A few days ago I found myself at the foot of San Jacinto Mountain watching my family ascend 6,000 feet in a tramcar traveling along a thick steel cable. Due to a lifelong fear of heights, I’d decided to forego the trip, opting to stay at the base lodge that was more like a sweat lodge crowded with impatient people and incessant announcements over the intercom. Right before the extended Blackshaw clan of 20 boarded, my brother-in-law Evan handed me his iPod and said, “There’s some poetry on here if you need some peace while we’re gone.”
Did I. I had gotten thrown off my horse by the huge crowds and my own mixed feelings about giving into my acrophobia and therefore missing beautiful views and the chance to watch Rio delight in the ride. So I hiked up to a solitary spot among the rocks, put on the headphones, and watched the words I heard etch themselves across the blue sky.
The British psychologist Robert Holden read a Hafiz poem and then talked about his tendency to be “dysfunctionally independent.” He spoke about how long it took him to seek help in the face of a challenge instead of clinging to the idea that all progress must be self-generated.
I can relate to this. I tend to isolate and insulate right when I need help the most. Part of this is familial: I think my whole family needed a lot more help than any one of us was willing to admit — we labored silently in our own salt mines. Another part is cultural: I definitely internalized the American notion of self-reliance and pulling oneself up by the bootstraps.
Fortunately, over time, I developed an extensive support network that I learned to trust when I needed help. Sometimes it was a friend; other times it was music, or poetry; even a walk has at times eased me out of tight corners. And yet when I feel stuck I often forget the very resources that bring me back to feeling connected and whole again. When I reach pain’s island it’s as if I snub my nose at my potential helpers in a masochistic prolonging of my own despair.
And so I must remind myself again and again to “use my bridges”: to draw on the remedies at my disposal instead of drowning silently and cursing those who can’t read my mind and intuit my internal thrashings.
On Christmas this year I found myself in a dark place. I couldn’t say exactly why: we’d enjoyed a nice morning opening presents, and Annie and Rio were downstairs making French Toast. I suddenly felt daunted by my own home: the voices of my loved ones seemed intrusive not soothing; the material goods around me felt like stones hung around my neck; the house was more like a trap than a shelter.
The fact that my pain was minor compared to the world’s mattered not to me in the crease of this shadow. I knew rationally that there were many people in that very moment who felt deep pangs of loneliness because they were experiencing Christmas Day alone; who was I to feel shitty ensconced in my relative bounty? But loneliness and despair are merciless predators; when they strike, their bite is acute and absolute.
But then I remembered something Annie had told me several years prior. I’d spent almost an entire day worried about money. Annie must have noticed my furrowed brow, so she asked me if something was bothering me. I finally shared what was on my mind. She said, “Wow, it must have been painful to hold that alone.”
And so on this Christmas day I reached for my phone and called a few friends. None of them picked up, but I left messages telling them that I felt sad. And simply saying these words seemed to lift me, as if the act of asking for help were as much of an antidote as the actual words someone might say back to me. When I break out of my own busted circuit of self-reliance, the world opens up.
Back at the foot of the mountain, I marveled as the words of the poets took me out of my own personal chaos and onto calmer, more expansive ground. No longer was I strung out over the holiday crowd’s bedlam and my internal civil war. Evan had been a bridge. Hafiz had been a bridge. The sky had been a bridge. Even the damn iPod had been a bridge. I’d been open to them all. And there I was, whole and ready to embrace my family as they came down the mountain.