Don’t stay busy. It’s a trap.

First, a story.

The Willow’s True Nature: A Tale of Caution and Hope

There is a wise king with a large kingdom and many servants. One day, one of his servants left the castle early in the morning to do the daily business of the kingdom. She had a very long to-do list! There were provisions to buy, documents to deliver and collect, and people to talk to. The king’s castle was perched high above the kingdom, and on the walk down the road from the castle, the servant was able to look out across the countryside and towns below. It was truly a lovely day. She walked past the reservoir, through the willow woods, and into town where there were shops and houses both great and small. There were people of all kinds, too; young and old, rich and poor, skilled and professional, at work and at play, happy and sad.

She was busy all day going here and there around the town, and the servant managed to accomplish all of her errands. She was satisfied that she had checked everything off of her to-do list. Her basket was full of supplies of every sort; bread, fruits and veggies, meats and cheeses, important documents, books, articles of clothing, medicines, and dry goods. She was filled with a sense of pride as she began the walk back to the castle and felt the king would be pleased.

It had been a comfortably warm, sunny day, but now in the distance, rain clouds were gathering. The servant decided she should hurry back to the safety of the castle before the rain arrived. She picked up the pace as she passed through the willow woods. No one knew how old the willow woods were only that the king himself had planted the trees many, many years ago. In those days, willow trees were different than they are today. They were the tallest of all the trees, very plain, and straight as an arrow reaching straight up to heaven. The light, silvery leaves were sparse and upturned, pointing to the sky. They offered very little shade or shelter for people or animals. The bark was smooth, dull, and unremarkable. Furthermore, they were of no particular use as the branches were stiff and straight, brittle, and easily snapped by the slightest breeze.

The clouds were growing thicker and darker as the servant neared the reservoir. She hurried on. There was a terrible clap of thunder. She was afraid and started to run as the rain began to pour, great torrential sheets of rain. Now, crossing the dam that held the reservoir of water in place, she could see that the water was rising. What was worse was that there appeared to be a leak in the earthen dam. She could see a small but insistent stream of water spurting forth from the dirt works. Panic stricken and without thinking she impulsively plugged the leak with her finger. She felt very clever in that moment because her quick thinking had stopped the leak and avoided a potential disaster.

Almost as quickly as she celebrated her heroic intervention, she began to see its folly. “What do I do now?” she thought. The situation was not sustainable. She couldn’t stand there forever stopping up the leak, but any attempt to get help would mean removing her finger which would surely result in the water gushing forth with even greater force than before. She was, in fact, trapped. Like the lightning flashing in the sky around her, in one terrible, heart stopping flash of understanding, she realized that she was actually the cause of her entrapment, trapped by her own decision made in haste and an overgrown, out-of-control sense of self-reliance. To make matters worse, the dirt around her finger was becoming soggy and water began to flow once again. Now, she was stuck trying to do anything and everything to plug the ever widening hole. She tried desperately to use what she had in her basket to fill the now gaping breach with food, jars of medicine, clothing, documents, books. She tried it all, but it was no use. The hole would not be filled and everything she had accomplished, everything from her to-do list, was ruined. The water in the reservoir was rising ever higher. The pressure behind the dam was building.

“If only I had run on to the castle when I first saw the leak,” she thought to herself. “I could have called out to the king and his other servants for help.” There was nothing she could do to stop what was going to happen next. She had failed, and everyone in the town below was in danger because of her.

Then, what she feared would happen, happened. The dam burst forth and a great deluge of water like a stampede of horses raced toward the town below. She turned away to avoid the sight of it. She felt the full weight of her guilt and began to cry huge, sorrowful tears that fell into the flowing water. Suddenly, she heard a sound, a great gasping, gulping sound coming from the direction of the willow woods. She looked, and she could see the trees’ roots stretched taut against the surface of the ground, and they were growing! The roots were growing bigger and rounder as they filled with the rushing water spilling from the reservoir. The trees themselves were changing, too. They became heavy with water, their trunks split and scarred. Their branches began to elongate and droop. Their lofty tops bowed low. The leaves turned from silvery white to a brilliant, sea green, and all the while the torrent of running water was slowing from a deluge to barely a brook. The town was saved! From that day forward, those trees have been known as weeping willows for their true nature, their true purpose, had been revealed as well as their true beauty. They now bend gracefully with strength and do not easily break. They have flexibility that not even a howling wind can degrade. They create a protective shelter beneath their branches as they arc and sigh downward. When it rains, they soak up excess water in the ground, and raindrops trace their way down the drooping branches and fall like the weeping servant’s tears on the ground below.

In her heart, she wondered if the king in his wisdom knew the role that the willow trees would play in saving the town when he planted them all those many, many years ago. She decided she would ask him. Then, she thought, “If the king knew the willow’s true purpose, maybe he knows mine.” She decided she would talk to him about that, too, and seek his counsel first in all things. The End

Proverbs 137:1-2 By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our lyres.

More about the Busy Trap

I can’t even count how many people offered the sage advice to stay busy as a way to manage grief. We have to be really careful about this though. Staying busy can quickly move from a seemingly sound strategy to a crutch then to a trap and perhaps even to a prison. And it’s such an easy trap to fall into because its delicious bait is pride and disproportionate self-reliance. Staying busy is like putting a Band-Aid on a gushing wound. It’s just not going to work. It doesn’t stop the grieving process. It only delays it and ultimately makes the healing process more difficult and complex.

The problem is that grief builds up behind the emotional dam that is created by staying busy. A mind packed full with grief doesn’t always make good decisions. Analytical thinking and problem solving skills are diminished. Over-scheduling can lead to or increase anxiety. All the while, the pressure on the dam is growing, and it soon springs a leak prompting more and more busy-ness to shore up the dam. Staying busy is not sustainable. It becomes a vicious cycle. When the dam finally breaks, and it will, the leak becomes a flood and does more damage than the leak ever could have. The ensuing deluge of grief can threaten us and those we love.

So, what do we do? I try to strive for a balanced day. Just like eating a balanced diet promotes good physical health, we should strive to choose a menu of daily activities that promote good mental and spiritual health. I try to choose meaningful, purposeful activities that help me process my grief, not busy-ness for the sake of busy-ness. Examples of meaningful, purposeful activities include exercise, time with supportive friends and family, volunteering or work that helps others, quiet time for mindfulness activities, and time for doing absolutely nothing. I say I try because I am not always successful. I recently had a dream where I was frantically driving all over town from place to place except every time I arrived at a destination I found out that I was not where I was supposed to be and had to race off to another location. I was panting with exhaustion and frustration, anxiety and fear. Smack! Hello, Holy 2 x 4! If the merry-go-round has become the misery-go-round, then get off. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with shutting it all down and giving yourself time to feel and be. In fact, it is essential! Furthermore, I have found that I don’t like to hurry or be in a rush. This could be a function of my age, but I think it’s more related to time and the way I experience it now. I’ve written about the time change in previous posts. It’s something I noticed almost immediately after Paul died. I strive to be very present. I want to cherish and savor each moment even the moments that are mundane.

Some questions for reflection… How full is your reservoir of grief? Is it leaking? Are you trapped by your own choices and efforts to manage it? Is the pressure building? Who will be harmed when the dam breaks?

God has a plan for our lives. He knows more than our imaginations are capable of conceiving. We may not always know what to do with all of our grief and sadness, but God does. He has a plan for that, too. We need only to trust it to him.

Proverbs 3:5-6 Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.

Trusting, Malia

It’s about time.

Time is on my mind. Both literally and figuratively. Physically, the time change coming back from Spain has put a hurting on me. That combined with the excitement and activity surrounding my son’s engagement gave me a serious case of jet lag that lasted well into my first few days back at work. It was three days before I could even think about doing laundry or turning on the TV. It’s nearly two weeks now of trying to get another post completed.

Then, there’s this.

How on earth I can fly to another continent and manage to take care of myself but can’t go to the grocery store is fodder for another post. Ugh. Ridiculous. At any rate, I would like to officially add travel to the Griefwork Toolbox. I can certainly attest to its healing affect. One aspect that was made abundantly clear to me during the course of my travel is that it’s no credit to me, I get no sense of accomplishment or confidence, if I’m able to manage when things are going smoothly. I only learn about myself and my capabilities when things are going wrong. That’s not to say that I need or want things to go wrong. I am just saying that I am grateful in both sets of circumstances as I have opportunities to learn and grow. I spent the last 30 years in partnership with my husband. I do currently have a need to fully understand my ability to manage life on my own.

I’ve tried to adjust to the time change by sticking to my routines, exercise and regular bedtime, and not napping even though I really wanted to, but it was still nearly five days before I felt normal, like myself again. I felt like a person out of time, removed from a previous state of existence. The first time I experienced this was after the death of my mother. Even at that young age, barely 12 years old, I was aware that time, or the way I experienced it, was different. My very existence as I had known it was over, and a new existence had begun. A quick search of my posts yielded 107 occurrences of the word time. I have written previously about how my calendar is different, but it’s more than that. I experience time differently now.

This painting by Salvador Dali is titled The Persistence of Memory. I was fortunate to see it in person at the Museum of Modern Art during my unexpected stay in New York.

The title is so curious. In fact, it’s often called by other names like “Melting Clocks” or “Melting Watches”. But clearly, Dali, recognized, or pondered like myself, the connection between time and memory and perception. I am intrigued about the possibility that time and memory are actually one and the same and the potential of that equality.

I have a time machine. My memory is good. Too good sometimes. Memory is routed through the hippocampus and stored in the temporal region of the brain which is responsible for how we process memories and integrate them with sensory information, the way we perceive the world. I remember everything with nearly perfect recall. Many family members confirm that my earliest memories are from not too far past my second birthday. They are images only, but they are accurate. Lately, these memories of mine have been tricking me into thinking I am somewhere else or talking to someone else about something else, and I make mistakes in my references. I never noticed myself making these kinds of mistakes before Paul died or at least not to this level. A puzzled look from a friend or family member usually brings the mistake to my attention, and I say, “Oh, I meant, ______. I was in my time machine.” In other words, I associated the current circumstances for another place and time.

In his essay, “To Grieve is to Carry Another Time”, Matthew Salesses refers to this same phenomenon. He read and researched the mechanism and function of time hoping for a way to go back to before his wife died but with, obviously, no success. Salesses wrote, “So why, my grief asks, can’t we change times simply by changing our perceptions?” According to Salesses’ research, physicist Carlo Rovelli offers the mind itself as a time machine so that we may travel via memory. I, too, have attempted time travel by seeking the answer to this same question. The fact that we, the grievers, would even think such a thing is possible is yet another indication of the disorder, confusion, and madness with which grief wrecks the rational mind. Since Paul died, I have consciously worked on cultivating my ability to go back in time through memories to visit with him. Instead of my memories playing like a movie on a screen, I go inside my memories and walk around, talking, feeling. Salesses asserts, “This is a disappointing compromise. In mourning, memory is only another cause for mourning. It does not change time, only reminds one that time has passed.” I’m not sure about that.

We all know that humans experience time in a linear way, past, present, and future, like following a string. But I am thinking of that string wound around a spool. From the inside of the spool, we could view all of that wound up time and select a strand of time to experience. And, what if, just what if the string of time is not being wound up? What if it’s the other way around? What if the string of time is being wound out? Think about that. The past is something that has already happened right? If the future is something that is already set, already on the spool, whether it’s known or unknown, then it is equal to the past. This is actually comforting to me. The future may be a puzzle that I have struggled to piece together, but it is concrete.

I was talking to a friend recently about how long Paul and I were together, and I blurted out 31 years. Thirty-one years. That’s the number of years IF Paul was still alive, and I just blurted it out like our clock was still ticking, but it’s not. I was in my time machine. Our time is over. They say that time heals all wounds. In my experience, time heals nothing, but God does. Healing happens through faith and hard work.

He heals the brokenhearted and bandages their wounds. – Psalm 147:2

Indeed, He does. Malia