Last night I checked in with a friend out in L.A. She’s been struggling with this moment and all that it brings; last weekend she had to lay off a bunch of people and she said it really messed with her.
“I’ve been having anxiety attacks,” she texted when I asked how she was doing. Anxiety, from the Latin angere, meaning to choke—which makes me think of how we use that term today. To choke: to try something hard and then at the last minute, to not deliver. Choking is such a visceral experience—both the physical act of choking, as well as the emotional experience of not being up to the task.
I texted her back and said, “Imagine how this is awakening the trauma in all of us, all of the anxiety and fear this moment is unleashing around the globe….Huge waves of it rising up from the earth.”
Might not have been the most comforting thing to say to someone struggling with anxiety. No reply.
“It’s everywhere.” She wrote back a few minutes later. “Things will never be the same again.”
For the past day or so, I’ve been thinking of humanity like an ancient tree, and how when an ancient tree falls or when we, in our foolishness, cut down an ancient tree, the rings are exposed. By examining the rings, scientists can identify when momentous or cataclysmic events took place; the tree records that information inside its trunk. This ring here is when the Ice Age hit 1,500 hundreds years ago. Here is when there was a drought on the continent, and so on. When scientists—or shamans, or kids in school somewhere generations from now—look back at us, they will see this moment, the one we all are experiencing right now, wherever you are, in the rings of humanity. See that? This is when the world changed—an event that impacted everyone on the planet forever. 2020.
I started thinking about my own fear. I have spent way too much of my life in fear, more than I like to admit. I guess I’m ashamed of my fear—it has ruled so much of my life. Choices I’ve made, conditions I’ve lived with, behaviors I’ve adapted.
I’m an actor and I have suffered incredible stage fright. When performing the role of Bottom in SITI Company‘s touring production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I was terrified. I faced every performance with the dreaded belief that something horrible was going to happen: I’d go up on my lines, forget my blocking. Whatever. I was terrified that I would choke.
I spent every show day in preparation. I’d go for walks, do affirmations, meditate. On one of the legs of the tour we were at Alabama Shakespeare Festival in Montgomery, Ala., for about six weeks. We had been put up at a motel not far from the theatre, which was nice, but the real perk was that there was a Waffle House within walking distance. Which is beside the point.
Anyway, every show day, after my walk and my meditations as show time approached, I would take a hot bath. Being a not very glamorous place, the tub was kind of small—one of those prefabricated, molded plastic shower/tub combos—so I’d cram my large body into the water and submerge myself as best I could and I would pray to whatever or whoever I was praying to at the time. It was not ideal. If I wanted to have my head underwater, I’d have to put my legs out above the spigot; when my feet got cold, I’d have to sit up in the tub, with my entire torso out of the water.
I think that’s the most afraid I’ve ever been…or it’s what I recall as the most afraid. And none of the things I was so terrified of happening ever happened. But that experience, that terror, changed me forever. It made me put my acting career aside. But it also birthed something new and wonderful—I met Bobby Lucy when he came to see his niece perform in that show, and then he and I started the Secret City a year later.
It’s funny, with some distance, sitting here now in my office on a beautiful pre-spring morning with the sun shining, writing these words to deliver to you, I see how inconsequential my fears have been, how small, especially compared to other people’s fears.
But our fears aren’t comparable—when you’re feeling afraid, it doesn’t help to think, Well, I’m not as afraid as that guy, he’s really afraid, or, That one, now she really has something to be scared of…
Bessel Van Der Kolk, the author of The Body Keeps the Score, wrote, “Traumatized people feel unsafe inside their bodies: Their bodies are constantly bombarded by visceral warning signs, and, in an attempt to control these processes, they often become expert at ignoring their gut feelings and in numbing awareness…They learn to hide from their selves.” Here’s another quote of his: “Mindfulness not only makes it possible to survey our internal landscape with compassion and curiosity but can also actively steer us in the right direction for self-care.” He also wrote: “Imagination is absolutely critical to the quality of our lives.”
Tell people what’s really going on with you, write about it, sing about it, look at it, accept what you’re feeling, and then maybe even imagine it changing into something else.
Thinking of the tree metaphor again, I would like to hope that, centuries from now, when whoever might be examining this moment in our shared history, they might look at the rings of this moment and say, “See here—this is where they became more compassionate, this is when they stopped being so at war with themselves and each other and the planet, this is when they really began to heal.”
Chris Wells is the founding artistic director and host of the Secret City. He is also an actor and writer whose shows include Liberty! and It Will All Work Out.