I’m not the only one who has said in recent weeks that this feels like a movie – but one we’re living.
I’ve personally always loved disaster movies – even the ones with cheesy scenes of the hero rescuing his sweetheart from a top of a disintegrating skyscraper.
But what if you’re the one on the toppling building?
That’s kind of how it’s felt to many in America and all around the world these days – especially those who have fallen ill or lost a loved one. I’ve also been grieved to see the tears on faces of small business owners grappling with the possibility of losing it all – along with thinking of the many for whom a job lost means no way to feed their families (undocumented immigrants won’t get any checks in April, and many countries around the world have little safety net, no food bank, etc).
Economic downturn creates both physical and emotional desperation, quite independent of the mounting health risks all around us.
How do we keep our heads (and hearts) in a time like this – when we most need them?
That was the topic of a special message this last week by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a man most widely regarded as responsible for kick-starting the American mindfulness revolution. It was with his 1988 best-selling book, “Full Catastrophe Living” that really caught people’s attention – a phrase comes from an adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel Zorba the Greek
When asked about his life, Zorba hints to his travel companion of a full spectrum of both wonderful and challenging experiences with a “wife, house, kids, everything . . . the full catastrophe!’
This, as Jon clarifies in his book, “was not meant to be a lament, nor does it mean that being married or having children is a catastrophe.” He continues:
“Zorba’s response embodies a supreme appreciation for the richness of life and the inevitability of all its dilemmas, sorrows, tragedies and ironies….Ever since I first heard it, I have felt that the phrase ‘the full catastrophe’ captures something positive about the human spirit’s ability to come to grips with what is most difficult in life and to find within it room to grow in strength and wisdom.”
Although especially applicable in times like we are living through, neither does catastrophe here only refer to “disaster.” “Rather,” as Jon elaborates, “it means the poignant enormity of our life experience”:
“There is not one person on the planet who does not have his or her own version of the full catastrophe…[That] includes crises and disaster but also all the little things that go wrong and that add up. The phrase reminds us that life is always in flux…and constantly changing. This includes our ideas, our opinions, our relationships, our jobs, our possessions, our creations, our bodies, everything.”
Latter-day Saints might remind Jon, as I once did personally, that not everything is temporary and in flux. And that thankfully, there are some things we can depend upon as foundational absolutes and unchanging realities. This includes: the love of God, the hope of a continuity in future relationships, and the possibility of ongoing healing and growth through the gracious power of Christ.
Yet however supported by these bigger hopes we have as believers, we’re asked to go through some really hard things along the way – facing some of the same anxieties, despairs, and pains to which all the human family are subject. Against that backdrop, this Full Catastrophe Living advice underscores something significant, and easy for any of us forget.
Especially this: No matter what comes up in our lives – good, bad, or ugly – there’s a “still quiet place” inside ourselves where we can rest and from which we can hold and watch it all.
That’s very different from many of our daily experiences – coming to feel, particularly in recent years, an increasing fragility – that in order to be okay certain things around (and inside) us, need to be just the way we decide they should be.
And in good times, that works out okay – you know, those times when we have the luxury of setting up our lives to be just right: this is how we want the rooms around us to look, this is how we want our day to go, this is how we want to feel emotionally, this is the food we want to eat, this is the temperature in the house and the car we really would prefer.
As Thomas McConkie once pointed out, though, “as soon as we get things just the way we want, things change on us.”
Some of these changes – the little ones – are happening all the time. And as we’re finding out in this 3-D adventure movie, even bigger change can happen quickly and dramatically – which is precisely when our dependence on things-being-the-way-we-want-them is tested the most.
How do we respond?
In some cases, not so well. This is the moment we’re prone to melting down – or escaping into one of our many available fantasy worlds available (take your pick – drive-through doughnuts and an endless palette of sweet delicacies – or more online shows than you could watch in several lifetimes).
It’s also easy to devolve into the despair of hating-and-fighting against what’s happening. For all of us (me included), it’s all too common in moments like this to stay fixated on what’s going on around us that we don’t like – with far less attention to the ways our response to that all may be complicating matters. Listen again to brother Thomas McConkie, speaking of this discovery in an online class he and I created together:
On some level—sometimes it’s very apparent and sometimes much more subtle—we realize there is some fundamental resistance to what is. We have resistance to ‘This is happening to me, and I don’t want it to be happening, I want it to go away.’ So, we push against it, or we run from it, we distract; we invite harmful influences in our lives. It might be drug abuse, it might be compulsive gambling [or so many other things]. We do these things to deny the very conditions that are present in our lives.
Resisting illness is one thing. How about emotional pain inside or physical discomfort in the body? Or relationship pain from unaddressed trauma from the past that needs healing? How we engage the full picture – the bitter and the sweet – (if we even engage at all) will determine so much of not only our days ahead, but also our ultimate future – and the person we will have become once we arrive there.