Before college, I remember being highly satisfied with spending almost all my time alone. I lived about 45 minutes from my high school in the boondocks. My “social life” was spartan. After heading to college, however, the extroverted, caregiving, social part of my being got a taste of life in close proximity to lovely people. Suddenly, I planned every meal around WHO I would meet. I walked to every class with a best friend. It was rare for me to have even an hour alone.
When you’re surrounded by so many fantastically intelligent, quirky people, my relationship-valuing brain said BE WITH PEOPLE. Much of me is glad for that. At Smith, I experienced a world that most never get to: thousands of this world’s smartest women (and a few men!) traipsing around the same place at the same time.
In fact, I’m actually on a 10-day whirlwind trip of the Northeast to visit a lot of those beautiful people right now.
Which brings me back to the title of my post.
On my flight to LaGuardia last night, I heard that line about the oxygen masks (see title) for about the hundredth time in my life. And for about the hundredth time in my life, I thought, “How freakin’ dumb.”
There’s no way in the world I would put my oxygen mask on first if I was sitting next to a 10-year-old kid, for instance. Or a woman who reminded me of my Nana. Or a man who had trouble getting his mask on due to the severe arthritis in his hands.
They’d be first. Every time.
After that, I would use my healthy, capable hands to put my mask over my healthy, capable face. And all would be well, right?
In that situation, everything might be alright. But the place where my mindset of selfless service doesn’t serve me is in my emotional life.
Really, I am that 10-year-old kid, that Nana, that arthritic man.
I’m not healthy right now, and I’ve been ignoring the ways my mind has been asking me to slow down my service of others and nourish myself first. In the past year or so, I have constantly grappled with impatience, a wandering attention, quick irritability, and cynicism.
To a lot of you who know me, you’re probably thinking, “Hannah, where the hell did you get those attributes from? Every time I’m around you, you’re calm, serene, and caring. That doesn’t sound like you at all!”
That may be true outwardly, but I’m running on fumes. My pattern since leaving Smith has been to be alone or introverted for only so long as it takes to be around people the next time. It’s like constantly putting $5 worth of gas in your car. It’s tedious and ultimately super inefficient.
So, in true “The Slowing” fashion, I am throwing the brakes on. I’m going to retreat and pay attention to what’s calling me until it doesn’t.
With my recent breakup and my move to a one bedroom apartment where I’ll be living all alone for the first time, I have already experienced the judgement and fear that comes up whenever I’m alone.
Why isn’t anyone texting me? Don’t I have any friends? God, this night is so not Instagram-worthy. There’s something wrong with me.
My struggle in taking care of myself is also that I believe relationships are the be all and end all of life. There is nothing else worth one’s time except relationships with others.
However, it’s that “with others” part that is tripping me up.
I’ve been reading Between Heaven and Earth, an introductory book on Chinese medicine and it’s about to be transformative. I can feel it.
One of the epigraphs from Chuang Tzu reads, “Heaven, Earth, and I are living together, and all things and I form an inseparable unity.”
There are no “others.”
That’s what he’s saying. My body is part of a whole. So the quality of my relationship with myself is part of my relationship to the whole. In offering myself love and grace, I’m offering it to the whole as well. When I respond to myself with judgement and harsh words, that response will also be mapped on to everyone else. You can’t have true calm and true non-judgment toward your elbow and then not toward your knee. If I’m going to exist in this world in a way that honors my connection with all other beings then I have to begin by honoring myself.
So, here’s to sitting with the discomfort of fears until the light of awareness can dismantle them.