To The Racist in the Mirror

Hey, there!  I saw you in the mirror today, staring back at me with those wide, blue eyes.  Innocent expression on your pale, pink face.  “Who, me?” your look seemed to say.

As you know, I had just been playing a game of Spot the Racist.  Stuck in late afternoon Portland traffic, I had been troubled by seeing three separate cars drive by with (US)American flags flying out their windows.  It scared me.  Now, normally, I wouldn’t equate American patriotism with racism, but I couldn’t help reading those flags that way today.  They didn’t have swastikas on them or anything, but  just days after the president of the United States compared Robert E. Lee to George Washington and defended a mob of white nationalists and neo-nazis, choosing to display that flag is, at least, suspicious.  And that this appeared to be a pattern made me uneasy.

So I decided they were probably racist, and I started looking around into all the cars.  Who else here is racist? I thought.  Could I tell by looking at them?  Let’s see how many I can spot.  I was looking around, driving down the freeway at a snail’s pace, sizing up the other drivers for signs of racism.  I leaned over to adjust an AC vent, and my eyes caught the rear view mirror.  And I did a double take, because there you were.  Blue eyes.  Pale pink.  Who, me?

That’s not what a racist looks like… is it?

Now, I’ve thought about it, and I’m afraid you’re not going to like this.  I know you don’t like to think of yourself as racist.  You think everyone is the same on the inside.  You support affirmative action, prison reform and immigrants’ rights.  You’re committed to politically correct language, inclusion, intersectionality.  You didn’t vote for that evil clown in the white house.  Surely, you’re one of the good guys, right?

But you seeing yourself as some benevolent ally just because you don’t personally want to kill black people is not doing anything to dismantle white supremacy in this country.  Here’s how I could tell that you’re racist:  You’re white.  You’re a white (US)American.

(And now, let’s pause for a second while the words “NOT ALL WHITE PEOPLE…” echo across the internet.  I’ll wait.)

See, racism is not a feeling you have in the privacy of your own mind.  You can, and probably do, have racist thoughts and feelings.  But racism is bigger than you, bigger than any of us.  It’s a whole system of oppression, a hateful web that’s tangled all over our culture and our country.  A self-perpetuating system that runs like clockwork.  And it’s a system that benefits you.

To say that a white person in our culture is not racist is like saying that someone who does not personally kill animals is a vegetarian.  Many people who eat hamburgers have never (and would never) kill a cow with their own hands.  They let other people do that for them.  But they still eat the burgers.  They still enjoy energy and comfort and flavor and sustenance that is a direct result of a cow getting killed.  Just not by them.

In our culture, bubbling with subtle (and not-so-subtle) racism in every corner, white people enjoy relative safety, power, health, wealth and freedom, at the expense of people of color.  Whether they believe in the system or not, they thrive on it.  There are white people who really do everything in their power not to participate in that system.  Just like there are actual vegetarians.  And I would say those white people are not racist.  But there are very, very few of them.

And, my friend in the mirror, I don’t think you cut it.  I know it hurts to hear that, but you’ve got a lot of work to do.  To you, and all your well-meaning white friends, it’s not that you’re bad people.  You grew up being fed burgers and thinking of yourself as an animal lover ’cause you walked the family dog.  Change is hard.  So don’t beat yourself up.  Just remember where your dinner came from.  And then get to work.

 

 

Afterthought:  I don’t actually think it’s particularly helpful (if at all helpful) to call people “racist.”  Racism is a system in our country that needs to be destroyed, but name-calling doesn’t do that anyway and tends to divide people.  I’m standing by this post though, because if there’s one person we (white people) could each stand to consider calling “racist”, it’s the one in the mirror.

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I Hope You Get There Soon: Love in a Traffic Jam

I have a new trick I’ve been using to help myself through hard or uncomfortable experiences.  I discovered it in a traffic jam, in a cloud of rage and rush and nerves, when a helpful thought happened to pop into my head, like a lucky little lightning bolt.  I had been worrying myself sick about not already being where I was trying to go, stuck behind a row of cars as far ahead as I could see, and knowing that I was supposed to be home to my kids by now.  I really, really need to be there, I thought.  Right now!  Bad things could happen if I don’t get there immediately.  And all this traffic, all these cars, all these people are getting in my way! 

That’s when the lucky thought came.  I thought about all those people, and I realized that it was very, very likely that one of those people, in one of those cars, there in that traffic, was actually in a greater hurry than I was.  There was probably someone who desperately needed to get where they were going, and awful things might happen because they were stuck.  I thought about all the reasons someone might be in a hurry.  An interview for their dream job.  An oven left on.  A relative dying, waiting for them to come say goodbye.  Whoever it is, whatever the reason, I thought, they must be worried sick.  They must be suffering so much right now.

I decided to try and send them a message, telepathically.  I’m not usually much of a believer in telepathy, but I had limited tools to work with, sitting in my car.  So I focused real hard (which I imagine to be an important component of telepathic communication), and I thought this message to them:

I’m so sorry you’re stuck in this traffic. 

I know how worried you are. 

I hope you get where you need to be soon. 

I hope everything’s okay for you. 

I’m here with you.

I don’t know if they got the message, whoever they were, but I do know that shifting my focus from me to them turned my whole experience around.  I went from feeling trapped, out of control, burdened and stuck, to feeling empowered, helpful, purposeful, and like I was right were I needed to be.  I can’t explain why it worked like this, but I’m telling you, it did.  It felt like medicine or something.  Somehow, that adjustment in how I was thinking had an effect that was soothing and energizing and liberating.

I’ve since tried this with other hard or uncomfortable experiences, and it consistently works well for me.  I strongly recommend trying it yourself.  Worried about money?  Imagine someone who’s in an even tougher financial spot than you are, and spend the energy you use to worry about your own money instead on hoping that other person gets everything they need.  Have a headache?  Imagine someone who’s in even more physical pain than you are, and focus on hoping they can be comfortable soon.  Fighting with a relative?  Imagine someone with an even more strained relationship with their relative, and wish them peace, space, validation, resolution.  Basically, whatever you need, wish it for someone else who needs it more.

This is not just remembering that there are other people worse off than you.  This is seeing yourself in someone you don’t even know, and actively loving that person.

Because you’re not alone in your suffering.  You’re not the only one who feels how you feel, and in all probability, there’s someone else who is going through whatever it is, having an even harder time with it.  You’re probably not the person who, even in that way, is the very worst off.

And if you are – if you’re really pretty sure that you’re in the worst position, the worst traffic, the worst heat, the worst poverty, the worst pain, out of everyone in the whole world – just think of me.  Know that that I’m out there somewhere, or someone else like me is out there somewhere, sending you support, trying to will things better for you.

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On JK Rowling and Orphanages

 

I just read that JK Rowling has asked people to stop donating to, or volunteering in, orphanages.  As someone who has volunteered in orphanages, I have some thoughts about this.

You can see see what Rowling said and why here, from the Huffington Post.   One of the reasons cited is that orphanages drive family break-up, because most of the kids in them are not actually orphans.  Orphanages being involved in trafficking is also a reason mentioned.  But another reason stood out most to me, and it’s that children thrive in families, not in institutions.

And one quote in particular, from the article:

“The stream of foreigners coming in and out of children’s lives for short periods ― it has a negative effect, creates attachment issues, and doesn’t help them form long lasting relationships with caretakers that they should be forming,” Orit Strauss, founder of volunteer site Giving Way, told The Huffington Post.

It was almost 20 years ago when I gained personal experience with this.   I spent several months volunteering in orphanages abroad, one in Kathmandu, Nepal, and one in Calcutta (now Kolkata), India.  Both were run by the Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa’s order.  The one in Nepal was a home for orphaned children.  The one in India was one of several MoC homes in the city, and it was the one for malnourished and/or disabled kids, and a few adults.

I would like to offer two stories to illustrate my experience, as it relates to the Huffington Post quote above.

Me and M

In Calcutta, the orphanage I volunteered at was never short on volunteers.  People travel from all over the world to volunteer in Calcutta, and on any given day, you’d find an international smorgasbord of volunteers.  While I was there, I worked with volunteers from Italy, France, Japan, Germany, Australia, South Africa, Canada.  And a few of them stayed long enough to learn the kids’ names.  But most didn’t.  I’d guess the average time a volunteer spends there is about a week.  Many come for just a few days.

At the time, as one of the relatively longer-term volunteers, this annoyed me.  Frankly, it felt like it took more energy to explain everything to the in-and-out volunteers than it would have taken to just do whatever they were there doing.  While I’m sure most volunteers had only the best intentions, their week-long token trips to the orphanage were hardly beneficial to the kids they were intending to serve.  The story of one little girl, who I’ll call “M”, demonstrates this.

On my first day there, I stood next to a crib with metal bars, peering down at a tiny baby with bony legs and fiery eyes.  Someone told me to feed her, so I picked her up, careful to support her head and upper back, because she was so little.  I looked around for a bottle to feed her, before a nun thrust a plate of rice into my hand.  I thought there must be some mistake, because surely this baby wasn’t old enough to eat solid food.  I asked the nun how old this baby was.   She said nine months.

At nine months old, most babies can sit up right, crawl, some can even pull up into a standing position.  And they can feed themselves with their hands.  Not M.  She couldn’t do any of those things.  At first, I assumed M was so tiny and weak from malnutrition.  And that probably was why she was tiny.  While many of the residents at this home were there because of varying disabilities, M was one of the malnutrition kids.  And little she was.  But I soon learned that the reason she was so weak was not, or at least not solely, malnutrition.  The reason M couldn’t sit or crawl was because she was never put down.  After all, every visitor of the day to come in and volunteer wanted to hold the sweet little baby with the fiery eyes.  But when a baby is never put down, they can’t learn to do the things they need to do.  And when the person caring for a baby changes every day, there is no one to notices when their care is harming their development.

I, along with an Italian woman named Lucy (another long-term volunteer who I adored), worked mostly with the malnutrition kids.  There were four of them, three little boys and M.  Every day after breakfast, we’d take them up on the roof for some fresh air.  I had formed a close bond with M, and as soon as I realized why she wasn’t sitting or crawling, I started thinking of what I could do to help.  And of course, there was only one thing to do.

One day I said to Lucy, as we were walking up the stairs to the roof, that I wanted us to let M cry that day.  Lucy agreed.  We got up there, and I lay a blanket down on the floor.  Then I gave M a big hug and set her down on her belly.  She waited for a second, probably sure I would pick her up.  But when she realized I wasn’t going to, she started wailing.  She was mad.  I sat there talking to her, encouraging her, and fending off random volunteers who came over and asked to pick her up.  We did this for several days.  I don’t remember how long it had been, whether it was days or weeks, but one day, M started crawling.  She got big cheers for that.  After a couple months, she was sitting up too.

I was proud of the progress we’d made.  I was proud of her.  I wasn’t surprised that she did it, because those fiery eyes came with a fiery personality.  Despite her slight frame and little squeak of a cry, you could feel that she was a strong person.  I sometimes wondered if she got that from her mother and whether her mother would be proud of her too.  M wasn’t quite an orphan, but she was there, because her mother was in Kalighat, another home run by the Missionaries of Charity.  Also known as “the home for the dying.”  She had tuberculosis, and it was unlikely M would see her again.  I thought about her mother often, and sometimes imagined I could feel her mother’s love for her when I looked at that sweet baby.

During my time volunteering in Calcutta, I felt conflicted about a lot of things.  And discouraged by things.  The constant flux of short-term volunteers was one thing that bugged me.  In that regard, I thought I was one of the good ones though.  After all, I was there long enough to learn the names, needs and stories of the kids, to oversee progress, to train other volunteers.  Surely that was helpful.

But the day came when I left, returning home to my western life.  That day, I became one of countless people who had left M during her short time on this earth.  I will always be one of those people.

In Kathmandu, I had a bond with another child similar to the one I had with M.  I’ll call this child “S.”  On my first day there, I noticed her right away.  She had a sternness on her face that to this day, I have rarely seen on a child.  She didn’t laugh or even smile.  It wasn’t just that she was in a bad mood.  As days and weeks went on, I learned that she did not smile or laugh.  She also mostly didn’t play.  But similar to with M, I felt a quick and powerful bond with S.

So every day I sat with her and talked to her.  I held her on my lap.  I made up songs for her with the few Nepali words I had learned.  I sang to her.  I was there with her every day (except the one day a week that the orphanage was closed to volunteers).  Over time, I guess she came to trust me and feel safe with me.

Here she is one day during my second month there:

She started smiling.  This might sound like a happy ending to this story.  And if it was the end, it might be happy.  But just like with M, the day came when I went back to my old life.  I left S there, got on a plane, and went home.  This sweet little girl, who had had such a hard life that she could not laugh, who’d had so much broken trust that she could not smile.  I left her.  And the fact that before leaving her, I spent multiple months with her, gaining her trust?  Does that make it better?  Or much, much worse?  I want to believe that some love is better than no love.  But I think deep down, I know that what I did was probably more hurtful to her than helpful.

Kids need continuity of care to thrive.  Institutions cannot replace families.  All money and energy directed at orphanages is money and energy not being spent on keeping kids with their families.  Many of the kids have parents or relatives who could care for them, if only they had the proper resources, support and/or education.  I learned today that JK Rowling has an organization that works to keep or return kids to their families.  It’s called Lumos.

Like most people who volunteer at orphanages, I had good intentions.  I just wanted to help, and I wanted to help people who I thought needed it most.  At first glance, volunteering at an orphanage seems like a perfect way to do that.  But what JK Rowling says about this is right.  If you want to serve an orphanage, volunteer at one.  But if you want to serve children, find a better way.

I now remember the beautiful faces of M and S with a knot in my stomach.  I carry tremendous guilt surrounding my relationships with them.  I couldn’t stop crying while writing this.  It’s not that I think they needed me, specifically.  It’s that they needed someone, who would stay.  So much of child development hinges on connection, and on trust kids form with their caregivers in those early years.  I did have the best of intentions when, at 18 years old, I decided to travel to far away lands to volunteer in orphanages.  And I was lucky to get to know those kids.  But I will now forever be haunted by my memories of them.  And by what I did to them.

 

 

 

 

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About the Racially Enlightened Kids

Unpopular opinion time!

You know how it’s only adults who are racist, and how when you hear a kid say something racist, it’s because they’ve heard an adult say it?

Yeah, that’s made up.  Kids are totally racist.  Sorry.

While yes, racism is socially conditioned, kids in our culture are thoroughly programmed for it at a very early age.  It doesn’t take long for kids to learn who’s considered “good” and “beautiful” in their world.  And the prejudices that contribute to racism occur even earlier, possibly immediately.  (Did you know, for example, that our physical brains have different empathetic responses to seeing people hurt, depending on their race?)

nonjudgementalbaby
Example of the popular opinion.

 

Kids are prejudiced, because like all of us, their little brains are operating on dozens and dozens of documented cognitive and emotional biases.  For example, it’s natural to prefer people you see as being similar to you in some way over people who aren’t, because of something called “in group bias.”  That’s not some people, that’s all people, unless we put that bias in check.  Kids don’t yet know to put their biases in check.  Add to that the fact that they’re constantly exposed to a culture that affirms the superiority of one race over others, and what you’ve got are some racist little kids.

The ones we like to post about on social media who seem to be free from racism are the exception, not the rule.  That’s why we notice them and share those images and videos.  They’re exceptional.

Okay, okay, you’re thinking.  So maybe it’s not true that kids aren’t racist, but it’s still a sweet thought!  What’s the harm in saying it?

Here’s one problem:  When we say that it’s children who are the least racist among us, that makes racism something you can grow out of.  It makes the absence of racism in a person seem cute, naive, involuntary.  Yes, we romanticize childhood, telling the story as if children are so wise and enlightened.  But in reality, try and think of any other topic that you honestly wish you had a child’s understanding of.  I’ll give you a minute.

Kids in our culture don’t transcend racism by some natural, God given reflex.  Adults (some but not many adults) in our culture transcend racism through self-reflection, by working honestly with their prejudices and by standing up to the racist conditioning they grew up with.  By choice.

kids

Really, racism is a perfectly childish trait in a person.  It’s an immature, uneducated, unenlightened response to their natural prejudices and to living in a world where they are granted privilege over the people who trigger those prejudices.  Racism is something you grow out of (with work, if you’re conscious about it), not something you grow into.  Like temper tantrums and bed wetting and thinking your parents are magic, racism is a thing we should all aspire to move past as we grow up.

And here’s another problem with the trope of the racism-proof child:  If we believe that children are immune to racism unless we actively teach them to be racist, we think our job is done.  We think we can raise non-racist children just by censoring the N word and smiling and waving at our neighbors of color.  But that’s not happening, because racism is so embedded in every aspect of our culture and so eagerly received by our basal prejudices, we can’t just not be racist.  Not without work.  It takes honesty and struggle and bravery and humility.  Redemption’s not free.  And the work doesn’t stop, because we’re continuously re-conditioned to it our whole lives.

We must look at our children with open eyes, with compassion and clarity.  We have to meet them where they are, and meet ourselves where we are, and then we can begin to heal and grow and unlearn all that bullshit.  There’s too much work to do to go around pretending it will do itself.

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Waking Up Is Hard

For me, there has been one major difference between childhood and adulthood.  As a child, I always believed that adults knew what they were doing, and that while I went about my little life, someone, somewhere, was taking care of the world.  When I reached adulthood, I soon realized that no one really knows what’s going on.  Everyone is only human, with flaws and shortcomings just like me, trying to get by in the world.  And I kind of enjoyed that realization, because it meant that I wasn’t the only one stumbling.

But it seems I only thought I had learned that lesson.  Because, yes, I knew intellectually that all people, including those in positions of power, are subject to inadequacies and incompetence, weakness, delusion, bias, ignorance, failure.  And if you had asked me who in the world knows what the hell they’re doing, I would have answered confidently, “No one!”  But judging by the utter shock I am reeling in after this election, it appears I hadn’t learned that lesson completely.

Because upon careful inward reflection, I’m seeing that the overwhelming feeling for me right now is total disillusionment.  It’s this terrifying sense that the ground is crumbling, not just because of specific policies that will be put in place or certain cabinet members who will be appointed (though those are horrific), but because the order and justice that I naively believed ruled my country has completely failed.  Or perhaps, it was never there to begin with.

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I knew intellectually that even governments are only as solid as the fallible humans running them.  But I guess I still had this (apparently childish) notion that this country was built in such a way that some semblance of justice and righteousness would always be upheld.  Even if differing political ideologies took turns in the power seat, there were limits to how bad things could get.  I believed, for example, that there were certain things a presidential candidate could do or say that would disqualify them from office, and that they would have to be at least somewhat prepared for the job and display even the most basic human decency.  But we have just elected a president who is neither prepared nor decent (by any stretch of the imagination) and everyone’s pretending this is just business as usual.  I know many people are outraged, but where is the stop on this?  Even the “liberal” media is going along treating this as normal.  (I’m looking at you, NPR.)  Racism and sexism and bigotry are being normalized and legitimized everywhere we look, by the very people I always thought were the grown ups.  The people who, I suppose, I always thought would make sure things would be okay.

I guess I thought there were measures in place to make sure that an ill-informed and fearful public could not be manipulated into voting a monster into office.  And I guess I thought that there was some line we would draw, and when it was crossed, we would say, “Okay, we need to change some things, because we as a society will not let our country (and possibly the world) devolve into shit.”  Apparently, there is no such line.  Or if there is a line, it’s way out in apocalypse territory.

So I guess I’m waking up.  Or growing up.  I guess we all are.  No one is in charge.  (Or at least, no one with any interest in taking care of us is in charge.)  No one is coming to save us.  And I guess no one ever was.

Waking up is hard.

waking up is hard

Life: For When It’s Not Worth Living

Note:  This is an email I wrote to my teenage daughters.  I realized after I did that they’re not the only ones who need to know this.  In case it might reach someone else who needs to hear it, I’m posting it here.  Thanks for reading.

handreachesup

At the risk of sounding overly-dramatic, I want to start by saying this email is probably the most important email I’ll ever send you.  Maybe the only important email I’ll ever send you, in the grand scheme of things.  Please, please read it.  Read it carefully and thoroughly.  And then read it again, and read it often.

As you know, depression and mental illness in general run in our family.  Given that, and the fact that suicide has been coming up in various ways in your social circle, I want to tell you something.  (Did I mention this is important?  It’s important.)  This something has two parts.

Part One:  Depression is an illness.  In a very real way, and in every way, it is a sickness.  It is a sickness in that it happens in your body.  It is a sickness in that it is not your fault.  It is a sickness in that it is not a judgment against you or a weakness or a moral or intellectual failure.  It is a (potentially terminal) sickness in that it poses a threat to your well-being, your ability to function and your life.  And it is a sickness in that it can be treated.

Part Two:  While depression is absolutely a sickness, what it feels like is, most often, not being sick.  What it usually feels like is being healthy but in a world that is hopeless, painful, insipid, impossible, meaningless, terrifying and sort of evil.  It feels like you’re living a life that doesn’t matter, that’s not worth living and that hurts too much to tolerate.  But what I want to stress here is that to a depressed person, all that feels real.  It feels like they’re seeing everything totally clearly and that it really is that fucked up.

The good thing about Part One is that it means that it doesn’t have to be that way.  Yes, sicknesses can be chronic and fatal.  But depression is one that is highly treatable or at least manageable.  While many cases sadly go untreated or under-treated, there are very few cases that are impossible to treat.  That means depression, or at least all the symptoms of depression including the feelings mentioned in Part Two, can basically go away.

The bad thing about Part Two is that a depressed person often doesn’t give a shit whether there are treatment options, because their depression tells them (in the most convincing way a thing can possibly be told) that what they need is not treatment but out.  That the world is too awful and that their life is too painful for them to stay here, alive.  When depressed people choose suicide, they are not trying to hurt themselves.  They are trying to save themselves.  In the only way they feel they have left, they are taking care of themselves.

So what I want you to do, now and always, is this:

If you ever feel like your life is not worth living or like you’d be better off dead, recognize that as the symptom of an illness that it is, and seek treatment.

(To be clear, my argument here is not that your life is worth living, nor that you wouldn’t be better off dead.  I happen to believe these things, but they’re irrelevant to what I’m telling you here.  And if you’re not depressed, you don’t need me to tell you those things, and if you are depressed, you wouldn’t believe me anyway.)

The trick is in realizing that those feelings (which will feel like totally accurate perceptions to you if you’re depressed) are actually clear signs that, in fact, you are not seeing things clearly.  Because healthy, non-depressed people, barring those in rare circumstances, do not want to die.  It doesn’t make biological sense.  It’s maladaptive.  It’s the symptom of a serious illness.

But the good news is that, with treatment, a depressed person can feel better.  They can even feel like a healthy, non-depressed person.
Now, it’s hard to convince someone who is genuinely suicidal that they should put effort (and sometimes it will be a significant amount of effort) into something that will keep them alive.  If they gave a shit about being alive, we wouldn’t be talking about this in the first place.  That’s the crux here.  And it’s why it’s so, so important that people with depression understand, on a factual basis, what those feelings mean.  You don’t need to believe that your life is worth living or that you wouldn’t be better off dead.  You just have to understand intellectually that those feelings are illusions, neurochemical trickery caused by an illness.

Then, like someone driving forward while looking in the rear-view mirror, you have to act on what you intellectually know is going on, rather than what you’re seeing right before your eyes.  You have to take the steps – and sometimes there will be a lot of steps – toward health, and toward life, in the absence of any desire to do so whatsoever.  You have to tell yourself that it doesn’t have to feel worth it; just keep going.  It doesn’t have to seem possible; just put one foot in front of the other.  Then again.  And again.

The pay off, when you get there, will be a sense of waking up from a horrible dream.  A realization that there is good in the world.  And good in you.  That you want to see what happens tomorrow.  That you do, after all, give a shit.  And it’s the most amazing feeling.

I didn’t mean for this to be this long.  But I need you to hear every word.

I don’t know if there’s a god that answers prayers, but if there is, I ask them to never let you suffer from depression.  One thing I have rock-solid faith in though is the fact that you are strong and smart and brave and caring and good.  So if the heavens can’t protect you from depression, I’m going to ask you to do this one thing.  If you ever feel like you want to die, pour all your strength and smarts and bravery and caring into seeking treatment for depression.  Even if at the expense of everything else.  Give yourself a chance to be well again.  Give yourself a chance to want your life.
doorlight

How to Travel Back in Time

It’s taken me 35 years, but I finally figured out the secret to time travel.  It’s easier than you think.  Almost too easy.  And it’s every bit as awesome as you’d hope it would be.

Here’s how you do it:

First, think of a person who’s very important to you and a big part of your life.  Take a second to think about how much you care about that person, and imagine their face, the sound of their voice, what it feels like to be around them.

Next, travel forward in time.  Use your imagination for this.  (Obviously, what you imagine may not turn out to be totally, or maybe even remotely, accurate, but as you will see in a moment, that doesn’t actually matter.)  So go on, imagine yourself into the future.

bubble

Now, the future is actually extremely predictable when you travel out far enough.  All relationships end the same way, which is to say, they end.  At least in this world, in this life time.  Nothing lasts forever.  The people in your life, even those most important to you, will not last forever.  So it’s really not a fantastical idea to go ahead and, fast forwarding into the future, imagine the day that person ceases to be a part of your life.  Imagine hearing the news that they have died.  If you want, you can imagine details surrounding this event, but you don’t have to.  The important thing is that you imagine how you will feel when you learn you have lost them.

The experience of grief when a loved one dies is as varied from person to person as faces in a crowd.  But there is a quality of mourning a loss that is very widely reported by those experiencing grief.  It is a wish that you could go back in time.  Not to the best times of your life, but to a time – to any time – when you were with that person.  Often, it’s the simplest and most mundane of times with the loved one that people report missing.

If I could just smell his hair again. 

If I could just hear her breathing next to me. 

If I could just see his socks on the bathroom floor. 

What people experience in grief is very often a realization that they would give just about anything to see that person again.  Even just one more time.

hand over face

It is not guaranteed that you will feel that way about the person you’re thinking about right now in this exercise.  For that matter, it’s not a guarantee that the person you’re thinking about now will even die before you.  Maybe it’s they who will lose you.  But for the sake of this exercise in time travel, go ahead and assume that you are absolutely going to one day in the future feel like you’d give anything to go back and see that person just one more time.

Now travel back in time.  To now.  Bring with you what you learned when you were in the future.  You’re wiser now.  Bring back that longing for one more moment with the person you’re thinking about.  You can still feel it, right?  Remember what it was like to realize you would never see them again?  Now, consider the fact that you get to see them again.

So smell his hair.  Listen to her breathing next to you.  Look at his socks on the bathroom floor.  And rejoice.

hold hands

The last step in the process of traveling back in time is to repeat the above steps with everyone else you know.  Start with the people you love most right now.  Then move on to others who you may not yet know you love.  And those who you maybe have yet to appreciate at all.

When you’ve gone through all the people, repeat the steps with other things in your life.  Animals, plants, places.  Buildings, foods, songs, hobbies.  Just travel forward in time to whenever you first realize that you will never again experience those things.  Let that hit you, then bring it back in time.  To now.  And feel it.

dandelion

And repeat the steps with yourself.  The you that you are now, with your body and your face, with your abilities and your senses, your mind and your memories.  Travel into the future far enough, and you will find the end to all of those.  Then come back in time, to now, and go look in the mirror.  And put your hand on your heart.  And take a deep breath.

And that’s it.  You’ve successfully traveled back in time.

Those among us who tend toward skepticism will say, “Now wait just a minute.  How do I know any of the future scenarios I imagined will come true?  And therefore, how can I consider any of the stuff I brought back in time to the present reliable?”

See, here’s the thing.  Not all of the scenarios you imagined will come true.  You do not yet know which of the people or things or experiences in your life you will lose in time to miss them.  Even people who you love the most right now could, in some unforeseen turns of events, turn out to be so inconsequential to future you that when you finally lose them, you don’t even care.  And, as mentioned before, maybe they’ll lose you first.

But if you did the exercise correctly, you traveled forward in time to the end of everyone and everything that might matter to you.  (Not necessarily accurately, but you’ll notice I didn’t promise a way to travel forward in time.)  So while you do not yet know which of those people or things will turn out to one day depart from your life, shattering your heart into a million pieces, you have included the ones that will.  And there is no doubt that some will.

The only case in which you will not suffer loss in your future is the case in which you literally have no future.  If you’d like, you may pause for a moment to reflect on that case.  I’m guessing that will feel like a loss.  I’m sorry.

And since some of the future scenarios you imagined will come true, your memories of them are perfectly valid.  Which means that you effectively traveled back in time.

joyful

I guess the only way to be sure though is to treat each and every future loss as definite, so you can be certain you’ve accounted for the ones that are.  I think you’ll find there’s no harm in that anyway.  Because hey, you got what you will one day remember, saying “I would give anything for one more moment of that.”

You now have what you will one day want more than anything.  And also, the ability to travel back in time.