About a month ago I awoke to a thin coat of ash on everything outside. The air was acrid smelling and it was tinged in a strange muted orange haze. It was difficult to breathe. I found out very quickly that there was a raging forest fire just 30 miles outside of Portland, the Eagle Creek Fire. (As of the writing of this post it is still burning and has so far consumed over 48,000 acres of the Columbia river gorge in both Oregon and Washington.) This haze and ash which lasted just four days before the winds shifted, brought something normally in the abstract right down to earth for me and many others living in Portland. The Eagle Creek fire is just one of hundreds of fires across the west this year that have burned over 400,000 acres in Oregon alone. It is also not the only natural disaster we’re hearing about or have directly encountered. Four significant hurricanes have devastated the Carribean and Gulf of Mexico, massive earthquakes occurred in Mexico, monsoon flooding in Bangladesh, mudslides in Columbia, and of course the most recent Santa Rosa, California wildfires. On top of all of these natural disasters there is the ever looming threat of war with North Korea. It all seems like too much. How is it possible to bare this much anxiety?
I have read that many people are seeking professional help from psychiatrists, psychologists and counselors right now and I whole heartedly support that as a strategy to cope with anxiety and depression in these uncertain times. Often we shift the burden of our anxieties to people close to us or only exacerbate its impact by persistently talking about it with friends and loved ones. Speaking with a trained professional is a valuable way to help you cope with trauma and relieve others around you from feeling overwhelmed. In addition there are strategies you can use, borrowed from artistic practice that can help as well.
In 2010 the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei poured 100 million seeds into the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern museum in London. Each of these sunflower seeds covering the entire floor of the vast exhibition hall had been hand painted by someone in China. They weren’t actually real seeds but replicas—mini art works created by Chinese artisans. The work contains two lessons for us in these uncertain times. The first is that the impossible is always possible. It is healthier to acknowledge this before being overwhelmed so that you can transfer your emotional responses to unbelievable experiences whether they be works of art or natural disasters, into awe, wonder, and empathy. When we get rapidly overwhelmed because our expectations of normalcy are flooded many of us resort to the flight or fight response. We either hunker down in fear and depression, or we have a great desire to flee, or get angry, or lash out. You can’t punch a hurricane so that emotion has to go somewhere and it often ends up harming people around us. Leave a kernel of possibility in your life and you will find that when things get difficult or overwhelming because they were unexpected or even seemingly impossible, and you’ll have the tool kit to sit with the experience and observe it in a rational, calm manner rather than become reactive.
The second lesson from Weiwei’s installation is the power of humanity. Ai’s Sunflower piece really speaks to the power of will over challenges. Employing thousands of Chinese workers to hand paint millions of tiny fake sunflower seeds was unimaginable until Weiwei imagined it and then made it happen. There is great strength in community, in humanity itself and our collective ability to solve problems and overcome great trauma. Believing in humanity at times like these is a valuable asset to us that gives us strength to cope with our current challenges. I have no doubt that in the depths of 1941 in England when the German bombs were falling and much of Europe had fallen that the British were overwhelmed with fear, depression, anxiety, and loss. Their faith in humanity and acceptance of the bombings as matter-of-fact helped them to cope and overcome the tragedy they were faced with. The phrase Keep Calm and Carry On has become an internet meme, but it served a great purpose in WW II Great Britain. Once you normalize the impossible when under duress you are free to address challenges with creative resolve.