Disorientation as Life Practice (Part 2 – When Things Fall Apart)

When I began this blog a few months ago, I proudly (even a bit self-righteously) proclaimed that the best travel is about “disorientation” and that it is a life practice we should welcome. You can see my original blog post here. It is true that I can look back fondly on many experiences of travel that have changed me because they challenged and disoriented me. What I did not say is that these experiences were mostly chosen and optional, and I always knew I could easily shift what I was doing. No one made me live and teach in Egypt for a year. I was not forced to walk the 500 miles of the Camino Francés. You could say that much of my travel was really “privileged disorientation.” In other words, if things got difficult—I had options.

When I began this blog, I had no idea that COVID-19 was on the horizon. I had no idea that the whole world would suffer disorientation. And though I have heard some say that we are now in a time of great opportunity, I don’t think most of us easily welcome this occasion as a wonderful experience of growth and change. In addition to sickness and death, there is just too much job loss, too much fear, too much isolation, too much risk for those who must work, too much wondering about the future, too much at-home time for children, too much being asked of parents, too much partisanship in our politics, too much mistrust and misunderstanding—its all just too much—too much!

Into the unknown…

In light of all this, today feels less like  a time of “disorientation” that will become “reorientation,” but rather a time when everything we know is being destroyed. This is not a life change that I am welcoming. I wish I could say otherwise. I wish I had a more courageous approach to it all.

Recently, I have begun to read a book by Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön called When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times. It was written in 1996, yet the title itself seems perfectly crafted for us today. In fact, I noticed that a recent episode of a podcast I follow called “On Being” is also revisiting this classic. Though I am not a Buddhist, I do find wisdom in these words from Chödrön’s book:

Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy. 

In the author’s view, we acknowledge the pain, we accept the disorientation, we don’t try to escape, we settle into it. David Brooks in his recent column in the New York Times put it this way:

We have entered the endurance phase of this pandemic. We are slowly mastering this disease, but we have not yet done so. And so we wait — and endureEndurance is patience. It is shortening your time horizon so you just have to get through this day. Endurance is living with unpleasantness…Endurance is the knowledge that the only way out is through and whatever must be borne will be borne. (from “Ordinary People Are Leading The Leaders”, May 14, 2020.)

I am generally not that excited about staying with my pain. If it has something to teach me—I am not sure I really want it. If I have a convenient out—I usually want to take it. Even if I am in it with other people—I’m not sure I feel ready for it. 

But that is where we are. In the middle of this time with each other. Yet, sadly, we are not as together as we like to think. Some of us are more “in the middle” than others. Some of us have many more resources. Some of us are very protected and some are quite vulnerable. Some are paying careful attention and others throw caution to the wind. Some of us are essential workers at risk, some of us can stay holed up in our walled gardens. 

There is a whole jumble of feelings I have about this reality. Guilt, fear, exhaustion, compassion, loneliness, anger, anxiety, and a bit of hope. I have chosen good paths and but I have also chosen some paths that lead in unhealthy directions. I do want to stay with all this—to feel what I feel, to not turn away, to help where I can, to offer kindness to others, and to show compassion to myself. I’m just not always sure how to do it.

A few weeks ago in church, a song was shared called “The Only Way Through is In,” by Carrie Newcomer. That feels about right at this moment. I especially like how the song begins: “You can’t get over it. You can’t go around it. You can’t go under it.” You can listen to it here:

The only way out is through…But the only way through is in. May we all find our way in and through…

Practice: Staying With Your Pain

When we were walking the Camino in 2018, we arrived at a town called Sahagún, the official halfway point of the Camino Francés pilgrimage route through Spain. While we were there we went to the local post office, to send off our mail-in ballot for the midterm election in the United States. (We didn’t want to miss out on such a critical time in our nation’s history.) 

As we waited in line, we stood behind a young German woman named Katarina, who was shipping off a box to her home. We struck up a conversation with her and she told us she was sending away the boots she had been using for her pilgrimage up to this point. As she continued the conversation we knew it would be a tale of woe. She had gotten such painful blisters from walking with these new boots that she had literally stopped her in her tracks. 

Sending these hiking boots to her home in Germany would both reduce the weight she was carrying and get rid of the offending footwear. On top of that, she decided to stop walking for a few days, take the bus to the next town, and meet a few friends. Most significantly, she was in so much pain she didn’t know whether she would complete her Camino (another 400 kilometers) or whether she would return home. Because of her pain, everything she had planned was in the balance.

Katarina was clearly sad. The foot pain made her sad. Thinking about moving forward while nursing blisters made her sad. Skipping over a part of the Camino route made her sad. Leaving new found friends behind made her sad. Thinking about totally giving up the pilgrimage made her sad. 

Maybe “sadness” is not the right word here. But Katarina was at an emotional decision point. All kinds of pain were swirled into her experience. I do not know what she decided to do in the end. I do not remember seeing her later on the Camino. But I appreciate the crossroads she faced. 

One choice she could have made was just to ignore her pain. Of course, that is impossible to do with the physical anguish. There is no “playing through the pain” of extreme blisters. Appropriate rest and medication were in order. But there was also the pain of disappointment and feeling like a failure. She could have made a choice to medicate that pain too. There is plenty of cheap wine along the Camino. Another choice she could have made is to feed the resentment for all that the pain stole from her. She could have wallowed in self pity. Plenty of us live in that space too.

I don’t know why pain comes. Sometimes it is unbidden, sometimes we set ourselves up for it. But generally when it comes we don’t sit with it. The truth is we don’t often listen to our pain to see what it teaches. We have somehow been taught that the highest human value is to escape pain—especially psychic pain. Painful emotions, deep fears—get rid of them fast!

But what if we stayed with our pain? What if we accepted it as real? What if we stopped denying it? Will it beat us down or will it take us to a new place? Will it grow into a monster or will it be disarmed? I’m not sure. What I know is that running from my pain usually doesn’t help me in the long run, because it always seems to find a way to return. Maybe if I listen to my pain, stay with it, and see what it points to—I will find a way to the next meaningful place in my life. Maybe it will even take me to a deeper place in myself. And that is both exciting and scary!

6 thoughts on “Disorientation as Life Practice (Part 2 – When Things Fall Apart)

  1. Oh Jim, there is so much wisdom in your words. Thank you for them. No time more than now has impressed upon me the need to be present in the moment with whatever I feel, no matter the discomfort, angst, uncertainty, or fear. It helps knowing that no matter the feeling being lived, we are not alone it it. The challenge is being brave and vulnerable enough to share the feeling. I know this is a travel blog and I apologize in advance for my digression, but what you said really moved me and helps me as I navigate the panoply of feelings connected with the present times. The father of my daughter’s college roommate has been in the ICU for 20 days with COVID. Each day has been one of falling apart or coming back together. I’ve found that no words can resolve the discomfort, uncertainty, angst and fear his wife and daughters feel. But they get online each day, twice a day to provide updates and share the depth of their uncertainty. They cry with us when things fall apart, and cheer with us when things come together. And, really, what else can we all do for each other but be present during all of it?
    Thank you again.

    Laurie Richardson

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    1. Beautifully said. What else can we do but fall apart and be put back together? Laurie, thank you for sharing from deep in your heart.

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  2. Thank you so much for your wisdom, depth, and vulnerability here, Jim. I have spent a lifetime engaging denial, distraction, and running away as what felt like effective means of handling emotional pain, confusion, and outrage. Surprise, surprise…that isn’t working any more. And life HURTS. But, as you say so well, there is such a deep, profound, spiritual gift in being real and confronting what is honestly happening and what I am truly feeling. Admitting that pain and helplessness, sharing it with God, Jesus, and people I trust is what keeps me going, what gets me out of bed each day. There is Hope in that admitting and sharing. Hiding from it just makes it fester and grow, until we crash and burn. But floating with it and accepting it—fall down/get up, fall down/get up—helps us find strength in our weakness. Thank you again.

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  3. Alice, I appreciate you sharing your hard earned wisdom here. I can only share what I know to be true for me, but find that the Spirit speaks to me through wise people like you. Thanks so much.

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  4. As always, Jim, thank you for your deep thoughts. The song you referenced, “The Only Way Through Is In” reminded me of Jerry Sittzer, both his talk at Faith and his book, ” A Grace Disguised” make the same point. Seems counter intuitive when we just want to run away, but it is the truth and Jesus walks with us as we go in and then out again. Blessings, Barbara

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    1. Barbara, I agree – and though I quoted a Buddhist thinker I believe that Jesus himself is all about “going in” and “staying with” our pain – and part of that is trusting the presence of God in our going. Counter intuitive, indeed!

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