Sylvia kept her kids alive while her husband raged through their lives. In every choice, she tried to satisfy him, forcing her choices to match his. For instance, he always wanted everyone to order chocolate ice cream. Sylvia’s first brave choice came on a sweltering day when she was too hot for chocolate and said, “I want vanilla.” She suffered for that choice.
After her husband abandoned her with the kids and a ruined house, she knew she needed a job. But she had been continually housebound for a decade. She decided to go to a resource that supported job searches. Taking the bus that day was one of the hardest things she had ever done. She had no confidence she could pull it off. It was a good, brave choice.
Sylvia went back to school. She found a job that suited her. She found a destitute man to do the repairs in her broken-down house, in return for a room to sleep in. She made one brave choice after another.
This spring, decades later, she sent her young grandson to live with his mother, shipped her 50-year-old son off to rehab, and took her home back. Her friends have dubbed her, “Sylvia the Brave.” It should be tattooed on her body somewhere.
Women have strength; don’t you ever doubt it. Some know how strong they are, and some are strong without even knowing it. Women use their strength to survive depression. Some dig into it to keep the children alive and life going. Women with disfigurements pull their strength up their spine and stand up with dignity in the face of a culture that devalues them because of their body or face. Others walk into unwelcoming places to follow their call. Yes, women are strong.
What would happen if we didn’t have to use so much of our strength to get through, and instead directed that energy toward the deep things we long for? What if we could rally our strength for growth and joy and creativity? First we need to learn how to calm our bodies and minds and move out of a survival mode.
I read somewhere that we could learn how to recover from a stressed out body by doing the seven things five-year-olds know to do when they are upset.
- Crying leads to a state of relaxation. The need to cry can build up inside a person. I used to plan times to lament, usually in the bathtub, when the kids were taken care of and when I had at least an hour. I would sob loudly while the water ran, to cover the awful noise. Even if I didn’t have an immediate issue to cry over, I discovered that my internal well of sorrow was always pretty full. It is as if my sorrow is stored in a septic tank that needs regular emptying. Schedule a regular cry.
- Relax your body. I have learned to do this through yoga. My imperfect practice of yoga has connected me with my body, and when I am in a tense state, I can simply go back to being a human body, and release the tension in my emotions and mind. When my body goes somewhere, the brain seems to follow. How do you relax? Do you do it daily, regularly? Practice relaxing. It isn’t normal for an adult to do this, and practice is necessary. Put it on your schedule.
- Lean on someone. Little kids know how to do this, literally and practically. Leaning is not about giving your problem away. It is sharing it with someone so you don’t feel alone. And, can I suggest this silly thought? Maybe what we need to do is to actually lean on someone. I am looking after a neighbor’s cocker spaniel this week and I found myself leaning on him on the couch. It felt good. I calmed down. When is the last time you sat beside a person and leaned on them? Physically leaning is a powerful posture that seems to reset the nervous system. It engages touch, connection, rest, acceptance, and more. If you are a mom, you know your kids just need to lean on you sometimes. Let someone else be the strong one for once.
- Five-year-old children think everyone is interested in their ideas. With our new technologies, we talk less and less. I call my grown kids and they don’t pick up the phone. So, I text them. Immediately they answer. That means they are holding the phone when they don’t pick up my call. Texting is easier. A lot of us don’t talk enough. We learn to hold things inside. We think our ideas or what has happened to us is stupid. But story is life. Story is the house of formation. Our stories are real and alive. Tell a story about your day.
[Okay – a story from my day yesterday. I am looking after a dog, as I’ve mentioned. He is a good, calm, sweet and obedient dog. Yesterday morning, I drove home to pick up a book. He was all antsy to go out, so I let him out and ran to get my book. When I came outside I could not find him anywhere. I had taken his collar off so he wasn’t even identified. I look and called and paced the neighborhood with growing desperation. I would be in big trouble if I lost this dog. Finally, I went to my car thinking I would drive around. The driver’s door was slightly open since I was just rushing into the house to grab something. And there, on the passenger side, proud and happy, was the dog. I had to laugh.]
- You need more sleep. I don’t care how much you get, you need more. We are a sleep deprived nation. We live in the fragile state of barely coping. A woman once asked me to pray with her because she believed she had a demon. She said that she regularly feels deep hatred for her husband, who is a good guy and good provider. She screams, and throws fits. She is also a mom of a toddler and a two year old. I asked her about her habits and found out that she rushes around doing housework when the two kids nap. I told her to go home and when they nap, she is to nap as well. The housework can be undone. I said if she was still feeling insane in a week I would then pray for her about the ‘demon.’ A week later we had to laugh together. She had been transformed. A simple nap a day had pulled her back from the abyss of insanity.
- Healthy five year old kids laugh easily and often. Everything can be funny. Nothing sounds better than a couple kids in the other room roaring with laughter. We have unlearned laughter. Did you see the woman on America’s Got Talent try outs who was a laugh instructor? She made me laugh while I watched her and I am a hard sell. Laughter releases endorphins in your brain. And laughter is contagious. Feed your laughter side, instead of your anger.
- Lastly, daydream. Daydreaming is about letting go of the immediate and seeing possibilities. Your environment can help you—look at the clouds, stop when you see something beautiful, daydream out your kitchen window. Daydreaming was likely part of your calming techniques when you were a kid, but you unlearned that too. You got punished for “wandering off” in school, or when your mother was speaking to you. Try to reconnect to that old skill.
Maybe if we had paths to take that would release us from the grip of stress, then we could use our marvelous strength to create beauty, to follow a dream or to build a new relationship, instead of just holding ourselves together.
Years ago, I found a quote and modified it to be about a woman’s life. I don’t know who it originated with, but here it is:
“She ordered her life so that the strong had something to yearn for and the weak had nothing to run from.”
Could we become a community of this kind of women, where we acknowledge and use our strength in ways that are winsome and inspiring, but not intimidating or shaming? Let’s use our strength for more than survival. Let’s use it to become alive, lovers of life and bringers of peace.
Marilyn Elliott is a member of Soul Care Collective’s Steering Committee.