Around the middle of April I started to stress out about my living situation. I needed to find a place to live in Chicago. As I looked at the apartment applications a knot would form in my stomach. Previous landlord??? My previous legitimate landlord was in 1996. I don’t know if he’s even still alive. Since then I’ve lived in an illegal (but oh so cool) loft, my own place with a mortgage payment, mom’s house, and a friend’s condo. Pay stubs??? Try a pile of 1099’s and personal checks. The rental market in Chicago is tight. Good apartments don’t stay on the market long. What was I going to do? I was going to have to rely on my excellent credit and folksy Midwestern charm to convince someone to rent a place to me. This was not going to be easy….
One day as I looked out the back window of my friend’s condo there was the mallard, sitting atop the garage in the alley. Where did he come from, I mused? Is he injured? Has he lost his bearings? How did he get there? How is he going to find his way back home? Where IS home? As I continued to look at him, I realized I was much more worried about his predicament than was he. He was just hanging out, blissfully checking out the scenery, watching unperturbed, as the garbage trucks lumbered by.
There’s a wonderful quote. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus tells his followers: “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?”
Okay, I hate to disagree with you here, Jesus, but birds build nests. Squirrels squirrel away nuts. (They even have their own verb!) Ever seen a colony of ants? A hive of bees? Of course we have to plan and prepare! It’s part of the human condition! In India, the yogic ascetics, are taken care of by the community. Fed, clothed, sometimes housed, to free them to pursue their spiritual calling. The community places a value on these practices and supports them. This simply doesn’t translate to our western culture.
In the end, I found a place I really like in a great neighborhood. It all worked out. It always does, doesn’t it? But throughout those two weeks the stress would ebb and flow like ocean tides. One minute confident, the next in a panic of shallow breath and that knot.
The next line from the Sermon says “Can any of you, however much you worry, add one single cubit to your span of life?” I come from a long line of accomplished worriers. If worrying were an Olympic sport, mom would take the gold. So it’s not just a habit, it’s a genetic predisposition!
But it all begs the question, can we really be certain of anything? Isn’t certainty just an illusion? We are certain we will see our loved ones soon. But there are tornados, hurricanes, drunk drivers, heart attacks, and on and on…. We live under the delusion of certainty until something happens to bring uncertainty to our conscious awareness. Only then do we start to worry.
In response to this, the Olympic caliber worry athlete says: “Start worrying about everything and everyone now! Don’t you realize how tenuous life is? Get your head out of the sand!!!”
Sounds facetious, but sadly, this is often the thought pattern that presents itself. (Re: the genetic predisposition) Sometimes I’ll sit in that dark place, and convince myself that this state of worry is somehow right. It fools me into thinking that worry is a more realistic frame of mind.
So the question is not “How can I bring certainty to my life?”, but “How can I come to a place of calm around all the uncertainties that surround me?” My yoga practice has taught me how to step out of that dark place, to realize that worry serves absolutely no useful purpose. I am able to talk myself down from that place of worry to a place of being okay, sometimes even at peace, with the fact that uncertainty is, in fact, life’s default setting.
It also helps me trust that things really will work out. This is an obvious leap of faith. But it’s a leap that is getting some statistical support behind it as my life unfolds. Things generally have worked out just fine. Sure, I’ve experienced loss, heartbreak, disappointment. But I’m still standin’ (as Sir Elton reminds me) and the joys have definitely outnumbered the sorrows. Blessings abound. And it has never, ever been as bad as the invented possible negative outcomes – worry’s primary output.
No, I don’t have the support of the community to feed and clothe me, but I have the emotional and physical support of friends, family and my yoga community. I am able to define myself and my yoga practice as I choose. I get to create the life I want, and the biggest barriers to it are in my own head. In those moments when uncertainty comes front and center to my conscious awareness, and the worry gene kicks in, I have found one of the most comforting statements to be “this too shall pass”. The uncertainty will pass, as will the worry about the uncertainty. In that dark place, the uncertainties, the fears about the future, look so enormous as I invent all those possible negative outcomes. Mallards don’t do that. Neither does your dog, cat, turtle, etc. I have none of these yet, so had to rely on the Mallard for this lesson. I like to think he was sent by God, just for this purpose. And so I would finally get the point of the Sermon on the Mount.