Two Kinds of “Okay”
I lay here under a blanket on my couch, finally hit by the ridiculous cold that has taken out basically everyone I know this winter, my family included. My nose is stuffy and my head is pounding and I keep getting those weird burps that seem to come from the combination of postnasal drip and over-hydration. (anyone else, or is that just me?) Our house has collectively gone through an entire package of Costco tissues in the last month. So much snot. And somehow, the beginning of my cold feels laden with doom, knowing that this one is a linger-er.
And I just replied to a text from a friend asking how I was doing, saying, “I’m okay.”
So often, we respond to inquiries about our well-being with dismissive, trite, and honestly, dishonest, responses. And we do this for plenty of good reasons. There isn’t time to hash out the depths of how we’re truly doing, or the person asking doesn’t really want to know, or we just don’t feel like baring our soul at the moment, so I’m fine, thank you. There is nothing wrong with this, so long as we do have our people with whom we can be truthful and honest. The people who really do want to know, who take the time to listen, and who don’t respond with a platitude or a fix or dismissal. The listeners, the ones who bear witness with love and compassion. The ones who can be trusted with our authentic answers.
Yet, what if when we say we are “okay,” we really do mean it? What if there are two levels to our emotional well-being, our current situation, our soul’s temperature? What if the picture of how we are doing is less linear and more three dimensional?
Picture an ocean. There is the surface level, the shallow water, where waves are swelling and fish are jumping and birds are landing. Storms churn this shallow water with ease, but the gorgeous hue of the sunset also reflects on the calm glassy sea of this shallow water. Shallow is not bad, it is not deserving of its reputation as being insincere, it is just easily affected. By the weather, by the beings that inhabit the space above it and below it. It is beautiful and loud and busy and tumultuous and full of life.
Then there are the depths. The water is darker and colder and it moves more slowly, but there is still movement and life down there. Life in the depths just receives its energy from different sources. Check out this snippet of an article on the “Deep Sea” from Wikipedia:
“Before the discovery of the undersea vents, it had been accepted that almost all life on earth obtained its energy (one way or another) from the sun. The new discoveries revealed groups of creatures that obtained nutrients and energy directly from thermal sources and chemical reactions associated with changes to mineral deposits. These organisms thrive in completely lightless and anaerobic environments in highly saline water that may reach 300 °F (150 °C), drawing their sustenance from hydrogen sulfide, which is highly toxic to almost all terrestrial life. The revolutionary discovery that life can exist under these extreme conditions changed opinions about the chances of there being life elsewhere in the universe. “ Wikipedia, “Deep Sea”
Okay. This is awesome. The life that exists at the bottommost layer of the ocean thrives on that which is dangerous to those above the surface. There is unexpected warmth in the depths. Light may not penetrate to these levels, but life there doesn’t need the light. It has found another Source. It is still and dark and thriving.
We live our lives on both these levels, surface and depths.
I live here with my fifteen month old daughter on a regular basis. In the shallows, I think constantly about her diet and eating habits, her current sleep regression, her reluctance to walk on her own, as well as her constant laughter and new words and dancing hands to a passing car blasting rap music out the windows. I bob up and down on the waves of immense joy and exhaustion, concern and confidence. The stormy periods (Wonderweeks, anyone?) come, and then I look down at my sweet baby asleep in my arms and I see more calm beauty than the most gorgeous ocean sunset.
I also find myself in the shallows with the tumult of our current political climate, the crashing waves of injustice and the torrential downpour of dishonesty and the toxic imbalance and destruction of our earth, the swells that seem to be throwing us off our moral compass. Each time I see another article written about the latest executive order, press conference, legislative push, I feel the raging storm in the shallows and my unsteadiness in it.
But if I sink just a little deeper, I feel something else, too. I feel the powerful wave of counter-protest, the tide turning, people and communities engaging in the work of justice and kindness. And I am rocked and held by this wave, this tide, powerful because its source is in the deep.
So what about the deep?
On the deepest level, where life is sustained by more than just what the eye can see, I know that my daughter is okay. She is loved, she is safe, she is resilient and strong. She is sustained by Love greater than mine. In her depths, I can see her sweet spirit and I know it will sustain her. And I know mine will sustain me.
In our depths as a nation, I trust the acts of compassion and love and decency that emanate from each of us. The source of our direction and sustenance of our work is not coming from our leaders right now, but it comes from the depths of our humanity. Humanity which is flawed, as we see all too clearly in our politicians, but humanity which is also beautiful and full of goodness. We will be okay, because we will hold onto and live from and nourish that goodness.
How do we descend to the depths, to reach this place of calm and peace and life? It may be just as simple as going underwater. Picture yourself going under. As we submerge, sounds from the surface fall away, and we hear only the water rushing and the sound of our own breath and heartbeat. We feel the water moving and holding us differently down here.
For some of us, in some periods of our lives, when we go down deep, we still feel the surface’s turmoil just as strongly, if not more so. The water is drowning us rather than holding us, whether from grief or depression or illness, and we find only despair. If the depths are too much to bear, if you feel yourself drowning, this is a time to reach out for help and support from a therapist or other skilled healer who can help you find your way back to yourself.
We must find space and time to dive down deep, to access that kind of calm and still, to sit with our breath and heartbeat, our bodies grounding us in this moment and holding us steady. As Buddhist teacher and author Frank Ostaseski says, “Find a place of rest in the middle of things.” Rest does not mean that the surface will be calm, but rather that we find a way deeper to ground ourselves right in the middle of all this turmoil, all this life. The gift of the breath is always there, waiting for us to notice it, and this can bring us down to the depths, if only for a moment. And we need to feel ourselves held and surrounded by whatever water it is that sustains each of us, whether that is God or Love or Community or Nature. We will surface again to continue to engage, to weather the storm and ride out the waves. We can do it. But we can also go down again to our depths, whenever we need to. The depths are there for us, to nourish and sustain us. The depths remain constant while the surface churns. And in the depths, we are okay.
So that is why, when we answer, “We are okay,” we are not being false. It’s important to acknowledge and share the ways in which the waves are rocking us and throwing us off course, and that we and our country and our world are not okay. Ignoring the storm does not make it go away; if anything, it throws us off course without us even realizing how far we have gone. But it’s also important to hold space for our deeper sense of “okay,” the depths which hold us, where we are nurtured and sustained by that which the eye cannot see.
And for me, in this moment, all it takes to get down deep is to pick up my blanket and computer and box of tissues and schlep the ten feet to my front porch, bathed in sunlight, a glorious breath of warm air on a February day. Feeling the sun on my skin and the warm breeze connects me to my deepest sense of being okay. Sore throat and heavy head and crazy world are still there, but they are not my only, not my deepest truth. I am okay. We are okay. Breathe in, breathe out.
(originally posted on Katy’s blog, www.goodenoughgal.com)