Hi! How have you been? Have you personally stress-bought postage stamps in an effort to singlehandedly wrench our democracy from the the slathering maw of a totalitarian kakistocracy this week yet ? That’s great. Has August required you to go to work/school/the grocery store/out of town, and are you currently on one or the other end of a beef with a loved one or coworker about the personal politics attending those decisions? If you are reading this from The Future, hi! —I sincerely hope you’re well and that you’re not rolling your eyes at how small potatoes all of this sounds.
How are you? We ask each other that a lot, even though how we’re doing right now is patently shitty, because to get through these days takes EFFORT. You’re no longer able to just throw a hologram of your personality up in front of your face and let your mind go about its business plotting revenge or Braves baseball or Thursday night’s dinner or retraumatizing yourself reliving past public mortifications. What kind of circus you attended while your personality ran on autopilot used to be your own business, and I’m not saying it was easy, but suddenly we’re all having to drive these electric meatcycles manually. So, how actually ARE you doing with that?
About a year ago I started looking at myself and the people close to me and realizing we’re all kind of like nuclear power plants. It started with my dad; we were talking about politics or something — I don’t remember what — and everything was going pretty well until right in the middle of a sentence, Dad just went off the rails. The barometric pressure of the conversation suddenly changed: the temperature dropped, the air got thin, his sentences started to not make sense in the context of the conversation.
And here’s something funny: I realized in the moment that I had subconsciously been waiting for him to jump into this new topical lane — I could feel it charging up like a battery. It was so familiar I could have given you bullet points on what Dad would say as this new, off-topic soliloquy unfolded — I could even predict some exact phrasing he would use (for instance, he was almost certainly going to tell me I should “get over it”). It was as if, in the middle of a sentence, he pushed “PLAY” on a tape recorder in his head. Like, you know in the movies where a message loops over the loudspeaker in the scene where the nuclear reactor in the power plant is melting down? Everybody scrambles to get out of the building, jostling down the halls in a wash of red light and the bellow of a siren and this message blaring through all the chaos: what you feared is true. Dad’s radioactive core had reached its melting point — something had produced a feeling that emerged from his gut, zipped up to his brain and triggered a memory which spun off into a story much older than I was. It all happened so fast, but instead of talking to me, he began talking to himself or his dad or his high school football coach or his ex-wife — who knows?
Point being, I realized my dad has a tape of the greatest hits of his terrors and insecurities, and he’s not alone in this — I’ve got one too, and so do you. I don’t know what your tape tells you — maybe it’s that you’re not measuring up or you’re going to be abandoned or you’ve irrevocably ruined something or other (these are popular) — but if you think about everyone you’re closest to, you’ll realize you know the sound of their nuclear core melting down. You’ll also probably notice that as soon as their tape starts to play, the conversation is functionally over: mutual participation in civil discourse or relational problem-solving is effectively done for the time being. Sorry about it, let’s just try again next time.
What I’m noticing is everybody’s reaching their melting point pretty often these days, and a world full of unstable plutonium rods walking around sucks. It’s a hard place to live.
So, how do we raise our melting points so we can meet and accept and move through the realities of Now? I believe it’s possible with practice. We can notice a catastrophic feeling — an echo of danger or shame — and breathe through it, muster the merest whiff of curiosity about it, consider why that was what tripped the alarm.
But look, I’m no expert. I haven’t accomplished anything beyond coming up with a metaphor about people being like nuclear power plants. And insight is easy — changing your behavior is hard. That said, I’ve been experimenting with the following strategy:
Step 1: I listen for my tape to start up.
Step 2: When it inevitably does, signaling that I’ve reached my core’s melting point, I try to cool it down:
Step 2a: I breathe like I’m standing in a caftan on a breezy alpine meadow for 90 seconds (my therapist told me it takes a minute and a half for a feeling to complete its cycle in the body, and now here I am passing the savings on to you).
Step 2b: If I can keep that message from reaching my brain (who will inevitably gallop off with it to Horrorstoryland like the glorious wild mustang that she is) for 90 seconds, I might have a chance of not having my day ruined in a sea of blood red light and little nuclear power plant workers pushing each other out of the way to get to the exit.
Step 3: If I can do that tonight, maybe I can also try it again in the morning. And before you know it, maybe I’ll have raised the melting point of my radioactive core to the point of being able to read the news or navigate complex interpersonal exchanges or play boardgames with my family with a clearer head and more compassion.
And maybe then I’ll start having a blast during the pandemic. I’ll keep you posted.