Stop the World, I Want to Get Off!

We live in a time when depression and anxiety are at epidemic levels—the so-called “opioid crisis” is really just a symptom of a deeper sickness eating away at the heart of our society. It’s especially disturbing—but understandable—to find high levels of anxiety and despair among the young.

This has been going on for a long time in certain communities—among the urban poor or on Native reservations, using drugs and alcohol to fight the despair is nothing new.

Now it’s spilling into the mainstream—white suburban kids are dying from overdoses, along with their fathers and mothers. This recent report from my home state of Massachusetts presents a chilling portrait of the scale of the problem.

AverageAnnualOpioidRelatedDeathRateper100,000People

While better treatment for addicts is certainly necessary, it’s crucial to address the the deeper roots of the problem: the physical and emotional pain that drives kids, men and women to seek out opioids, legal or illegal.

This is a much more complicated knot to try to untangle, but the basic outlines of the problem are clear.

  • We need a more vibrant, creative, exciting educational system, where kids look forward to going to school each day because it’s a chance to interact collaboratively with interesting people—teachers, other students, and community members of all ages—and learn life skills that can be immediately put into practice. Humans learn best by doing, not by rote memorization and regurgitation of abstract knowledge.
  • We need better nutrition: getting chemicals and excessive sugar out of our diet and returning to the whole, unprocessed foods that contribute naturally to our physical and mental health. We need to get connected with how our food is produced, and return to gardening and animal husbandry ourselves when possible. We need more time for eating and socializing around the table.
  • We need a basic social safety net for all, so that no one has to worry about becoming homeless if they get sick, or when they get old. Everyone has something to contribute to society, and people should always be able to find rewarding work in their communities that will allow them to live decently and with respect.
  • We need to create more time and space for fun, especially in outdoor activities, or in creative, collaborative culture-making. Despite all the social media, people are feeling isolated and alienated and even the comfort of talk therapy has been taken away by the insurance companies, which would much rather push those pills on us.

To those who would tell me we can’t afford it, I reply: what would happen if we stopped spending more than $600 billion a year (15% of 2016 GDP) on the military, while giving only 3% of GDP to education? What if those proportions were reversed, as they are in many other Western countries?

And yet even as I type these words, I know the politicians won’t be listening. They are too focused on treating the symptoms to pay attention to the causes.

This is as true for dealing with climate change as it is for dealing with the opioid crisis. Everyone is looking for quick fixes that will allow us to continue with business as usual, no matter how many casualties that business generates.

When confronted with an intractable problem, my mom used to say, “Stop the world, I want to get off!”

Lately the feeling of just being along for the ride—and a hurtling, scary, out-of-control ride at that—grows stronger day by day.

And of course, we can’t get off, not alive, anyway.

So how do we deal with having to sit in the back seat while the drivers take us down bumpy roads in the wrong direction at dangerous speeds?

My own response is to focus on what I do have control over.

  • I can weed my garden, spend more time outside.
  • I can eat healthy foods and cultivate mental clarity by cutting back on the distractions of social media and television.
  • I can try to contribute positively to my community—family, friends, the larger circles of positive creative people I care about.
  • I can review my life goals, and set some intentions for the coming years that, with focus and effort, I may be able to achieve.

Most of all, I can set my internal compass to LOVE and try to hold it steady there, no matter the jerks and lurches along the road.

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My new online course, The Elemental Journey of Purposeful Memoir, will be launching this fall. Through catalyzing writing prompts, I invite you to consider how you got where you are today, and to envision the future you want to create and live into. Join me!

Pleasure plus meaning equals happiness: homage to my mom

Maria Sirois

Yesterday I went to a Berkshire Festival of Women Writers workshop facilitated by psychologist and inspirational speaker Maria Sirois.  The workshop was called “Happiness: Writing as a Path to Positive Transformation,” and since I am always looking for ways to link all those terms—happiness, writing, path, positive, transformation—I was eager to see how Maria would lay it out for us.

I was not disappointed.  She quickly got the group writing about happiness, and not surprisingly, when I started freewriting about joy, it wasn’t long before I began writing about my childhood summers spent at my family’s country house…long, endless, happy weeks where my brother and I seemed to be perfectly in synch with our mother’s rhythm, where life was peaceful, idyllic and beautiful…the epitome of joy.

Later, when we went around the room and everyone shared a short bit of their freewriting, I was struck by how many of the women present (we were all women that day) associated joy with childhood, and with nature.

Many people shared moments of joy connected with childhood memories of trees—climbing trees, wandering in the forest, listening to the wind in the trees.  Others had written about communion with animals, or remembered ecstatic time spent by the ocean in childhood.

A small corner of my mother's garden

What I remembered was watching my mother dig a rock garden out of the cow pasture in which she and my father had built their small country house when I was 5 years old.  Here are the two sentences I wrote during the workshop, and shared aloud:

“My mother would be quietly exultant as her shovel and trowel revealed new curves or deep, smooth walls of rock, and at the end of a hot morning’s work she would stand, sweaty and red-faced with a fine layer of black earth coating her bare shoulders, drinking iced tea out of a tall green glass and surveying her landscape with a squinted sculptor’s eye.  The work progressed slowly, since it was all done by hand, just one small, determined woman with a strong back and great patience, tracing out the rock with hand tools and as much love as if she were carving out the sweet, benevolent face and voluptuous body of the Earth Mother herself.”

***

Later in the workshop, Maria shared with us a memorable formula for happiness.

Happiness, she said, is the balance of pleasure and meaning.

If life is all pleasure, it can feel empty and meaningless.  If it’s all meaning, then you’re working too hard.

But if you can find the right balance of pleasure and meaning, you can hit that sweet spot of joy, in which you thrive and grow like a well-cultivated garden.

Maria suggested that there is something about creativity itself that brings us to this sweet spot.

My mother, spending her summers relaxing with her children and turning her surroundings into a beautiful landscape sculpture, was drinking from that creative well.

For me there are various creative taps I draw from: writing, teaching, creating programs like the Festival, bringing people together in harmonious, productive alliances.

Platter and dinner by my mom!

My brother recently observed that our mother has always been a wonderful model of someone who is completely focused, passionate about and committed to her art—whether that art is tonight’s dinner, or her magnificent pottery, or her lovingly tended garden.

Since earliest childhood, it has always been clear to me that she put every ounce of creativity she possessed into everything she did—not for external recognition or praise, but just because it was the right way—the most pleasurable way—to approach any task at hand.

Pleasure plus meaning equals happiness.

It strikes me that although my mom has had her share of ups and downs, hers has been by and large a very happy life.

No wonder when Maria asked me to write about joy, I went straight to my primary teacher: Sue Browdy, my mom.

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