Living with tension
Living with "what now?"These last few weeks I’ve been reading a Seth Godin book, What to Do When It’s Your Turn. In it, he talks about the idea that living with tension – the space before resolution – is where possibility, art and creativity are born.
This idea really resonated with me. I often choose tension over resolution in my life. I never want to make the easy choice or get complacent, and I’m always looking for my next challenge or problem to fix. This year (at Ei), I’m getting even better at holding myself at the edge of my comfort zone.
But Godin says, tension isn’t a bad thing – and that’s the way I feel most of the time when I’m reaching for something new – bad … stressed-out … anxious.
So what’s the difference between living with tension and living with anxiety?
I’ve thought a lot about this lately. The way Godin describes it, you should be able to live every day of your life in a state of tension – not knowing what is going to happen next on a project or in a situation – and finding joy and possibility in that. But if you spent everyday in a state of anxiety you’d fry your system and be a useless puddle-person by 40.
So what’s the difference between the two?
I was participating in a very strange guided meditation when the answer came to me (and if you’d told me a year ago that I’d become the kind of person to un-ironically write a sentence like that – I would have laughed at you very, very hard). Our guide had us picture breathing through whatever was keeping us from moving forward in our lives, and I knew almost instantly that what was holding me back was fear. And that if you add fear to tension and uncertainty, that’ll turn it into anxiety.
A little while ago, my husband, Leo, and I were looking at different forms of habit making – the idea that stuck the most for us was of making decisions for future me.
For instance, present me might really want to go for a run every day, but future me is a lazy, self-sabotaging coward who will not go unless she literally has to trip over her running gear to get to her computer in the morning … so that’s what I do.
I was thinking about anxiety in the context of future me. I cast her in every imaginable terrible situation, and then feel the embarrassment of saying the wrong thing to a client, or making a huge mistake, or failing. And then fear that situation becoming my reality.
So why don’t I trust her?
Even I have to admit, sometimes I can be a total badass. So knowing this about present me why can’t I trust future me to be at least as competent as I am now, if not more?
I don’t have an answer to this yet.
I don’t think it’s a logical thing – I think it’s an often walked mental path that I’ve turned into a rut. And changing isn’t as simple as flipping a switch – it exhausting hard work (especially because I’m never sprinting down the path of worry when I’m at my most self-reflective or positive) but it’s certainly a goal I can set myself: Practice trusting future me.
But what if...
So yes, I can handle my shit 90% of the time. But of course, my inner worrywart immediately held up memories of times when I was completely unable to handle the situation.
For instance, last year, some crazy stuff happened with my husband’s immigration and for a little while we thought he’d be deported. He’s lived here since he was 13, it’s the only home he knows, so he was completely paralyzed and couldn’t even figure out how he was going to make it to the next moment, let alone deal with the shit storm of paperwork and legal fees that were waiting for him.
I wasn’t much better, really. I was able to hug him, get him feeling a little more grounded and less afraid, and not completely break down myself, but I didn’t have the capacity to start thinking of next steps.
So how did it turn out? Fortunately, I had my mom, a get-things-done kind of lady, to lean on – who could whip us both into shape, write a to-do list, and organize the stuff we needed to do to keep him in the country. (End of the story: he has his Greencard now, so everything turned out all right!)
OMG – the answer is community (sensing a theme anyone?)
My very strange brain, when thinking about this situation with my husband and mom, started to picture dominoes with springs. So if the first one is totally floored, it can lean on the second, which is a little less off-balance, and can lean on the third, which isn’t phased. Don’t worry, they’re on springs so it’s not a traditional domino reaction. I thought this might be a good (temporary) metaphor for what I love about a functional community.
So, on days when trusting future me is too hard, maybe I can trust my community to help me out. And if I at least practice not completely discrediting future me maybe by this time next year, I’ll be able to trust myself enough to live with the tension and enjoy every uncertain moment of it.
Michelle loves to help foster resilient communities through immersive research, emotionally connective data visualization and thoughtful branding. She’ll be using the Ei program to design her master’s in Design for Social Impact – she is interested not only in using her design chops for good, but specifically in how powerful design can be used to build forward-thinking communities – the kinds of communities that can prevent things like food insecurity, social injustice and inequality, and can survive calamity by supporting each other.