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An invitation from Overwhelm

stressed person

Like some people I know, I am feeling somewhat overwhelmed just now. Maybe it will be regarded as a common staging post on the Coronavirus superhighway when looking back is useful. Such a lot is in flux and such a lot is being called for in terms of thinking things through, of agency and action.

Alongside the varying demands of work and family, my social media news feed reminds me daily of so much suffering and so much need for help and intervention. The heart-wrenching unfairness of it all.  Newspaper and TV coverage bleeds through obvious filters into my psyche. Each day new invitations arrive to join a screen full of boxes with talking heads attempting to make meaning, find leverage, gain insight, make or take a position.

The COVID19 pandemic pours another cocktail of complexity into an already leaking vessel of what it is to be human in the 21st century. And I remind myself that I have the privilege of such overwhelm and the choices that go with it.

Although the stakes seem higher, this not a new place nor a new theme. When I realise my overwhelm, and that can take a while, I know I have to step back and look at the choices I can make.

But first I must make space – to paraphrase [1]Fritz Perls – to get out of my head and come to my senses.  Whether taking a ground thumping walk, dancing like crazy, digging some earth, singing a song or meditating,  I need to focus on anything other than my thoughts and get in touch with sensing physically what is to be alive. To be present to the moment and the richness of embodied experience.  The longer I have available to do this the better.  That is why time away from our usual routines or work is so valuable.

A spaciousness of mind and heart are needed if we are to allow some of our more difficult questions about choice and influence to surface and be given the attention they need to serve us well.

In my work over the last thirty years, everyone I have ever worked with – and I include myself – has faced significant questions of choice and influence at some stage.  Many of us face them now as we feel impotent in the face of so much need and so many issues and concerns that affect the I – we – all of us.

Beyond crisis and survival (which leave little room for much else) questions that seem very alive just now include:

  • What do I put my effort into to really make a difference (even if it’s ‘only’ in my own life?)
  • How do I care for my own needs whilst taking others that I love into account?
  • What are the real or imagined limits and freedoms of my circumstances?
  • What motivates me to do anything?
  • Do I really have a choice? (can I live with my choice?)
  • How can I influence others to care about what I care about?

Questions that have no simple answers and on which so much depends.

What is in the mix of consideration within the ecology of our lives?

This particular overarching question seems more than ever vital to allow in and to explore in the company of others. Especially when context and circumstance breach the confines of here and now and blend with past and future, identity and heritage, autonomy and bondage, health and dis-ease, have and have not and all that is mediated and interpreted through our psychology, information overload and the calling of our souls.

Where to begin?  I wish I knew.

Overwhelm, like many states, is another kind of invitation and one that I’m considering accepting once I’ve turned off the noise and rested well. I am imagining a future with the potential for so much more overwhelming for us all. The choices that we face in what comes next will require us to rest and revive along the way before acting with integrity and alongside others. What I do know is that in overwhelm the temptation to withdraw for good rather than rest is real. Withdrawal creates distance and loss of a relationship.  Staying in a relationship and recognising we need one another seems to me to be as essential as breathing as well as working out – together – the ultimate limits of what is going to be possible.

“The Journey”

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice —
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do —
determined to save
the only life you could save.”
― Mary Oliver

[1] Fritz Perls was a German born psychiatrist who founded Gestalt Therapy with his wife Laura in the 1940’s

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