Coping with difficulty by living in the present (The Way, Part 11)

Another post on the theme of grief as a journey. Living in the present might be the only way to cope with the feelings of pessimism that often overshadow us in our grief. Photos and story of a walk on the Dane Valley Way.


“Ultreia!” is one of the familiar greetings on the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage walk. It means: “Onwards!” This is not an exact direction but an overall sense of putting one foot in front of the other, and thus progressing on our journey.

It doesn’t mean we know what’s ahead on that journey. This is fortunate, I should add. There’s an old saying on the lines of “there’s a merciful veil between us and the future, hiding our sight of what it is to come.”

Many people who are grieving, particularly those who have suffered traumatic losses, find themselves rather afraid of the future. That’s understandable when you consider what’s already happened. Your heart could sink as you dread what else life might throw at you, based on what the past has held.

You’re not convinced that a sunny warm day is going to last. You have a sense that however you are feeling at the moment, even if you’re having an ‘okay day’, it will be different tomorrow. After all, you were happy once, and look what happened?

Sadly there is no magic wand to fix this pessimism or feeling of dread, but it’s tough living life in this way. It is a hard slog. So maybe we need to find ways to cope with it.

This is rather an appropriate post for the beginning of the year – a beginning which we may or may not be welcoming.

The inevitable ups and downs

This is the story of a walk I took in the year after knee and kidney surgeries, when I was still struggling with my fitness.

I had tried a new route, one that looked okay on the map. It was a lovely sunny day, no rain in sight, and I wore walking sandals. But for the first mile or so the trail was boggy and overgrown. My feet slithered around in the sandals as I could not avoid sinking into the soft wet mud. Each step was a slog, extricating one mud-bound foot at a time.

MileOfMud.DaneValleyWay

A mile – more or less – of unavoidable mud

Overgrown.DaneValleyWay

The path was a “bit” overgrown is a slight understatement!

It was quite a relief when the trail finally went onto dry ground – by then I was in a right state.

Shortly thereafter, I came to the terrain I’d been avoiding: Hilly, up and down. I should have looked closer at the map before I set out because I hadn’t noticed those tell-tale close contours. It was a forest path that I thought skirted the river. Yes, it did run by the river, after a manner of speaking, but not directly adjacent. The path went up the forest, the path went down. The path went up, the path went down. Some people would call it “undulating” but it seemed pretty steep to me, as I was not in such good shape. I struggled to climb up; I walked slowly on the downhill parts so as not to put too much pressure on my knees.

I kept thinking hopefully, “this can’t get any worse, surely now the path will level out” — only to be disappointed, as there again was yet another climb. Up. Slowly, catching my breath. Up.

Upward path.DaneValleyWay

Up and down, up and down

I was exhausted and disheartened, but I was in the middle of nowhere so there was no choice but to go forwards.

Was I ever glad to get out of the forest and finally reach a road. John and I had a prearranged meeting spot (he was out fishing) and I had just got there when the car pulled up. Never a more welcome sight, as I clambered in. A refreshing bottle of water was waiting for me. I was just so relieved that the walk was over; although there had been some beautiful views I had hardly taken them in due to the weariness I felt.

Neither pessimism or optimism changes the ground underfoot

I had actually been quite optimistic when I started out on this walk, but look what I ended up facing! Of course, it didn’t really matter whether I was optimistic or pessimistic, the trail is what the trail is.

Just so, there might well be difficult events in our future. Bad things happen over which we have little or no control. Jobs are lost. Phones are dropped accidentally on the pavement. Loved ones die. Friends move away. We are visited by illnesses. Politicians make decisions that affect us adversely. We don’t know what’s ahead. Some things might be tough. Some of what we dread might happen. Any present ‘up’ we have achieved might be followed by a ‘down’ and then another ‘up’ as happened on my walk.

Any of this could potentially happen. Then again, it might not. And if it does, by then we might be better equipped and ready to deal with it.

Now that I’m in better health, I’d like to return to try that Dane Valley Way route again. I have a feeling it wasn’t that bad but it was my low fitness at the time that made it seem so tough. This time I’ll wear proper walking shoes.

Not knowing the unknowable

As grieving people, how do we continue our life journeys when we’re in a state of uncertainty? We might be advised to take a positive attitude, to be less pessimistic, but I’m not sure that’s always the way to cope with our sense of dread. After all, look what’s already happened…

Perhaps it can be more helpful to remind ourselves that the strength to go forward on our grief journey is not found in knowing what’s ahead, or ‘adjusting our attitudes’, but in keeping our focus on the steps we have to take at this moment.

When it is a hard slog, we need to take each step. Step by step.

We might find ourselves in the middle of nowhere, but there is a path, and that path goes onwards.

This is a quote I came across:

The future is not yet yours—perhaps it never will be. And when tomorrow comes it will probably be different from what you had imagined. … Above all, live in the present moment and God will give you all the grace you need. (François de la Mothe-Fénelon)

Living in the moment is perhaps a way of coping with pessimism.

To think: “Yes, I can take this next step. I don’t know about the steps ahead. I don’t know about the days, months and years. But this step is possible. I can survive this moment.”

One foot into the mud; one step out of the mud.

Perhaps the next step is into more mud; perhaps it’s onto dry ground.

Perhaps there’s a ride waiting for us. A friend with a refreshing bottle of water.

We don’t know, do we? And we can’t know. All we have to do is take this one step.

Take a deep breath, let it out slowly. Live in that single breath.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter so much whether we’re optimists or pessimists, providing we can manage to live in the now.

DaneValleyViews

The view on part of the walk. At this point the ‘Valley’ Way was up on the hills – at heights that I had been forced to climb, which I didn’t really appreciate at the time

The strength to go forward on our grief journey is not found in knowing what’s ahead, but in keeping our focus on the step we have to take at this moment.

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