On Vestigial Vigilance, Instinct, and Happiness

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes self-protective vigilance masks our instincts …

Life has been busy. Good-busy, mostly. In the middle of it all, living, loving, and learning are all happening. Life unfolds in all directions the way fern fronds sprawl slowly out and askew in the spring, the silent and celebratory party favors of the season.

closeup photography of green fern palnt
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Yet, the part of me that maintains a hyperawareness, a vigilance about everything in this phase of my life is looking for trouble. It wants categories; it strains to sort. It wonders, are we now post-[post-divorce]? If so, do we need to call it something else? That vigilant consciousness is always on the lookout for chaos, ready to find a way to diffuse it. It feels like an anxious, hyperactive, working dog without a job to do is pacing inside my head, nervously chewing on shoes. But another part of me – maybe new, maybe long dormant and grizzly bear waking now – is wanting to learn the way to live differently. Without waiting for the other shoe to drop. Without needing to gnaw on something to feel busy and safe and purposeful.

Sometimes I wish we could extricate ourselves from the parts of our psyche we don’t need anymore. Perform surgery on a vestigial organ and bury it, entomb it, pharaoh-less, with no afterlife. I suppose, though, we worry that we might need it again someday. I suppose we maintain a sentimental attachment to it as a once-favorite thing. The vestigial and vigilant worrier warrior, the protector, was once more than a part of me. It was most of me. And though now I’d like to bury it or send it packing, sometimes it remains, fretting and pacing and making work where there isn’t any. Today I wonder if I can find another job for it to do. I wonder if it can be escorted off the premises, and if not, can it be given a makeover. It’s too bad I can’t simply assign it a different task. You don’t need to protect me anymore. I’m okay. Can you help me learn to play the piano instead? How are you at financial planning?

During tough, or worse, traumatic times, the vigilant worrier in all of us gets amplified, elevated to superhero status. It works overtime; it has to. When life calms, and chaos retreats, that part of us can be unwilling to relinquish its elevated status. Sometimes it seizes on any worry, no matter how big or small, and amplifies it, so the cloud of anxiety cloaks everything, things we didn’t even think we needed to worry about. The vigilance works against us. As if to say, you don’t recognize threats anymore; I need to remind you.

I think the worst part of this is two-fold. Though our psyche wants to protect us, it goes too far, and seeks to shield us from threats that aren’t there. But it makes it hard for the rational part of us to grow and get stronger and be able to see clearly. It also makes us question our gut. We wonder, what if all this anxiety, this worry, IS my gut. Is this what it looks like when it is trying to tell me something? Sometimes it is tough to know. But, if it is tough to know, then I suspect it isn’t your gut. Instinct doesn’t make us chase our tail or pace and fret at everything – experience does that. Instinct is a magnet that pushes us toward what’s good for us and repels us from what isn’t. It is strong and quiet and deep, not frantic.

For me the question has become, at this (post [post-divorce]) point in my life, how do I move past what my good-natured but often misguided vigilant worrier warrior is trying to do, and grow more in tune with my instincts? How do we move away from fretful what-if-ing and move toward calm, toward trust (both self-trust, and beyond)?

I think that answer is different for everyone. Sometimes I have to write my way to it, sometimes I have to pick at it, run toward it, run away from it and back again, talk through it over and over. Sometimes we wear ourselves out with worry and then, quiet and exhausted, we find our true way. I’d like to find the straight line there, the shortest-distance-between-two-points path rather then the endless circles I pace in first. But I suppose that’s part of the journey too.

All of this might sound a bit familiar, if you’ve been following this blog for a while. We tell ourselves the same stories in different ways, trying to make it all make sense. I also find that anxiety rises up most in periods of happiness, a pattern that is perhaps common to many of us. It’s easy to be wary, easy to wonder how will this be taken away (this time) or how will I mess this up (again)? Seeing others do this, I wholeheartedly want to reassure, to tell them, go easy on yourself, it’ll be okay, let yourself have this. It’s always more difficult to be generous and kind and loving with ourselves than it is to be with other people.

It’s a good time for all of us to try. Love, Cath

 

On Curiosity and Bonsai Confidence

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes you take a chance on curiosity and notice its unexpected rewards.

This weekend, as I was folding and putting away laundry, I found myself purging the closet. Spring is in the air, and all that, no great mystery as to why I felt compelled to tackle that task. Yet I have been feeling some heightened sense of purpose around such chores lately. My son has one more year of high school. I look at the house with an eye toward selling. I think about how open-ended my future is once both kids are in college. I wanted them to grow up in this place, wanted the stability of this home for them before, during, and after the divorce. This bungalow has served its purpose well. But the question of what comes after this address is one steeped in ambiguity. This is at once terrifying and thrilling.

Like Mud in March

One of the lessons I learn on a daily basis these days is that the ambiguity I thought was a temporary state in the immediate aftermath of my divorce is simply a feature of daily life. Just as the first of my alarms will go off at 5:05 a.m., and one or both of the dog will bark when someone walks by, I will be confronted with another lesson in ambiguity. It’s a fact of life I grew intensely cognizant of when what I thought were life’s big certainties had evaporated. It’s as sure as mud in March, and it can be just as aggravating if you let it.

In the past, I’ve tried to gird myself against the emotional perils of ambiguity with lists and plans. I made large cosmic if-then deals. In the hallway at work near the elevators is a sign that reads, “Confidence is success remembered.” I first began working there not long after my divorce, and during a particularly low period I noticed the sign and thought, “No wonder I have no confidence.” That’s when I began journaling about achievements, big or small – to remind myself of what I’d gotten through, what I had accomplished. It was a deliberate effort to grow and tend to confidence, the way one cultivates a bonsai.

selective focus photography of green leafed bonsai
Photo by Zulian Yuliansyah on Pexels.com

Erosion

I certainly feel a lot better about things than I did a few years ago, but I still get gut-punched with self-doubt on a fairly regular basis. Parenting, relationships, or work issues (the day job or the writing), can all trouble us enough that seeds of self-doubt catch hold and take root, quietly eroding us from the inside out, leaving us feeling crumbly and decidedly un-sturdy.

It is perilously easy to slide into that mindset and stay there, eroded and anxious. I’ve gotten better at looking for things to hold on to as a way of halting that descent. Recently, it was a mere word that caught me. The word curiosity has flitted through unrelated conversations recently. I read it in something a friend sent, spoke it aloud to another, and realized there was something going on that I needed to pay attention to.

When the Weather Shifts

As I started thinking about being curious, I considered the by-products of curiosity, the focused but open mindset one has, for example, when trying to solve a crossword clue, or when sussing out a solution to a problem. Urgency and anxiety shed themselves away, empty husks our hearts shed. They aren’t an efficient part of a problem-solving mindset. Curiosity finds us in other ways, too. Sometimes it isn’t about problem solving, but about joy. We happen upon a new interest, find ourselves excited about a new book, or the prospect of a new activity now that the weather is shifting. We find ourselves simply contemplating: What would happen if . . . or, I never thought about it that way . . . or I wonder what it would be like to . . ..

What I began to realize was that curiosity could be an effective shield against anxiety and self-doubt. A subtle and very conscious shift in perspective is involved, but approaching a problem or a worry with an open heart and from a slightly different angle can remove urgency and hurt or doubt from the equation. We might find ourselves thinking, I wonder how this is going to turn out, or what if I just watch and see how things unfold?

I have spent a lot of time speculating about what others might be thinking, and sometimes contort myself through a series of emotions, as if I’m preparing for different realities that may unfold. Curiosity gives me permission to wonder what someone might be thinking without having to land on an answer, or a series of answers, and somehow deal with each one as if it is imminently true. We don’t have to prepare our hearts to endure every possible disaster, though the self-protective mindsets we develop after life’s traumas often make us feel otherwise. We walk around with umbrellas against rain and wind that isn’t there much of the time. We miss the sun.

It is unexpectedly freeing to allow yourself to be curious instead of anxious. Self-confidence is either a by-product of this shift, or the source, I’m not sure which. Perhaps a little of both. But there seems to be a blossoming effect. I’m trying it out in different situations and the beautiful thing is that not only do things shift in me in delightful ways, but equally delightful things seem to happen externally, within the situation I’d previously been anxious about. Curiosity seems to provide this room for things to grow the way they will, the way they want to, without interference. Perhaps it is the absence of anxiety and the sabotage if often sparks that allows such unfurling.

I think again of the bonsai. My son has been tending a little bonsai tree, I don’t know what kind, for almost a year. I was surprised to learn that it didn’t need to be brought in the house for the winter. It lived outside like any other tree, just in a little ceramic dish on our porch. Not that he hasn’t tended to it. In the summer and fall, he moved it out of the rain when it seemed like it was getting too much water. In early winter, he moved it to the porch where it would be more sheltered. At some point, he trimmed branches and guided one in a particular direction with the aid of wire. An odd combination of attention and neglect has allowed this little thing to flourish. The recalibration of my thoughts from worry to curiosity feels similar, a conscious effort that yields growth in small but delightful ways.

Love, Cath

On Thriving and Neglect

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes instead of pulling weeds, you focus on sunshine and water.

Most of us live in a world where resources—our time and our energy—are limited. Sometimes we feel a great sense of urgency to focus on areas of our lives or places in our hearts that have been neglected for too long. Currently there seems to be some huge collective urge to purge and simplify. Sometimes our homes need purging, sometimes our hearts do, sometimes we discover it is time to put away emotions or memories or thoughts we’ve held on to for long enough.

Being Open to Openness

I’m a firm believer in the idea that there is no “too long” with regard to the duration of time we take to work through emotions, ponder old wounds. Things take as long as they take. We react when we are damn good and ready. Sometimes if you have to ask whether or not something brings you joy, it is too soon to be considering the answer. I have learned to be patient with myself, to look for signs that I am ready to put something away, or rid myself of it. I’m learning how to recognize when I am ready to close doors, and to know when I’m truly open to opening them.

What is Thriving?

Sometimes, we have to step back to see what actually is already thriving. We need to recognize when to focus on the doors we’ve opened and those parts of our hearts that are pumping and churning in the background, rather than on the recently healed parts that we watch over protectively, or the wounded, hurting parts trying actively to unbreak. It’s harder to do, in a way, to focus on positivity and vitality. If something is working, even with marginal efficiency, the tendency can often be to let it hum along, doing its thing. Some things cry out for attention – messy rooms, old griefs, painful memories. It is easy to feel as though anxieties and worries have been quietly festering while we’ve been attending to the day-to-day business of life. So, we turn our attention to fixing things, we surge toward repair, toward improvement. This is important work, but it isn’t the only work. And it’s okay to back-burner it.

Knowing What to Neglect, and When

The good thing is that things like anxiety and worry do not thrive on neglect. They require our fevered, obsessed attention, which keeps them well-nourished enough to tangle and choke. Nothing of value thrives on neglect. Not happiness, joy, delight, peace, calm, gratefulness, compassion, empathy, love. They all need our careful, considered attention to flourish. It is easy to get caught up in the need to fix broken things, to clear away items no longer of use to us. But when we nurture healthy states of being, things like pain, trouble, and worry can, and do, get crowded out, like tomato plants in August refusing to give up ground to weeds.

pathway between tomato fruits
Photo by Artem Bali on Pexels.com

Resistance and Happiness and Magic

I think of the way, when threading a needle, the more you try, the more the thread resists, shrugging and fraying. Somehow it takes an odd combination of focus and nonchalance to get it. I have licked the split end to a point, found the good light by the window, but I don’t care if the thread makes it through, I don’t much want this button secured anyway. It’s almost that way when tending to such things as happiness. I see you, you need me. But too much direct, obvious attention makes it somehow pale and ghostly, as if it’s about to evaporate, a wish made at the wrong time and place, without pennies or fountains or the first star at dusk.

There’s a magic to it, but not tricks. There is magic in the sensing and noticing and breathing life into happiness while at the same time not chasing it, not reducing it to formulas, to mathematical if/then equations. Magic doesn’t work that way and neither does happiness. Some things, good things, are arrived at obliquely.

This is all to say, don’t forget on the thriving things too, not just the neglected things. Don’t forget to focus, but focus as in, staring at something with half-closed eyes, blurring the object but heightening the experiential sensation of sight, in that hazy Christmas light manner. This is to say, be patient. Be patient with that thread, the element of chance and change chasing the constant of the needle.

Love, Cath