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Sitting With It

When I was in my 30s, I went to therapy for the first time. For days before the initial appointment, I worried about what I would say to start the conversation—how I would explain why I was there and what it was I wanted. When the therapist came out to get me from the waiting room, I followed her back into the office, sat in the big, wing-back chair and said, “I’m just tired of feeling uncomfortable.” I knew what I meant and, fortunately, so did she. After that, we spent several really productive years talking about the anxiety I felt in the world and, overall, we came up with some pretty good ways to manage it. Still, my default plan has always been to figure out my life so that I simply wouldn’t have to feel that discomfort in the first place.

No one told me to do that, mind you. That therapist and the one after her both said the same thing: “You just need to be able to sit with the anxiety and you’ll get through it.”

It turns out, that’s how life actually works. It unfolds.

“Yeah, yeah,” I’ve always thought to myself when I think of that advice. “Wouldn’t it just be easier to avoid the anxiety in the first place so that I didn’t have to feel it and sit with it?" And so, ironically, I became a master at planning and thinking ahead to try and create the calmest, simplest path. In case you are lucky enough to have never done that same kind of anxiety-avoidance, it actually creates more unease—not less. It requires so many mental gymnastics moves that you can exhaust yourself just planning your week. And the amount of energy spent trying to control situations is downright draining.

I am also beginning to realize that some pretty great stuff might exist on the other side of that anxiety if I were, in fact, going to actually take the advice that I’ve always secretly tried to avoid. A case in point is retirement. Admittedly, I probably wasn’t totally ready to retire the first time I did it six years ago, but I was also not prepared at all to NOT KNOW WHAT I WAS GOING TO DO. Even the pre-anxiety of that was too much for me to consider, so I just decided that I was going to spend my retirement writing and that would be it. I can’t begin to explain the ways that this was not a good—nor even slightly realistic—plan for me. But that’s not what’s important. What I’m now thinking about, once again from a before-it-happens vantage point, is that retirement is a swerve, not just an ending of work. I honestly have no idea what I really want to do with my days or my life or my future. Just that idea alone is a lot with which to sit, but how else would I ever actually figure it out for real?

For a person who likes to feel as if I’m in control of potential chaos, admitting to this feeling of not knowing is huge. Living with it—and sitting with it—is hard to fathom. Still, I can’t help but believe that letting go of trying to control the outcome can make the journey more pleasant. When I first got a tenure-track teaching job, I had been an adjunct at the state university nearby for six years. That life was such a known to me that when I heard about the community college job opening, I almost didn’t apply for it. I knew nothing about the school, nor did I even know anyone who worked there. I was happy in my little, familiar adjunct life and it seemed crazy to put myself through that application stress for something so unknown.

Of course, what lay beyond that fear and anxiety was the most awesome life I could ever possibly imagine. Not a life without anxiety, but one I could manage—little by little, day by day, year by year. I got to know and love the students, connect with colleagues who have become my lifelong friends, and relish a sense of place that I had never dreamed of before. It turns out, that’s how life actually works. It unfolds. If we’re brave and open—those qualities we think we see in the folks we admire and adore—life presents itself in a way we can manage. I still think it’s a miracle on some days, and I often believe I can’t possibly sit through another moment of discomfort. But I always can and I’m always so glad I did.

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