Earlier this week I had the pleasure of being a guest speaker for a Veterans Day assembly at Bellarmine Prepratory High School in Tacoma. Virtually of course. In preparation for the event I began thinking about my experience with both Combat in Afghanistan and Martial Arts Sparring. I’ve definitely felt fear and anxiety during deployment and I feel it all the time when I spar in martial arts. Both situations have re-enforced the idea that emotional control is not about ‘not feeling’. It’s more about not being distracted by what you feel and ultimately using your emotions as a catalyst for focus on your objectives.
Before the pandemic began, I had a deep sense that many people were experiencing more anxiety than ever before. Now, it seems like people’s level of anxiety has shot through the roof. Being literally fearful for your life, a tanked economy, nationwide social/political unrest like none of us have seen in our lifetimes, and let’s not forget the exceptional nature of wildfire/hurricane season this year. Oh, and there’s the Presidential Election. So many things to get worked up over. So many things we could choose to be anxious about.
The Bellarmine Presentation was the largest audience I’ve ever presented too. Over 800 people in attendance online. As I sat with the organizers waiting to begin my portion of the event I felt the anxiety and tension in my body. It’s a familiar feeling I have every time I speak to a group. ‘Will they accept what I have to say? Will someone get angry? Will I offend someone?…’ These are the types of questions that run through my head. I don’t expect that this feeling will ever go away. But, what do I do with it?
I’ve often likened speaking to being pregnant (not in the sense of physical pain). There’s sort of an immanence about having prepared a message for a large group of people. I must get it out of me. When I first started speaking the anxiety had to be worked out in the presentation. Tripping over words, walking too much, and drifting off topic. The nerves… The emotions… drove my behavior. Overtime, I’ve learned to truly feel what’s happening in my body and use that as a signal to focus on the task at hand. After all, I’m there to give something useful to the audience, not to flail about in submission to my emotions.
If the presentation blows up in my face, I would rather the vitriol be against well thought out claims that I communicate with precision. As opposed to verbal diarrhea perpetuated by my anxiety. I’ve got to harness the anxiety. I’ve got to let that energy take me towards the core of my message.
Don’t Make Your Emergencies, Mine!
Several years ago I had a friend who would get worked up over everything. It was frustrating. This friend expected me to get anxious and frustrated, with them. After a while I realized that I had to play this game of parroting their anxiety in order to get them to calm down. I had to interrupt my own peace in order to allow them to be controlled by their emotions. Then, that’s what I believed – I have to interrupt my positive emotions in order to empathize with their negative emotions. But why is it that I have to go down in a hole because you’re in one. There’s a saying, “Don’t make your emergencies, mine!”
Don’t make your anxiety, mine. Don’t make your cynicism, mine. Why can’t I demand that you empathize with my positive energy? Or, better still, why can’t I learn how to enter into your story and challenge the assumptions that fuel your anxiety? I wish I had this understanding about 5 years ago.
My estimation is that anxiety is primarily about future problems. Something is happening right now that has the potential to led to bigger problems that we’re not totally confident we can tackle. However, anxiety as an emotional experience is incredibly taxing on our physical energy. It’s depleting to say the least and, as I said, uncontrolled, you end up flailing.
If those big future problems do come, wouldn’t it have been better to have gotten good sleep, to have cooked/cleaned/kept house well, to have loved people and been present with them, to have cared for your body well, rather than be anxious and giving those activities a poor effort, if any at all? A further question is, does the feeling of anxiety about the future dissipate faster when you focus on what you need to do in the present? It’s been my experience as a speaker and a combat veteran and a litany of other intense situations, yes, it does.
If Armageddon is coming tomorrow, then you might as well sleep well tonight because you’re going to need all the energy you can muster to deal with the problems that Armageddon presents. If you do contract COVID 19, I suppose you’ll have a better shot at recovery with a healthy body and a relaxed mind. If your job is eliminated in the economic downturn, I suppose you’ll manage that situation better when your expenses are prioritized and you have the energy to look for other employment opportunities. If rioting and looting breaks out in your local area, stay away from it and if it reaches you, I suppose a body that’s conditioned from exercise has a better chance of getting away/defending itself than one that has been sitting around in submission to anxiety…
The Sun Will Rise
One of the stark realizations I had when I was in Houston flat broke, in debt, and being evicted from my apartment, was the fact that the Sun was still going to rise the next day. And if for some reason it didn’t, then I had much bigger problems than my financial situation. Whether I chose to get up and engage life or not, life and time was going to march on. Being anxious about how my future was going to turn out or being obsessed with wishing I had made different choices was getting me nowhere. Inaction doesn’t right a capsized boat and wishing you had made different choices doesn’t allow you to learn from the choices already made…
Are we going to waste time being anxious or will do the mental work to organize that energy in a useful manner for us, and the world around us?