Not long ago, I wrote a relative in the chatty way one writes relatives, with whom meaningful conversations are apparently impossible, involving, as they might, honest emotion. She told me about the weather, and grocery shopping. I described what I had been doing, an unremarkable assortment of mostly pleasant activities: reading, writing, running, puttering about the homestead.
“It sounds like you’re keeping busy,” my relative wrote back.
This was approximately what she had said years earlier in describing the activities of a friend whose husband, the longtime love of her life, had recently died. “She’s keeping busy,” my relative told me, approvingly.
It may be that “keeping busy” is most revered in the hard-working American Midwest, where I grew up. A healthy work ethic has an important place in life. And, historically — say, in frontier days — staying busy had a practical and pressing purpose: If certain things didn’t get done, you died.
Now, though, it seems to often be an unacknowledged, socially sanctioned way to avoid difficult feelings. Because feelings can be scary, and being scared is embarrassing. At the risk of being redundant — or at least, committing a double positive — fear is the scariest emotion of all. Often, it starts as a small restlessness, an agitation, an uneasiness. That’s when most of us get busy, not wanting to feel what lies beneath: fear of life, fear of death, fear of love, fear of loss and loneliness. Fear of what is happening now, or of what might happen next.
If we are master worriers, we may fret over highly unlikely catastrophes, such as spontaneous human combustion. (This is actually an urban myth. People who appear to spontaneously combust have usually just come in contact with a cat who is running frantically through the house after accidentally brushing up against a candle flame, igniting its tail.)
On the other hand, a certain amount of apprehension is understandable. As sure as night follows day (or maybe it’s the other way around) our lives cycle between pleasure and pain: If you’re struggling now, something good is right around the corner. And if your life is feeling all rosy, you can be sure there’s a ball of crap with your name on it headed down the pike.
Everything we love — and stand to lose — will sooner or later be lost, and if we have vested our sense of security in it, we will be lost, too. Human existence is a precarious business, fragile and uncertain. Keeping busy creates an illusion of order, of control. In a talk on fear, Buddhist teacher and author Tara Brach tells a joke about the nearly irresistible impulse to do something — anything — to avoid feeling afraid:
I am just like that when I am scared, and at my worst when one of my animals — I have cats and hens — is ailing. Invariably, I make things worse (unless oozing anxiety into the air around a sick creature is actually helpful). Occasionally, unfortunately, I take bold action. If one of my hens, for instance, seems lethargic or off her feed, I am always tempted to see if she is egg-bound. As the name suggests, this means that an egg has gotten stuck in the chicken’s oviduct, and if she doesn’t lay it in fairly short order, she is apt to die.
Now, in 15 years of keeping hens, I have never had an egg-bound bird. But because you can do something about egg-binding, I do: This involves lubricating a finger and inserting it in the chicken’s vent to gently poke around for the problematic egg which — if I’d ever found one — I would gently massage out of her innards and into open air. It’s the only solution I have to chicken illness, even if it doesn’t match the problem. Even if, in fact, it just makes the hen feel worse, not to mention humiliated, because when you’re sick, you don’t really want someone poking around in your privates.
I am not sure what the point of this post is, other than to encourage myself, and all of you, too, to stop keeping busy and to give fear the seat at your table it deserves. Or, as a therapist once told me many years ago: When you’re feeling anxious or scared, don’t just do something; stand there.
Don’t distract yourself online, or binge on TV or Little Debbie snack cakes. Don’t clean a house that’s clean enough, or pick a fight, or have another drink. Don’t assault your chicken. Don’t write a blog post because you started to feel a little agitated and thought you better head off the underlying fear by getting all creative. (Damn.)
Breathe. Feel the feeling. In the long run, things will be OK in the way things always are — meaning, in an ultimate sense that, admittedly, is not always apparent to us. In the short run, we haven’t much control over how our lives unfold, and our coping skills are best when we acknowledge our fear, rather than distracting ourselves or impulsively taking some action that could do more harm than good.
“If we can acknowledge our fear, we can realize that right now we are OK,” writes Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. “Right now, today, we are still alive, and our bodies are working marvelously. Our eyes can still see the beautiful sky. Our ears can still hear the voices of our loved ones.”
Be still. Look. Listen. Acknowledge the fear. See that you are OK. Do nothing. Just stand there.