The approach of a new year always reminds me of December 1959, the eve of my first conscious experience of transitioning not just from one year to the next, but of one decade to the next. 1960 loomed large in my twelve-year-old imagination. It felt like embarking on totally new territory, a new continent of time.
Midnight came. The clock struck twelve. Nothing changed. I went to bed and woke up to…just another day. Was I relieved or disappointed? Maybe a little of both.
Change, it turns out, is a continuous stream that has all to do with cycles and seasons, and little to do with our desire to measure it and put it on a timeline, making it seem linear rather than cyclical.
That New Year’s Eve at the dawn of the 1960’s, I was fortunate not to have any inkling what the future would bring. Had I had an advance glimpse of the headlines from that decade, I would have been terrified: A beloved president, his brother, and Martin Luther King Jr. all assassinated. A war in a small country in southeast Asia that would kill, maim and cause a lifetime of suffering to the people there and many of the boys of my generation.
And what would my very prudish, judgmental twelve-year-old self have thought of the nineteen-year-old I became, living in the Haight Ashbury District of San Francisco, ingesting whatever hallucinogen anyone passed me without serious thought to the consequences? Would I have wanted to wake up the next morning to the decade of the 60’s?
Maybe not. But fortunately we don’t know the future. This is a blessing! Because everything sounds worse in anticipation, doesn’t it? And there’s something important that takes us so long to learn and we tend to forget: We have an incredible capacity to live through volatile times and not just survive but thrive.
Even if we could ‘know’ the future, we would not know it fully in the experiential way we actually live it. When I was nineteen, a fortune teller gave me a reading. She said, and I quote, ‘In the end your friends will all turn against you.’ Oh my! What a prophecy to live with! I imagined dying alone, having been abandoned by everyone I ever loved. Who knows if that will ever come to pass, but within six weeks of that reading, I had an experience that fulfilled that prophecy. I had moved back across the country, and was hanging out mostly with my closest friend and my high school boyfriend. He and I had casually taken up where we had left off. The three of us had been a tight little circle for a short period of time as I found my way in a new situation. So they were in that moment ‘all my friends’. And then they fell in love and became an couple, hiding it from me until they could figure a way to tell me. Of course at first it felt like a betrayal, as if they had turned against me. But that wasn’t the full truth of that experience. I recovered quickly, our friendships remained in tact. When I recognized that the prophecy was true, but in a much different way than I imagined, it was a life lesson: We just don’t know what life will bring and cannot predict how we will experience it.
See the truth of this for yourself: Think of a year where the headlines were horrendous. (Pick any year. Headlines are always horrendous!) Then think of your own life. Like most people you can probably list some triumphs and traumas. But how much of your ongoing state of mind has to do with the headlines? None of us live our lives in the headlines, even though they affect us at some level. Even if we are part of the news, it can’t capture the fullness of the experience. I remember the 1989 earthquake in the San Francisco Bay Area. It certainly affected us! But the national news distorted it beyond recognition. The news thrives on our tendency toward what neuroscientists call a ‘negativity bias’. We tend to focus on the negatives of any given situation first and foremost. It’s something useful to notice in ourselves, and good to try to bring into balance by observing what positive or pleasant things are also going on. It’s not to push the negative away, but simply to expand our awareness to the fullness of experience.
Good news does exist, it’s just harder to find in the news as it’s hidden away behind all the negative news that grabs our attention more readily. Here are just some of the many good news stories of the past year.
Imagine how we bring this negativity bias into the future. Dread arises! It’s not accurate because not only are we projecting our fears, but we do not know and do not have the ability to imagine all that is possible. The future may be better or worse than we imagine, but it will not be the way we imagine it. Of that much we can be sure.
Headlines do not write the story of our lives. And as Doris Day sang in ‘Que Sera, Sera’, the future’s not ours to see. Our focus is on how we are relating to the experience of being alive in this moment, whether we are being mindlessly reactive or mindfully responsive? Are we tightly wound in fear and striking out? Or are we cultivating our capacity for spacious awareness, compassion, integrity and wisdom? In this way, whatever the future brings we will thrive, not just survive, and not just for ourselves but for all beings.
I appreciate your comments and questions.
Wishing you all a very happy new year, whatever comes!
Thanks, Stephanie. Well said and a great reminder.
Wishing you and Will and your family every good blessing in the new year,
With gratitude and love,
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Thanks, Patti! Wishing you, Stan and your family every good blessing for the new year as well. Love, Stephanie
I really appreciate your delightful honesty, clarity and vision. I am looking forward to my writing class with Laura Davis down here in Santa Cruz. Been toying with the notion that the negativity is not solely due to the “headlines”. Rather, it is a continuous display of our hidden / unacknowledged animal fight / flight nature. It is difficult to acknowledge that we as humans may actually be subject power of “survival instinct” at some level of our being, be it physical level, emotional or spiritual. This negativity reminds me of little birds, always looking around, always so very sensitive to noises and movements. As humans, we are also checking to see if our environment is safe……. crossing a street or eating a meal. Thinking part of our practice is to acknowledge and give a wide space for our “animal” nature, enough room so that the “noble” nature can thrive, can be known.
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Thanks for posting a comment!
You’ve brought up an interesting point. We humans are most definitely subject to survival instinct, but it can get over-activated, keeping us bathed in adrenaline, aching with tension in various parts of the body. In that constant state it’s possible that when we really do have a situation where our fight or flight instinct would be useful, we may not be as skillful as we could otherwise be.
Our ancestors, even our relatively recent ancestors, were not constantly subjected to news from every part of the world. When they were in a flight or fight situation, it was more likely to be a direct experience, and not keeping them tense in every waking hour. They had long periods of time to recover.
In nature the image comes to mind of a duck who gets all aflutter with ruffled feathers, and then is able to settle within a few seconds time. Animals who have to worry about predators are alert when they are out and about. Nothing wrong with alertness! When we meditate, we are alert but relaxed. I think of a cat in the garden, seemingly totally relaxed but also totally ready to spring into action!
Enjoy your writing class and your exploration of this rich area of ideas.
Happy New Year!
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Beautiful perspective, thoughtfully written.
This came at a perfect time. Really needed to hear this. First holiday season with my Dad in a nursing home, Mom with broken hip. Trying to see and prepare for the future is wearing me out! Our traditions will need to change, I can’t live in the memories of the past. I was so sad this past holiday but I am going to take some deep breaths and stay present as much as I can, thanks Stephanie!