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What to Do When You’re Down on Your Knees in Despair

Helen Keller once said, “We could never learn to be brave and patient if there were only joy in the world.”

If we try, we can remember our own past bravery as a way to help us feel more courageous today. Sometimes, though, when we look back on our life, we can only remember the times things didn’t work out. And those memories can get in the way of choosing to be brave today.

We say to ourselves: Things went wrong in the past, what if things go wrong again?

Things haven’t always worked out great for me. When I returned from Mexico after working with Doctors Without Borders, I had no job waiting for me. My husband wasn’t working and we had used up all of our savings.

As soon as I got back to the States I applied for every job in the nursing field I could find—even jobs that were way below my level of expertise (and former earnings). I went 2 months before I received a job offer.

The job was as a community health nurse. It would have required working 5 days a week, with very little time involved in actual patient care because it required a lot of travel and paperwork.

I knew I needed the income but when offered the position, I just couldn’t accept it. Every fiber of my being knew that I would be miserable at that job. I thanked the nurse manager but declined the offer, hung up the phone, and BURST into tears.

I felt cursed by the warnings of my father and so many well-meaning others who had told me that I was foolish for quitting my good job to take a volunteer position in Mexico, and that I was crazy to think that I could find an even better job on my return.

All that is to say that I am familiar with the demons of grief, anxiety, self-doubt and despair. Very familiar.

My leaps of faith and acts of bravery haven’t always worked out exactly the way I had hoped. In fact they’ve often found me down on my knees in despair asking God how I could have been brought this far to fail.

Another month after that “down on my knees” dark place, I did get my dream job, working as a nurse-midwife for a busy hospital-based birthing center that cares for predominantly Latina patients—working 24 hours a week for more pay than I made working 50-60 hours a week in my former midwifery position.

I worked that job happily for 8 years before I decided that it was time to leave it for my next leap—where you find me today.

And, yes, one year after quitting that job, this particular leap hasn’t worked out exactly the way I hoped either.

My experience has not always been filled with bright sunshine and frolicking unicorns. And yet, when I finally stopped fighting the questions and the doubts and the fears and allowed myself to simply be sad or confused, I realized that everything actually was okay.

Even when things are not at all the way I want and expect them to be, they are still okay.

“Things are still okay”? What does that mean?

What could that possibly mean when, every day, people all over the world die because of poverty, disease, drugs and violence?

It doesn’t mean that I accept that despair is unavoidable or acceptable. It doesn’t mean that I stop doing all that I can do to bring more justice, more kindness, and more peace to the world.

What it means to me is that I can focus on what I am doing and—most importantly—how I am doing it, and then I can let go of needing to control, or even worry about, the outcome.

I have survived failures before, and I will survive them again.

And I practice remembering that things always get better, eventually.

For example, the Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho has said, “Everything will be all right in the end. If it’s not, then it’s not the end.” I’ve contemplated that quote enough in good times that it helps me to keep putting one foot in front of the other when things get tough.

It also helps to take note of exactly what we’re afraid of. Have you noticed that fear almost always comes up when we confront a present challenge—and remember something bad from our past. Have you noticed that it also comes up when we imagine something bad that could take place in the future?

In his book Getting Things Done, organizational guru David Allen notes that, in his experience, the brightest, most creative individuals tend to let their fears paralyze them more often than anyone else. He attributes this to their ability to envision more powerfully than others all the awful things that could happen if they fail. But does that have to happen every time?

Don’t get me wrong—some things should evoke fear. Driving too fast on a twisty road should make you afraid enough to slow down.

Getting bitten by a possibly rabid raccoon (that happened to my husband last year) should elicit a fear response, enough so that you decide to consult a doctor about what to do.

As a character says in Kate DiCamillo’s children’s story, The Tale of Despereaux, there are many wonderful things out there to be afraid of. But your regrets about the past or worries about the future probably don’t make the grade.

In these instances, recognizing your fears for what they are—stories about the past that might not now apply, or stories about the future that might never come true—will help.

So will bringing your attention back to what is actually happening right now. How cool would it be if you could just stop thinking about all the memorable and impressive ways you could screw up? You can—it’s a skill you can develop through ten minutes of mindful breathing every day.

One last thing: You know how I told two stories about quitting the 2 different jobs? One had me down on my knees in despair and the other didn’t. Do you want to know what made the difference?

I’m SO much more comfortable with uncertainty now. I just don’t get that worked up by a lack of (so called) security because I BELIEVE IN MYSELF so much more than I believe in the fears and the doubts. More about that next week, so stay tuned.

What do you do to feel more comfortable in the face of uncertainty?  I’d love for you to share in the comments!

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