Poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote:
I would like to beg you, dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer."
Rilke pushes us to not only live the questions, but to love them! Most of us think that we must possess the answers in order to have a peaceful, fulfilled existence—especially people with trauma brains like me. We do not like sitting too long in gray space. Control is our friend. For Rilke, uncertainty is something we should linger in, to relish because it opens up new possibilities for healing and in how we see and interact with the world. In everyday life, worrying about the past, the uncertainty of the future, and overthinking all the things we anticipate will happen leaves us ignoring the goodness of living the questions. When our decisions and circumstances rip open a can of whoop ass, we erratically grasp at anyone and anything to bring certainty back to our lives rather than practicing patience and sitting with the questions. We often see this behavior manifest in how we choose our life-long partners, how we lead people and teams, or how we parent our children.
More often than not, that feeling of certainly is not certainty at all. I call this fake and seductive space our Temporary Survival Zen. It’s a false outcome of resiliency in which we accept the "quick fix" as the answer rather than living the questions between (pain) point A and (pain) point B. In so doing, we miss learning that maybe what we are experiencing in life -- good and bad -- is shaping our character, building resolve, and forming who we are supposed to be-- over a period of time. My Temporary Survival Zen was characterized by working 75+ hours a week and being laser focused on advancing my career. I believed that if I could find affirmation and stability through my executive title, salary, and the acceleration of my status and accumulated power, all would be good in my world, right? There would be no need to explore any of the questions if I already have all of the answers, right? I found out how wrong I was when my career train crashed and burned leaving me erratically grasping for anything and anyone. Temporary Survival Zen is... well... temporary.
As the sun peeped across the horizon on Day 3 of my pilgrimage, I set off from the coastal town of Villa de Conde and walked inland to the town of Barcelos. This was a popular rerouting spot for pilgrims wanting to cross over from the coastal camino route to the central camino route in Portugal.
With barely a pilgrim in sight, I remember the day being long, hot, and internally frustrating. It certainly wasn’t the longest day in miles or the hardest in elevation to date—that was still ahead of me. But, after only two days of walking, I developed deep, subdermal blisters on the outside of both big toes and under the balls of both feet. What in the living hell? I’ve recorded hundreds of hiking miles across Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Utah, Florida, Georgia, and in Peru without a single blister. Now, my “tender feet” were forcing me to stop every two miles to change out damp socks, to re-wrap hot spots, and to allow my feet to breath and rest. The frequent stops extended the day’s walk beyond the six hour mark. I was tired, hungry, grumpy, and very discouraged.
Some PTSD brains are hardwired to function linearly. For example, my brain is programmed to get me from point A to point B perfectly efficient, without disruption or unexpected change. When unexpected change or hiccups occur, my hypervigilant brain sets out to control the situation and work feverishly to get me to point B at all costs, completely disregarding the questions [and the people] in the middle. Remember, I have a hard time with gray space and control makes my brain content. I was on edge for four of the six plus hours. I didn’t engage anyone. I walked in anger. I questioned my every decision. In spite of countless hours of preparation for this pilgrimage I had convinced myself I was not capable of finishing the full pilgrimage.
Sheesh, I was in a bad head space. A mindset I hadn't experienced in a long time. I knew this was my trauma brain trying to take over. It was a familiar state. I recognized it.
Just before closing my eyes for the evening, I begrudgingly grabbed The Alchemist from out of my backpack and started journaling about my dreadful day. I began reading from where I had left off the previous night.
There they were. 167 words located on pages 87 and 106 that would end up changing my entire pilgrimage.
“Because I don’t live in either my past or my future. I’m interested only in the present. If you can concentrate always on the present, you’ll be a happy man. You’ll see that there is life in the desert, that there are stars in the heavens, and that tribesmen fight because they are part of the human race. Life will be a party for you, a grand festival, because life is the moment we’re living right now.“
“The future belongs to God, and it is only he who reveals it, under extraordinary circumstances. How do I guess at the future? Based on the omens of the present. The secret is here in the present. If you pay attention to the present, you can improve upon it. And, if you improve on the present, what comes later will also be better. Forget about the future, and live each day according to the teachings, confident that God loves his children. Each day, in itself, brings with it an eternity.”
My assigned angel of 55 years suddenly appeared in my albergue bunk bed. “What in the actual bloody hell?”, I said. My angel, who oddly resembled Cher from Moonstruck, slapped me right across my Nicolas Cage face and said, “Snap out of it!” I rambled out loud, in a whispering voice as to not disturb the other pilgrims in the albergue, “Why am I experiencing such adversity on the front end of this pilgrimage? Are these blisters the workings of the Language of the World from the book? Is it a coincidence that pages 87 and 106 just so happen to be my readings after this day from hell? Are the omens offering me guidance on how I should be fully present and start recognizing what is all around me? Cher looked directly in my eyes and said, “The weight of your backpack is a metaphor; an allegory of the burden’s you’ve been carrying on your back for years. You see, it is commonly known we measure our universe with our bodies, and we think through our feet. Your blisters are telling you to slow down, be patient, and live the questions, Dawn Michelle.”
The next morning, I woke up spry and approached Day 4 with a total different mindset and a renewed sense of self awareness. I reflected on the familiar feelings from the previous day and night. Is this how I showed up at work when members of my team couldn’t keep up with my pacesetting style of leadership? Is this the reason I struggle to let go and trust others?
On that morning, I began to understand that everything around me – memories of the past, the hard sun, the 14-15 mile days, the heavy backpack, my blistering feet, the unpredictable days, and the people that I encountered-- were as perfect as they were meant to be.
From that point on, I started living the questions.