Lessons from the circumstances we don’t choose

Many months in, this year of upheaval has many of us still grappling for something to cling to amid uncertainty and in some cases deeply concerned about our health and well-being — and the health and well-being of those around us.  As I was thinking of these circumstances, I thought of my dear friend Lydia Slaby, who has lived – and generously written about – her own crisis of sickness, uncertainty and upheaval.  I asked her to tell us a bit about her journey and her experience of this year in the Q&A below.  Learn more about Lydia at the end of this post and on her website, and be sure to check out her book Wait, it Gets Worse.

Metta Solutions:  COVID-19 is a health crisis that has shaken many of us to our core. This isn’t your first time around that particular block.  Can you talk a little about your experience of this pandemic, and how your own experience with a personal health crisis has colored it?

Lydia:  To begin, I think it’s fair to mention that you sent me these questions on April 19, and today is July 17. Thank you for your patience. I’ve written and deleted a hundred different versions of these answers, but nothing I wrote resonated with me until today.

I started this pandemic in a deep cycle of PTSD.  Because of my health history, I have almost died alone, in a hospital bed, on a ventilator.  The stories that were flooding out of New York City (the closest major city to where I live in the Hudson Valley) throughout late March and April infiltrated my body and mind, and I could barely function past the required day-to-day activities of taking physical care of myself and the people for whom I’m responsible.  Once my therapist helped me realize that my somatic memory was taking over my life, I worked with a couple members of my health care team (a spiritual teacher and a Kundalini yoga teacher) to put a very specific meditation and daily practice into place to calm my body.

Most of that healing came from a very simple breathing practice.

And that I think is the main lesson of this pandemic.  We all react to the pain that humanity and our planet are suffering in a different way, but the one thing that we all have in common is that we’re heightened emotionally.  All of our reactions are on a hair trigger because we’re all afraid for our lives and those of our loved ones.  It’s taking more effort than usual to make sure that we notice how we react, take a deep breath, and respond with calm and compassion.

On a practical level, I recently had a reckoning around “if this is what life is actually going to be for the next three-plus years, I need to change a few things.”  I have been mostly living from crisis to crisis since lockdown began for me on March 13, which is not a long-term success strategy.  So, the first thing I did was start thinking of the “future” in six-month chunks. I want my life to look a certain way from now until the end of the year.  Therefore, I need to add X, subtract Y, and learn to live with Z.  Among other things, I added more reading, teaching and time with my cats; I subtracted interactions with unhealthy people (as much as I can); and I’m learning to live in self-quarantine (my immune system is much better but still not great, and I interact daily with elderly people).  First up?  I reorganized my office so my Zoom calls would stop being backlit by my windows.

MS:  One of the core themes of your work is navigating transitions we don’t choose.  Many of us are feeling that now.  What advice can you share for coming to terms with that on this global scale?

Lydia:  The irony of this question is that humans face transitions we don’t choose all of the time.  Even when we choose the action (like getting married or having a baby), there are often aspects of that choice that are incredibly uncomfortable.

The best advice I can share for these situations is simple in concept and incredibly complex in practice: accept the reality that we’re in.  Stop fighting it.  Stop trying to wrestle the reality into something more comfortable or familiar.  Stop controlling everything outside of your own behavior.

One thing I have noticed during this pandemic is that some people are doing that last piece of advice but in a way that harms others: they can’t control the external, deeply frightening reality of COVID-19, so they’re lashing out by refusing to wear masks, protesting with assault weapons and using their own behavior to inflict damage on individuals and society at large.  So, the trick that I had to learn was not only that I don’t control the external, but the control I have over myself only works to heal when I wield that control with kindness and compassion both for myself and for others.

A beautifully lyrical summary of this theory is This is Water, David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech from 2005 (also available in print). I strongly suggest that everyone read or listen to it.

MS:  Your work also centers around transformation in these moments of great challenge. How can we get there, to a point of leveraging this for transformation?

Lydia:  Because I’m very well educated in the Western sense of the word (I have two professional degrees), it took me a long time to realize that my brain is not always my friend, and it is not always right.  It is a partner to me and my body, but not the only part of who I am that holds wisdom, and, like any partner, it has an agenda of its own.

When the world is spinning, because of whatever we are each going through, the best thing we can do is take a deep breath and open our eyes and ears to the reality of what is happening.  Even if our brain is shouting at us, taking 10 deep breaths will help us see around its words and thoughts.

Once we truly accept life as it actually is and not how our brains want it to be, teachers and lessons and a path forward appear.  But we have to stay centered and breathing and calm and observant to see those opportunities.

This is a practice, not a destination, so when we forget and let our brains and our cruelty take over, we have to forgive ourselves and try again.

MS:  Part of your own transformation involved career change.  We expect to see some of that during and after COVID-19, inside and outside health care.  Can you talk about the considerations for career change, and doing it for the right reasons?  For example, how did you know you were making the right decision?

Lydia:  I mention above that our brains aren’t the only source of our wisdom.  I know that I made the right decision about my career because my body healed.  The career I chose made me sick.  Changing that career helped bring me health.

My personality is stubborn and driven, so in my case the messages my body sent me escalated from cancer to emergency open-heart surgery to get me to change my path.  I hope for everyone reading this that their personalities don’t require their bodies to be quite so dramatic.

To be clear, now that I’ve learned how to have my body and brain in conversation with each other, I probably could do my former job as a white-collar attorney without getting sick.  I just don’t want to anymore.  I love to write and speak and teach, and the wisdom of my body gave me this knowledge, and for that I will always be grateful.

MS:  I loved reading your book.  What are you up to now, and can you share what is next for you?

Lydia:  Thank you!

Shortly after completing my book, I moved to the Hudson Valley to be closer to my family and help them as my parents age and my niece and nephew grow up.  Caregiving is not my primary competency (to put it kindly), so this has been a tremendous life lesson for me.  This is the fodder for book two, which is going to take the time it takes to write.  I’m also nurturing my first book as she navigates the world as well as my own budding career as a writer, speaker, and teacher.

MS:  I want to circle back to changes at a society level.  What changes do you hope to see after this pandemic?

Lydia:  After? How optimistic you are.

My hope, both during and after this pandemic, is for the breath of life to return to all of us: the planet and her plants and animals.  None of us can breathe right now, and it’s killing all of us.  Whether it’s Mother Earth suffocating from pollution and environmental damage, persecuted minorities under the boot of white supremacy, COVID-19 patients, or those of us strangled by our own privilege.  If we could all just take three moments a day to take 10 deep breaths, then kindness and life might return to our lives, and we could start the work that needs to be done to heal the planet and ourselves.  What a world that could be!

MS:  And is there anything else that’s important to you that you want to share about the transformations taking place for so many of us right now?

Lydia:  Remember to be kind to yourself and the people in your life.  We’re all going through this transformation together, and we’re all frightened.  So be kind.  And when you forget, forgive yourself and try again.

For the first 33 years of her life, Lydia Slaby was an overachieving powerhouse: a hyper-successful, ivy-league educated, corporate lawyer in a seemingly perfect marriage. Then her marriage fell apart. Then she was diagnosed with cancer. As Lydia fought to save her marriage and her health, she learned to accept, and even thrive, amidst uncertainty and transformation.

Fighting for perfection didn’t bring her love, freedom, or passion. Letting go of control, she’s transformed from a self-described control freak into a flexible, graceful, and self-deprecatingly funny advisor, storyteller, and speaker. She now supports audiences and clients from multi-national communications companies to private philanthropists in their own transformations with her experience, strength, and humor. Be sure to check out her book Wait, it Gets Worse.

Last updated September 15, 2020

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