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Our Own Private Alaska

November 23, 2016

Has your life seemed a bit topsy-turvy lately? Our country is in a time of transition and for many of us that feels like upheaval. We are all searching for a bit of peace. At the same time, life keeps moving and we are all trying to keep pace with it. For me, life sometimes seems like it’s one big internal pep talk. “I can do this; I can do this.” How many times a day do you say that sort of thing in your head? Whether it’s another morning of getting the kids ready for school or another meeting at work, we are constantly trying to motivate ourselves to just get through it.
But those moments are usually about the “shoulds” of life.
I should do the dishes.
I should pick up the dry cleaning.
I should write the report.
We often lose the “wants” in our day-to-day hustle.
I want to read that book.
I want to sit in the sun.
I want to play the guitar.
Our “shoulds” live in our heads and our “wants” live in our hearts. We live in a very hard-driven society today; one in which you are supposed to do X so that you can be Y. You are supposed to make a certain amount of money, so that you can be successful. You are supposed to enroll your child in a certain school, so that he or she will achieve at the highest level--whatever that looks like these days.
Even more dangerous is the message that you are supposed to “do” X so that you can “feel” Y. Watch television or drink wine so that you can feel relaxed. Drink coffee so that you can feel like you can tackle all those shoulds on your list. The message is that we should feel happy and relaxed, even in a world that feels more stressful to live in every day of the week. Glennon Melton ( calls this the “easy” button. If something feels uncomfortable, find your easy button. Whether that’s Netflix, Facebook, wine, or something stronger, the message is that we should not feel those difficult feelings. Those are not part of the human experience; the easy button is.
(Please note that I am NOT putting down medication for things like depression or anxiety here. Those medications have saved a lot of lives. But they can’t be used to mask our pain…only to make the pain bearable so that we can find another way through it.)
The other problem with the easy buttons is that they are the same no matter what the uncomfortable feeling is. So whether we are feeling sad, or lonely, or anxious, or unimportant, we reach for the same easy button. We push all of those feelings away until something else grabs our attention. What’s missed in that process is the opportunity to really know ourselves and to know what it is that we want and what is important to us. If we are feeling lonely, that’s a message that connection is important to us and that we need to seek it out. If we are feeling anxious, then that’s a sign that there may be something or someone in our environment that could be harmful, and we need to set a boundary. Easy buttons do not serve us in these situations, at least not in the long term. In the short term, they give us a place to hide, which we might need while we figure out what to do. But in the long term, they deny us a connection to ourselves that I believe is one of the reasons we are put here in the first place.
Most of us were not taught how to connect to ourselves. We have looked outside of ourselves for a definition of who we are for our entire lives. Our hearts want to know: “How do I matter? Why am I special?” The answers to those questions can only come from within. But instead we let our parents, our teachers, our friends, our spouses—anyone but us—supply the answers through their judgments of our words and our deeds. What labels were you given by the people who passed judgment on you? Perhaps your labels were positive words; words like kind, thoughtful, helpful. Or perhaps they were negative; words like selfish, thoughtless, careless. Either way, most people substitute the labels assigned by others for the more profound work of choosing your own definition of self. Did anyone ever teach to you ask yourself questions like how you matter in the world and why you are special? If so, you were fortunate indeed.
A friend of mine is in Alaska visiting two of her children who have chosen that faraway place as their home. I’ve often wondered what would prompt such a move—so far from the rest of the country, from home, from family. I’ve never visited Alaska, but “rugged” is the word many people use to describe it. It’s a place that requires a certain sense of independence and ingenuity in order to succeed. I also think that perhaps it’s a place where the usual rules of life in the rest of our country are suspended just a bit. Maybe people don’t care quite so much about the external trappings of life that seem so important to us “down here.” After all, who pays attention to what happens in Alaska? Not many of us. Maybe there, the easy buttons aren’t being shoved down people’s throats everywhere they turn. Maybe it’s ok to feel and to be just a little different from the norm.
I think we all need our own private Alaska. We need a place where we can consider what we really like and what we really want. That’s not something our culture makes room for these days. There’s not much time for sitting and doing “nothing.” But those are the quiet spaces in life that allow us to stop focusing on what other people expect from us and to stop reaching for the easy buttons. Those spaces allow us to think about just who we might be underneath all of those expectations.
The good news is that we don’t need to buy a ticket on Alaska Airlines (although I plan to one day). All it takes is asking ourselves one question…” What do I really want in this moment?” If the first answer is—“chocolate!” Or, “wine!” “Chocolate and wine!” Well, I’m with you…I really am. But stay with the feeling a bit longer than that. Ask yourself another version of the question, which is, “What do I want to experience?” Peace? Joy? Kindness?” Then consider what will bring you closer to a true experience of those qualities.
We can also create specific spaces in our day to listen to our inner voice. One way is through meditation, to be sure, but a lot of people resist meditation because they believe they can’t do it “right.” So if meditation would add stress to your life right now, don’t do it. There are lots of other ways to listen. You can walk, run, do yoga, knit, throw clay pots, play an instrument, or fold the laundry or do the dishes. Anytime our bodies are busy, our minds are freer to wander over what can be uncomfortable territory—just like Alaska, it seems.
It’s important to understand that our first thoughts in these quiet times and spaces are often negative. We think about what we forgot to do that day, or how we yelled at our kid before they got on the bus that morning. We think about all the ways in which we are falling short. Our “not-enoughness” rears its ugly head. We might be tempted to reach for one of those easy buttons. Keep in mind though, that the easy button experiences don’t last. Pretty soon we’ll back in that uncomfortable territory again. But if we can let those negative thoughts go by, like clouds on a breezy day, we have an opportunity to ask ourselves again. What is it that I want to experience? Peace? Joy? Kindness? And, what brings me those things? How can I spend my time and my energy in ways that bring me those experiences? It may take a little while to figure that out. After all, we are trained to do the “shoulds” and hit the easy buttons when things get rough. But if you can allow yourself to return to this space again and again, the path to those experiences will become clearer to you. You will begin to make the choices, one by one, that feed your heart as well as your head. It’s Alaska, but it’s not the moon. You can do this.



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