Last week after my talk at Easter Lutheran Church, someone asked the question, “How do you take care of yourself?”
It’s a good question. We have a strange schedule. A lot of uncertainty in our lives. We spend time with some difficult issues and we encounter stories of pain along the way.
If you do it right, you carry some of that with you.
What I mean, is if you want to really understand the issues…if you really want to hear the people…and if you really want to welcome meaningful conversations…you can’t do it at arm’s length.
To make real connections, you have to engage. You have to invest your whole self. And when you do that, you expose yourself to that same pain.
I spoke to a class of journalism students at Duke University where my friend Barry Yeoman is helping to craft a generation of compassionate, heartfelt storytellers. He prefaced the same question about self-care by saying that researchers have long referred to this sort of pain through proximity as second-hand trauma, but are increasingly just calling it trauma.
We try to avoid that in our lives. We try to build up barriers to protect ourselves. But in the process, we also insulate ourselves from some of the richness of humanity and the deep connections that can occur when we walk alongside others.
When you are in proximity to trauma, it can break your heart. Again and again. But as Mel Duncan of Nonviolent Peaceforce once told me, those cracks allow us to create the space for active compassion.
For me, it’s in nature. We go to the desert. We walk through the forests. We climb the mountains. We stand beside the water.
That’s where this balance we find on the road works so well. An intense season of new interviews followed by time to process and reflect. Busy public programming leading into the prolonged quiet of an editing week in a wilderness setting.
The balance isn’t always right. Sometimes our schedule is too full and I can feel my edges fraying as I try to keep up with it all. Other times there is a lull that makes me antsy to get back into the mix. But as time goes on, I am getting better at seeing the bigger rhythm and I can hear the voice inside telling me to take a minute for myself. I’m learning to pay attention to that voice.
Sometimes you have to squeeze it in. On the drive from Minneapolis to Billings, I stopped overnight in Makoshika State Park, just outside Glendive, Montana. Think South Dakota Badlands with fewer people.
I parked Vinny and walked until the sun went down. I aimlessly followed a dried out river bed. I knelt to examine a single bone that had washed downstream. A vertebrae from a cow, I think. I climbed to the top of a ridge, closed my eyes and felt the wind rush past me. I listened to the beating wings of the birds that flew overhead. It started to rain. Just a little. Enough for the soil to release a rich and earthy fragrance.
In the morning, I woke up for sunrise. After all these years, I still hate getting up for it, but I love being up for it. I stood on a hill and watched the sun break over the horizon. Then I followed a steep trail down to the valley floor and watched it happen again. Bonus sunrise.
Those big open spaces help me feel small. It puts the world back in perspective. The trees still grow. The rivers flow to the sea. The wind blows and the clouds dance and the sun will come up again tomorrow.
I cut my hike short yesterday and made it the rest of the way to Billings. There’s a springtime blizzard rolling in. When we are done with this conference, maybe we’ll get to see Yellowstone in the snow.
What do you do to take care of yourself?