us is an objectively life-threatening situation, it’s usually fear. Conditioned fear that tells us to hold on to comfort, certainty, and good vibes by getting as far away as possible from a threatening stimulus.
This isn’t a quick and easy process, especially when we have to make it in the space of a nano-second of extreme unease. So what usually happens is that we find a way out. We distract rather than confront. Eat straight away rather than wait. Talk rather than listen. Move rather than explore what stillness feels like. Almost as unproductive is the advice to surrender to the moment. Surrender looks a lot like staying, but the difference is that staying feels more like a choice. Surrender feels like handing ourselves over and allowing “the universe” to guide us. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with this approach, it’s just that staying seems to have the added benefit of agency.
But what about those situations that seem to rob us of that choice and sense of agency? Moments that demand we stay physically and psychologically present in which to witness the searing quality of our own discomfort? We’re forced to stay and experience the whole damn thing. The nightmare of a root canal. The agony of heartbreak. Anxiety or cancer pulsing through every cell reminding us that we are not infallible or indestructible. The sheer mundaneness of life sometimes when the dishes need doing and we’d rather do anything else. And a thousand other examples from the bank of human experience that I can only imagine.
It’s not a matter of giving ourselves to the experience but of recognizing that the experience itself, and our awareness of it, is a kind of divine intervention that offers relief. Not escape, but clear and present relief from the battle we create within, just by resisting discomfort.
Never before on a global scale have we been invited to stay. Amid COVID, a million other personal crises have unfolded in the wake of this year. I won’t say what mine have been (most people know anyway!), but none of it has been easy. None of it has felt like an invitation but more like a barrage of emotional artillery blowing up the little cocoon of safety I imagined for myself most of my life. Anyone else know this feeling?
And in this moment of overwhelming collapse was a tiny little voice that said stay. Stay right here in this moment and work it out with all the grace or gracelessness you can muster. Do whatever you need to stay present with it. Attack it with the curiosity of a baby discovering his own image in the mirror. Accept that life is a never-ending series of struggles that don’t all require us to suffer, but sometimes do. This is how life gets done.
Art credit: Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun (Canadian, b. 1957), Untitled, 2009.