Overcoming Loss and Surviving Plateaus
Loss: what a powerful four-letter word. Loss is one of those inevitable uncontrollables that we all, at some point or another, have or will experience. Whether it comes in the form of losing a job, your health, a loved one, or even your motivation, loss packs a punch. In a matter of two rough weeks in January, I lost all of the things that I just mentioned. On January 10th, I blew out my knee thereby losing my health and my ability to partake in my job (skiing professionally); on January 19th I lost a dear friend, my mentor and my idol, Sarah Burke. Quickly following, my motivation to return to the sport I once so loved seemed to be drifting away. I found myself entering a seemingly devastating state of hopelessness and knew I could not stay there for long.
So how do you overcome loss, grief, and the long plateau of stagnation that often accompanies these times? It is a question I asked myself repeatedly until I began to find my way out.
Last October I was in a really great place in life. I had made some changes over the preceding months that made me feel as if I could do anything, achieve anything and could live happily for the rest of my life. Reading Ekhart Tolle’s “The Power of Now” enhanced the effect that these small changes had on me. Tolle presents the concept that anxiety and guilt come about when we stop living in the “now”. That is to say, when we begin thinking of the future we rouse “what-ifs” which in turn create anxiety and stress. What if my knee doesn’t heal… What if I can’t ski again… What if my Olympic dream is now awash? Thoughts of the past create feelings of regret and guilt. If only I didn’t hit that jump… Why Sarah and not me? Neither of these thought patterns is productive since we cannot foresee the future and we cannot change what has happened in the past. We can only ever truly be in the current moment; we are where we are, NOW.
Living in the now is an easy philosophy to live by when things are going smoothly. When the present moment feels good, staying there is simple. So last October, I readily embraced this way of living. “Why bring undo stress into my life, when my current moment is going great,” I pondered. This philosophy worked then, but got drastically harder when life got harder. What if your present moment is not pleasant? What if it is filled with constant reminders about what your life “used to be like” but no longer is? (Like when I could walk and run with ease.) When your “now” is filled with pain, how can you tolerate living in it? Your brain tries to find a quick way out. Instinctively we think about the past, retrace our steps and find that pivotal moment that would change it all, as if we could somehow defy the laws of the universe and turn back the hands of time. When that notion fails us, we think about the future and remind ourselves of what is to come. For a moment this provides hope, and gives us something to which we look forward. But as the long road winds on, and we are not noticeably closer to those goals, we begin to DOUBT. Will I ever get there? Will I ever feel like me again? Will I live with ease and smile at the simple things, ever again?
Last Wednesday, February 29, 2012, marked the 4th week post-surgery on my right knee. With that came some freedom that I haven’t experienced for a while: I was able to drive my car again and I was allowed to begin partial weight bearing. But the gift of “being able to walk again” was a double-edged sword. When I was non-weight bearing I was able to tell myself “okay, things are hard right now because of all of the limitations on your knee… the swelling won’t go down until you can move your knee through walking and some biking… once I hit the 4 week mark things will improve!” Well then I hit the 4-week mark and began to put some weight on my right leg after 7 weeks of non-weight bearing. Reality, I am nowhere close to being able to walk…the road ahead of me looks longer than I imagined: bring on the DOUBT, bring on the fear.
I had stopped living in the now after my injury and Sarah’s passing, because it was too painful to just be here. What I didn’t realize was that by projecting myself into the future or dwelling on the past, I was making my present moment that much harder. By setting my sights on what was to come, I was setting myself up for disappointment. Sure, my “now” may currently be tough, but it isn’t ever going to be any better or worse than it IS. As the present moment changes it drifts away into the past and brings me to my next “now,” and nothing exists in the future, until the future is now. The only way to get past hard times is to live through them. Though that may seem disheartening, look how much there is to learn. And just know that you are strong enough to get through this moment, and if you can get through this one, you can get through the next one, and the next one and the next. Soon enough, that future will be your now. In the words of Francis Bacon Sr., “we have only this moment, sparkling like a star in our hand and melting like a snowflake.”
To all my ski friends: shred on, and enjoy every moment out there. We never know when it will be our last.