So yesterday, after what seemed like hours of driving rain where I live, all of a sudden the sun came out. Quick – grab the dog leashes and get out the door before it comes back! It’s been like this for about 3 days. When we left my yard through the back gate, the ground under my feet felt weirdly spongey and soggy. The Earth saying, “That’s it – I’m saturated!” What a metaphor for these times. Feeling full-to-bursting with words and phrases that do nothing to comfort, but instead increase tenfold my, and our collective overwhelm. Helping professionals call this phenomenon ‘momentum’. I feel momentum when I get into a spin-cycle of worry about a particular situation. People in cities — their thoughts and behaviors — create momentum. And of course, there’s now a global momentum of fear, pessimism, distrust, grief, and anger.
As we headed around the block at a slow crawl yesterday – my dogs are very old, so walking them is a Zen experience – I was actually glad they both wanted to stop in a vacant lot, to munch on fresh greens sprouting there. Because, off in the distance, I could see one of my neighbors and friends walking fast (this type of exercise is a kind of religion for her) in my direction. I hadn’t seen her in a while and was happy to be able to say hello. My dogs continued to graze happily. I looked up from them, toward my friend Marianne, knowing she would stop – as she always does – for a quick minute.
But no. As soon as she was within about 20 feet of where I stood, Marianne burst into a sprint until she was about 20 feet past me. It felt abrupt and strange. A cartoon gag. Where the Roadrunner jumps into mid-air and sails over the baffled Wile E. Coyote. What the heck? I waved as Marianne sprinted. She made brief, uncomfortable eye-contact, then went back to her usual walking speed when – I supposed – she felt she was at a safe enough distance from me.
Ok, whatever. Do what you feel you must. But I did think about the way Marianne reacted, as the dogs and I walked on. Saturated by fear. Fear producing momentum.
I had a sudden memory of long ago: I was hiking in the back-country, in a wilderness area, with my small dog. It was early Spring and the heavy snows on the mountain peaks, not far from where we were, were melting. It was a beautiful, sunny day; wildflowers beginning to emerge. We came to a very swollen, fast-moving river. It wasn’t more than fifteen feet wide, but at least 20 inches deep and rushing with explosive, icy whitewater. I remember thinking, “There’s just no way I’m going to cross this river of slippery rocks and strong current. Especially with a little dog in my arms.” And then, in the corner of my eye, in slow motion, I saw my little dog (a mini-schnauzer, by the way) jump right into the river and begin bobbing like a cork over rapids. In less than ten seconds she was swept from my view.
I didn’t think, in that moment, even though I actually had two choices – try to rescue her, or save myself by staying out of the water. I began running along the bank, downstream, trying to keep a visual on her body as it was tossed in the whitewater.
As I ran downstream, I fell constantly – tripping on roots and rocks. But finally I caught up to my dog: her collar was snagged by some low-hanging Wild-Willow branches arching over this insane river. I waded into the icy water, almost knocked out of my boots by the force of it. I was able to untangle her collar and stagger back out to the grassy shore.
Momentum can be helpful. Allowing myself to react, then act, on instinct can make for happy endings. On the other hand, momentum can be hurtful, causing panic without any clear purpose whatsoever. Understanding the reasons behind fears – protecting lives, our own and the ones we cherish – helps regulate momentum. Which must have an endpoint; a hoped-for outcome; a moment when the fear and adrenaline-rush subsides. Otherwise, like rain-saturated ground we lose our tolerance for stress; our perspective about threats; and the balance that creates wellbeing.