I recently had the chance to talk to a friend of mine who is in the weeds about some things. I know a good bit about being in the weeds, having been mired there for the past couple of years, so I was very happy to have this conversation and understand more about what my buddy is going through. I am thoroughly invested in helping him, both because I care very deeply, and because, coincidentally, it is this same friend who’s been crucial to helping me navigate out of the swamp, myself.
When you’re in the weeds, returning to terra firma can seem impossible. Surrounded by problems and challenges and seemingly insurmountable impediments, emerging from the muck can seem like an exercise in exhausting and frustrating futility. It is exceedingly difficult to craft a recovery plan when you’re consumed with just trying to keep your head above water.
I think there’s a basic commandment when it comes to escaping the weeds, though, and that commandment can be boiled down to two words: Baby Steps.
My mom taught (and continues to teach) me many, many things — important lessons about navigating life — but I think one of the best lessons was her admonition that when things get overwhelming, you must resist the urge to allow the entire world to collapse on your shoulders. You have to see the pieces that fall for what they are — individual problems with individual solutions — and not assume that the entire sky is coming down at once.
Avoiding an entire systemic collapse requires that you search out manageable pieces of your various problems, and formulate a plan of action to deal with each piece. This is critical, because the feeling of helplessness is the killer in all this — it’s the undertow that will drag you below the surface.
The solution to the feeling of helplessness is a plan, a course of action, that moves you from Point A to Point B, carefully and with small steps, until eventually, you find yourself back on solid ground.
As in my own case, one of the things that is keeping my friend lodged in the weeds is anger. Not just any anger, but a toxic mushroom cloud of fallout from one very specific, very personal, incident. This toxic cloud has dogged my friend for a while now, disrupting his life, affecting both health and happiness, and clouding my friend’s vision of what the future could be, in ways that are hard to pinpoint, yet undeniable.
And although my friend didn’t say this in so many words, I think his anger is accompanied by a pervasive sense of failure, because underneath the shock and disbelief of “How in the hell did this happen to me?” is a lingering, pernicious sense of “I deserved it.”
But my friend did not deserve what happened to him.
[Author’s note: If you are somehow still laboring under the misapprehension that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people, I hate to burst your bubble, you sweet, deluded little lamb…but that’s complete bullshit. Bad things happen to very good people on an hourly basis, and sometimes the very people who cause these bad things to happen prosper as a result. But oh, the arc of God’s justice is long! And we need to be strong and do what needs to be done to seek justice here on Earth, and then wash our hands and turn things over to the Lord, the universe, karma…whatever institution of higher authority you subscribe to.]
And while my friend has always relied on God, so far, nothing, including fervent prayer, has helped him move past this anger and sense of failure.
No offense to God, but that’s where I come in.
I believe God gives us certain friends exactly when we need them most, because sometimes it takes an extra set of ears to hear what you can’t bring yourself to say, an extra pair of eyes to see the light that is still burning in the distance, an extra pair of hands to craft the pathway out of the weeds.
And when it comes to anger, that deep kind of anger that gnaws away at you from the inside out, you need to vent to someone you trust, and not be afraid to lay bare your most base and undesirable emotions — those feelings that make you ashamed of their acidity and immaturity and potency and persistence. Because it’s only through expression to someone who cares deeply, whom you trust implicitly, who does not judge you but rather loves you for all the ways you are both weak and strong, that anger loses its grip.
One of the best things I ever did in my life was get SCUBA certified. While I haven’t been diving in years, I hope to get back to it fairly soon, because SCUBA opens up a universe that can’t be accessed any other way, and the world that unfolds underwater is awe-inspiring.
After you learn the basics of how your tank operates and sort your buoyancy out, the next step in the practical part of SCUBA certification is to get in the water and learn how to buddy-breathe, which is a way of sharing one respirator, and one oxygen tank, when a fellow diver is in trouble. The key to buddy-breathing is to stay calm, because the tendency for someone who has run out of air and is hearing the high-pitched squeal of their empty tank is to imagine that their life is on a fast-track to Deadsville.
So buddy-breathing requires that you reassure your fellow diver by keeping a firm grip on him while you pass the respirator back and forth between you, knowing that while sharing your oxygen will deplete your own supply and may put you in a similarly vulnerable position, it’s the only thing to do.
When someone you truly care about is in pain, your instinct is to want to take on their burden for them, but of course, that’s never really possible.
The best you can do is be there, and share you air. Because there is a path out. And if we can help sustain one another, if we can help each other breathe, if we can help one another craft a plan and slay the demons and focus on the light, that path will emerge.
And we can get there.
One baby step at a time.