When Solid Ground Turns to Quicksand
Years ago, I jumped out of a rowboat in shallow water into what I thought would be solid ground. Instead I unknowingly jumped into quicksand, and the pull of the muck, pulling me down deeper into the water, with no firm solid ground to push off from, was instantly and completely terrifying. I grabbed the boat, my friend pulled me back in; a safe if heart-thumping ending.
Many years later, I jumped from a dock to a small boat, missed the boat, plunged into deeper water, but this time when I grabbed the boat, my first thoughts were “I’m alive!” Second thought: “My computer is in my backpack, still on my back. It’s fritzed.” Third thought: Linda, this is not your home. (At the time wildfires were destroying many homes back in California.) This is your data. You’re fine.”
I told the story of the second sad dumping in the post Giving Thanks for Losses and Lessons and in Chapter Seven of the book Resilience. Because by then I had learned that practicing tools to strengthen resilience, over and over and over again, really does work. [See below for excerpts from Resilience about the practices I used.]
I became aware of a thread between these two events in sharing the stories of those two events with friends recently. Even though both events were realistically life threatening, I experienced absolute terror in the first instance; a calm coping in the second. And the difference was years of practice in strengthening resilience.
These days many of us feel like what we used to know as solid ground is turning to quicksand under our feet. We’re on shaky, mucky ground and full of dread that we might be pulled under. I teach that resilience is learnable and trainable, and that we can learn to cope with anything, anything at all. That’s not blithe or naïve. It’s what I’ve come to know from experience, from the research, from the examples of hundreds of people I know first hand in life, from the stories of hundreds more ordinary people who show incredible courage and resilience in extraordinary situations.
Here’s the excerpt from Chapter 7, Resilience: Powerful Practices for Bouncing Back from Disappointment, Difficulty, and Even Disaster that documented some of what I had learned, and realized I had learned about resilience at the time. May it be useful to you an yours:
From all of this I learned again, in a deeply visceral way, that resilience is learnable and recoverable. It was the integration of many different practices over time that allowed me to have as much response flexibility as I did. These practices included:
My own mindful awareness — knowing what I was experiencing and tracking shifts in those experiences, both outer and inner, moment by moment
Prioritizing calming my nervous system (through exercises like hand on the heart, feeling the soles of my feet) so that I could function and discern options
Choosing to acknowledge and shift my inner reactions as skillfully as I could by
Consciously practicing my self-compassion phrases over and over to avoid sinking into feeling badly, pitying myself, or devaluing myself for my mistake
Focusing on everything there was to still be grateful for — and there was more than enough
Refusing to catastrophize (that was a minor miracle),
Dealing with my anxiety about the future by parking it in the future and practicing trusting that future
Opening to a sense of vast being and the benevolence of the universe
Claiming my own resilience (which became a source of resilience itself: “I’m okay; I’m doing okay; things will work out eventually”)
Reaching out to people for help — and accepting the help that was so generously given I did not feel alone in my coping. The support evoked a deep sense of safety no matter how things might turn out.
Learning that I was learning: figuring out what to do differently next time and what to do differently right now.
My mini-catastrophe was by no means the worst-case scenario. The struggles and heartache of losing a loved one, losing one’s health, losing one’s job or home, or losing a sense of direction or purpose are far more challenging to our resilience. My point here is that repeated practices of the tools of resilience can prepare you to meet and recover even from those catastrophes.