It’s been a hard year for hard news. I’ve confessed before that one thing I do for self-care is to limit my consumption of media news—but sometimes the news is so momentous, or so tragic, that it leaks through my filters. I try to read only headlines, but then the details, the images of people shredded by grief, also get past my defenses. And then I can’t get to sleep at night.
A while back, I posted a poem about finding peace in the face of anxiety. Some of the lines that touch me most are those that speak of the anguish in caring for others:
I wake in the night…
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be
The poet contrasts our mortal awareness to:
the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
A gift, and sometimes a curse, of being human is our ability to project into the future. The faculty of “forethought”—thinking ahead—allows us to dream, and plan, and to live our lives with intent and direction. It allows us to imagine how we might navigate obstacles, and then to do it.
But a funny thing happens sometimes when forethought collides with love. Loving forms a vital connection, so much so that it feels like a part of yourself is housed in another’s body. The body of our child or our partner, a friend or a pet. We become so vulnerable when we allow ourselves to love another. How will we stand it if the loved one is hurt? How can we endure it if they die? The human gift of imagining the future turns into a nightmare machine, generating endless models of potential loss.
This has always been the cost of loving. But now, it seems, the nightmare machine has richer fuel. In this age of instant and unfettered news, we are bombarded with tragedies: school shootings, bombings, tornadoes, kidnappings. Our imagination becomes glutted with visions of grief and suffering. “Fear of what…lives may be” grows unendurable.
How do we bear this risk? The risk of loss, and the burden of “forethought of grief”?
Some people address vulnerability simply by avoiding caring relationships. This, I submit, is a hollow victory. We’re not built to be alone, and protecting ourselves from the vulnerability of connection leaves us empty and dull.
There are other ways to tolerate the risk of loss. Most of the time, the best cure for living in terror of the future is to live, with contentment, in the present. Contentment demands that we live and act in the moment: We cannot take solace in the intent to, at some future date, be the mother, or the partner, or the son or the friend we want to be. Living comfortably in the moment requires us to be that person now, to the best of our ability.
Mindful, honest, and wholehearted connection in the present leaches power from the specter of future loss. Striving at each moment to love the best we can gives us something positive and active to do in place of oiling the works of the nightmare machine. None of it is insurance against someday feeling the pain of losing someone we love. But it is a great anodyne for fretting one’s night (and life) away in anticipation of grief.