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Calm • Perspective

If You Stopped Running, What Would You Need to Feel?

It can sound like an odd question, perhaps a rather irritating one too. We might want to disregard it on the basis that we’ve heard it – or something like it – many times before or simply that it makes no particular sense to us. But we might bring ourselves to circle it nevertheless:

If you stopped running, what would you need to feel?

Consider the running bit first. We get the rough idea. We know about frenzy in society at large; we know about a twenty-four hour world, and feverish activity without purpose or necessity. But we can miss out on how much this concept may apply to us. We miss it because there are – always – so many things that look as if we truly have no option but to get agitated about. After all, we have to make a living, we have to manage a relationship, we need to get the boiler fixed, there’s no alternative but to go to the gym and to buy an old friend a birthday gift before crossing town to attend a party for a colleague ahead of the conference we need to fly to in another country just before our city break with our mother and our aunt. But what the question tries to niggle us into seeing is that we are – for all the genuine exigencies, at least at points – exaggerating. There are moments when we could stop, when we would have time for stillness, but when we carefully sidestep the opportunity because we are running to avoid an encounter with untenable degrees of pain and anxiety, because we running from ourselves. 

Harold Gilman, Saigon, c. 1920s

The time when we are most likely to have to feel what we have no wish to feel is the middle of the night – usually between three and five in the morning; when the house is finally quiet, when it’s just us and the universe, when the chatter has died down and the excuses and distractions have run out. This is the moment for fear and sadness, for shame and despair – for all that we use the noise of the day to avoid. 

How might we stop running less frantically, without attendant eeriness or insomnia, anxiety or depression? We should imagine clearing a space in the diary and sitting – or lying – very still for a time in order to partake of a very simple sounding exercise; that of completing (without giving the matter too much thought, simply letting the unconscious have its say for once) the sentence:

I am…

A host of slightly unusual, surprising, even shocking things might come to mind if we let them. I am…awful for example, an eruption of a primal sense of disgust at ourselves that we can’t pin down to any particular event or circumstance, a self-abhorrence that seems always to have been there just below the surface, like an edict from on high, a label that was put on us in our earliest days and that subsists only a few millimetres below consciousness even as we try to impress strangers and win ourselves esteem and status. It may feel as if the most basic truth about ourselves is damning; as if we were carrying around some inchoate mark of shame, the consequence of unnamed and unknowable sin. 

Or our thoughts might go in another direction: I am… terrified. We might register a background terror of disgrace, failure, ruination, catastrophe. Something we can’t quite identify threatens to annihilate us. Our core seems made up of dread and unease.

Or, to continue the exercise, we might find ourselves saying: I am… very very sad; as though there has long lain, just out of ordinary sight, a lake of damned up tears that we hadn’t dared to approach from fear that once this began to flow, it might never stop, as though we have – all along – been too sad actually to feel sad. 

Or: I am… so fragile, because despite the trappings of adulthood, we might somewhere in us still be defenceless infants, in need of infinite reassurance and tenderness, jostled and disturbed by the incessant demands of the world; a small heedless person that has had to grow up far, far too soon, doing their best to pretend to be brave while yearning for an indulgence they were perhaps once denied. 

Running from our feelings takes a lot of energy; it is exhausting  not to realise how sad, scared, lonely or fragile we are. We have to choreograph endless relationship dramas; we have to worry needlessly about work and reputation. We have to stuff our days with projects and get into arguments and find fault with those close by. We have to move very fast indeed when we have rabid racing dogs behind us. We should reduce the frenzy by more willingly ceding space to what has been sorrowful; by creating a more welcoming home to our distress; by allowing ourselves to mourn.

We probably really have been running beyond what our relationships, friends and finances would actually require. The time may have come to hold the world at bay, and to meet what will in the end harm us far, far less than flight.

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