Nine months ago, I stood at my father’s burial trying to gather my thoughts before speaking about his life to family and friends. It was particularly difficult because I had arrived at a day I had been trying to prevent, and had feared, for a very long time. My dad had just ended his life. But then, as I was standing there searching for the words, I remembered an article I had read only seven days prior. It was about ways to help yourself feel safe in an insane world. And so I began by sharing what I had learned:
My dad suffered deeply from both of these things: his fear and lack of control over all that lay ahead, and his regret over the things he couldn’t go back and change. He suffered from an unhealthy relationship with time. He lost his footing in the here-and-now. And it made him struggle — as all too many of us do — with the age-old Shakespearean dilemma: “To be, or not to be.”
Though it’s still difficult for me to admit it, this very question had begun to plague my mind just six months before my father died, during my own first battle with anxiety. And so as I stood there with my father about to be lowered into the ground with many knowing eyes upon me, I shared an answer that the article had given: to “be present.” It was an answer that spoke to my heart, and so I told them that — in that moment, and as hard a moment as it was — I was grateful to be with them.
Ever since that day, I have been thinking a lot about being present. I’ve been thinking about being centered, being grounded. In short, I’ve been thinking about … being. And I began wondering why it was so difficult to come up with a concrete meaning for what was perhaps the most basic verb in the English language, without consulting the online search-engine gods. And I worried: Had I forgotten what it was to just be?
Eventually, I turned to Google, and this is what it had to say:
Be /bē/ (verb.): 1. exist.
2. occupy a position in space.
3. stay in the same condition.
Sounds easy enough, right? Well … I’m not so sure, to be honest. After all, the word “be” is actually most commonly used in its fourth meaning: “possess the state, quality, or nature specified.” This is when “be” is followed by other words rather than a period. Other — sometimes aspirational — words used by and for us humans like “smart,” “healthy,” “hardworking,” “good-looking,” “athletic,” etc. The list goes on and on.
After some thinking on the subject, I began to wonder if the pressure of focusing on the many things we know we are supposed to “be” but sometimes fall short of (or believe we fall short of) diminishes our ability to more simply … be. To be in the traditional, unembellished sense: to be comfortable in our own skin; to be one with ourselves and our surroundings; to be at peace. (i.e. definitions 1-3 above).
So, I guess my question really is … have we as a society forgotten how to just be?
Ironically, I think it’s when we constantly try to “be” too many things at once (or perhaps one astronomical thing) that we entirely forget how to exist with any amount of calmness and composure in the present moment. When stressed beyond our normal capacity, our minds scatter and it can feel like we aren’t even inhabiting our own body. We can end up spiraling out of control, and losing our sense of place and time and self. We land somewhere dark and frightening and terrible. And it’s then, when we get to the very bottom of that downward spiral, that we think it might be better simply “not to be.” Because at that point, the thought of being anything at all has become unbearable.
I know it all too well. I’ve been there once for a horrific, acute six-week stint, and I hope never to be brought back again. So, in the spirit of National Suicide Prevention Month, I thought I’d share how I go about keeping anxiety and depression at bay. Yes, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about just being. But more than that, I’ve been putting it into practice. I’ve learned how to quiet my mind and focus on the present moment. I meditate, breathe and practice yoga. And building from that, I write, read, run, and do all the things I’ve always enjoyed.
But here’s what’s different: I’m newly practicing mindfulness and gratitude all the while. I’m ensuring that my brain is present where my body is. I’m making the effort to focus and mentally expand upon on all the simple things that keep me going. It’s through this present-tense state of mind that I find my rhythm, my sense of calm, and my appreciation for all that is.
Now, to be honest, it doesn’t always come easy (even for a mentally healthy, happy, neurotransmitter-balanced brain). In fact, it truly takes constant effort. But if, God forbid, there is to be a future struggle in store for me, I also know better how to take it back to the basics. I know how to close my eyes, to find myself … and to be. To truly just be.
Perhaps that is our answer.
This article originally appeared on the Washington Post.