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Your Wellbeing: sometimes all you can do is… just go to bed

Revd Chris McDermott, Lead Chaplain for the University of Sussex.

Recently I spent a long weekend in Venice. It was our first visit to the city and it was a wonderful experience: walking narrow lanes, entering squares rich in architecture and history, travelling on the Grande Canal and visiting just a few of the 400 or so islands that make up Venice.

Late Sunday night before our morning flight home the next day I went to collect our passports and other travel documents from safe in the house where we were staying. I could not open it. My wife could not open it. Both of us tried several times to open the door of the safe without success.

I rang the owner of the house who lived only 10 minutes away. He arrived and also failed to open the safe. It was 9.30 pm and our flight would depart Marco Polo airport after 10.00 am the next morning. Our hearts sank when he said that, being Sunday, it would not be possible to get anyone out to open the safe until after working hours on Monday. He would call someone at 8.00 am and perhaps someone would be able to come by 9 or 10 that morning. There was simply nothing anyone could do.

Our host left and vainly we gave the safe a few more tries – just in case. As things stood we would almost certainly miss our flight the next morning and, after checking online for available flights from Venice to Gatwick later in the day, to my chagrin it seemed that at best we would not only have to hang out at the airport for the better part of 24 hours but also pay a whopping fee in order to catch a different flight.

It was at that point that I realised that there really was nothing anyone could do. We could continue to vainly work on the safe, spin anxious scenarios in our heads, descend into some kind of misplaced blame game, and just spend the night stewing sleeplessly in a toxic broth of anxiety. But somehow the realisation that we were helpless to do anything proved liberating. What would be would be. So we simply turned in and had a surprisingly good night’s sleep.

In the end the host managed to find a blacksmith to come to the house by 7.30am, the door was removed from the safe within 10 minutes and we made our flights in good time.

It might have ended differently and been more costly in terms of time, comfort and financial expenses. The only thing that we had control of in the situation was our choice of how to respond. Our habits of reaction and response are shaped over recurrent situations – not identical perhaps but similarly evocative of tendencies to react with certain sets of feelings, emotions and thinking patterns.

Perhaps we all have different optimal mechanisms that we draw on at those times when our plans go utterly amok. We may have nurtured habits of thinking; meditative practices; breathing techniques. Or simply cultivated those personal philosophies of life that somehow over time have allowed us to smile at the stuff life occasionally throws at us – or at least not crumble before it.

I bet some of you reading this expect that I would now go into some sales pitch about the benefits of mindfulness at this point. No. But if that floats your boat, totally go for it. All I would say here is what we all have in common is the capacity to nurture a stillness of mind that can sustain us at the worst and the best of times and in the challenging churning moments we all find ourselves in now and then.

The story about an elderly Cherokee’s counsel to his grandson says it all - or at least a great deal - and has wide application. He talked about those battles that rage inside each one of us, characterised as a fight between two wolves: one representing anger, anxiety, jealousy, regret, arrogance, self-pity etc.; and the other symbolising joy, peace, hope, serenity, kindness, empathy and generosity.

Which wolf wins? The one that we feed.

So feed your wolf of choice, go to bed and sleep well.

By: Sean Armstrong
Last updated: Friday, 8 November 2019