The “Art” of Survival

Aging is really just the process of accumulating experience. Day after day, we collect what life gives us. Those experiences, and how we respond to them, shape who we are. 

One thing is for certain, the longer we get to live, the more those experiences will include pain and loss. Healthy aging is learning to let go of the painful parts, allowing them to be transformed into something that will help us grow in compassion and kindness. We all know people who hold on to to their pain; we have been those people as well.

But we reach a day when we know. We know that if we don’t stop collecting proof of our sorrow, then our identity will embody that pain. And if we don’t transform it, we will leave traces of it wherever we go.

Transformation isn’t a naturally occurring process, however. It is a creative and intentional process; it is art. Learning to let go is really at the heart of the art. It is about learning the art of survival.

When asked his definition of success, Leonard Cohen once replied, “Survival is success.” When we hear the phrase “survival,” we can think of someone just eeking it out. In reality, it should be elevated to something much higher. The Latin root of that word means “living above.”

We “let go” so that we are able to live above our little scenarios. Yes, we’ve had loss, we’ve been hurt, we’ve been betrayed. Most definitely, our lives don’t look like we thought they would. Letting go is the process by which we can say, both to ourselves and those watching, “It’s gonna be alright.”

The story we tell ourselves is the only story that matters. Our brains act like obedient goldendoodles, always trying to please us. They will find all the evidence they can to support our stories. We need to make sure they are supporting the right thesis, the one that looks beyond the so-called facts. That’s where we get to be creative. We want our story to point to the goodness in our lives.

A couple strategies to help us practice this “art” of survival:

WE RECOGNIZE THAT WE ARE THE AUTHORS OF OUR OWN STORIES.

Sometimes we focus on what is not enough, not present, not as good as someone else’s. But it’s our story and we can tell one that includes abundance, value, and the grace to embrace what is while learning how to go beyond it. That story doesn’t come scrolling through social media or binging Netflix; it comes in stillness as we meditate, practice gratitude, and refuse to accept the story that wants to push itself on us. We are the artists, and we have the power to tell the story our way, even if it means we need to get VERY creative.

WE LEARN HOW TO ENCOURAGE OURSELVES.

If anyone I loved were to bring me a situation that felt negative or hopeless to them, I would listen and show compassion for how they were feeling. But I would always try to affirm them and let them know they were doing a great job of  maneuvering through a tough situation. I would let them know that they are valuable and loved. Why would I do anything less for myself? 

WE REMEMBER THAT FIXING OUR MINDS ON THE POSITIVE AND GOOD IS HARD WORK.

I can be shocked and discouraged by the number of times a comparative, negative, or critical thought crosses my mind. But we’re only responsible for what we do with those kinds of thoughts. We become aware of the thought and allow it to pass through without judgment. It may be too difficult to do anything about it in the moment so we agree to allow it to come and go. Perhaps a little later, we can replace that thought with one we have been rehearsing. It might take a minute to get there, but when we are able, we change the thought.

How am I posturing myself for this day?  I’m going to remember that survival doesn’t mean scraping by and accepting whatever life brings. Survival as an art means I will find a creative way to live above it all, and gain a perspective that includes acknowledging what is, crafting a story that goes beyond “facts” to include goodness, and being grateful for the opportunity to do this another day. 

We don’t have to settle for living in the middle of life’s challenges. I believe the happiest and most fulfilled people are those who understand the great art involved in survival, the creative practice of living above.

Positive Thoughts Only?

Life can be super sniper sneaky. 

Sometimes the pace of events runs faster than we can process it all. One thing hits us without warning; another follows closely behind. They don’t have to be big events. It’s usually just regular old routine life happening faster than we can keep up.

MAYBE JUPITER JUST ALIGNED WITH MARS
Maybe we got some unsettling news, or we saw a picture-perfect post on a less than picture-perfect day. Maybe our radically changed life has left us feeling empty. Someone may have let us down. Maybe Jupiter aligned with Mars: we have no clue why we’re struggling. But it’s still real.

OUR THOUGHT WILL AFFECT US
Here’s the “no choice” fact: our thoughts will affect us today. It helps if we can identify our thoughts and unhook them from past regrets, future fears, or present day tentativeness. But, just echoing the “Positive thoughts only” mantra is not always helpful. Sometimes it’s a little—well—mean.

I had been talking with a therapist about a number of things I was working through. She knew how much I valued positive thinking. One day I told her that I was just out of the blue sad. 

WHY “GOOD VIBES ONLY” ISN’T ALWAYS THE RIGHT RESPONSE
After I shared, she started talking about keeping my thoughts positive. I wanted to cry. Yes, I know. Yes, I tried. Like, every time we don’t have a positive thought, we did something wrong. I was pretty quiet after that. Every once in a while, our struggle with a thought seems bigger than normal, and we just can’t shake it. 

GIVING OUR THOUGHTS SOME SPACE TO LINGER
I have discovered that sometimes it might be best to acknowledge that our sadness (fear, anxiety, hopelessness, whatever) wants to hang out with us for a bit.  “Ok, you can stay. For a day. I will sit with you and hear you out. I won’t try to replace you with another thought. You want to be seen and heard. And I acknowledge that.”

TRUSTING OURSELES
If we’ve been practicing keeping our thoughts positive, we can trust ourselves with this process. Maybe we need to write about how we feel; maybe we need to share our thoughts with someone who will listen. I have found that when I give a thought permission to hang for a bit, I learn something from it. And within a very short period of time, it agrees to leave.

FOCUS ON THE GOOD BUT BE KIND TO YOURSELF 
For the most part, fixing our thoughts on the positive is our protection against this sniper sneaky life. It’s critical we don’t let negative thoughts just keep rolling in. 

But if we get hit out of the blue with a thought that just won’t leave, maybe it needs some space to work things out. Tomorrow is a new day and we can trust that our thoughts will be new as well. Reminding myself and all who need it: Good vibes and positive thoughts. But also, life happens and sometimes we need a day to get there. 

It’s ok. 

Mindful Making

“A creative life is an amplified life, a bigger life, a happier life, an expanded life, and a hell of a lot more interesting life. “ Elizabeth Gilbert

We live smack dab in the center of the creative process, which is continually taking place both inside and outside our bodies. The cells in our bodies are constantly dying off and recreating, 100,000,000 new red blood cells are being formed every minute, and skin cells are replaced every 39 days. 

Creativity is essential for life, but not just in the physical sense either. Research suggests that neglecting the creative process may be perilous to wellbeing. Creativity has been linked with feeling that we are more fully alive and also as a way of helping with anxiety.

It’s can be easy to conclude that we’re just not the creative type, however. We associate creativity with traditional art—painting, writing, sculpting. But art is about self-expression, and we all express ourselves in endless ways. I like to think of art as mindful making. Being creative is part of being human, adding beauty to everyday life. The canvas is one medium; the dining room table is another.

If being creative improves our wellbeing, then it might be helpful to find ways to foster creativity. 

  1. For those talented in traditional arts, it may mean grabbing the courage to start again. Or taking a class to improve. Or just carving out time to practice. This past year has inspired many to do this.
  1. For those of us who don’t have those talents, there are countless ways of “making” art. We just need to remember that creating is our nature. 
  • Instead of mindlessly cooking, we can be aware that we are “making” dinner. Art is about generating something that did not previously exist. Seemingly unrelated items at the grocery store get transformed into something that gives nourishment for people we love, even if it is just ourselves.
  • When we write a note or send a thoughtful text, words come together to create encouragement, hope, or compassion. We can express love to someone that has never been expressed in that way before.
  • I have recently taken up knitting again. To see something come together right before my eyes has been so rewarding. An added benefit: it is also totally relaxing.
  • Tending to a garden is a beautiful expression of art. Michael Pollan suggests that a gardener is able to “turn prose into something nearer poetry.”
  • We can get outside with our phones and take a picture of something beautiful. Or strange. Or surprising. Take it from different angles. Edit in different tones. Try black and white. 

Whether we sow a seed or sew a stitch, we can create something new in big and small ways. Let’s not get so familiar with our days that we miss the opportunity to take the tedious and makes it vibrant. We only need to be awake and mindful of all the things we already do that are creative acts. 

It’s really who we are.