In my early 20s, I went through a major Henry James phase. One of my favorite stories—the one that has stuck with me all this time—is, “The Beast in the Jungle.” Maybe you know it. The main character spends his whole life certain that an unnamed evil is waiting out there for him. Something horrible is going to happen; he can feel it. He waits and worries and abstains from engaging with life, trying desperately to stay safe, to avoid this fate. At the very end of his life, he realizes that the catastrophe he feared is, literally, nothing. Nothing has ever happened to him. He has never lived; he refused the love of a good woman and squandered his one, precious life.
Most days, I wake up feeling uneasy, like something is wrong and it’s probably my fault. One recent morning I caught myself and thought of how many days I open my eyes and feel this mild dread. It’s like all the fears and failures, doubts and embarrassment, so carefully packaged and hidden during the previous day, grow restless in the night and surface with the new day. Where else are they to go? They don’t seem willing to stay stuffed down by my oppressively optimistic self. The list-maker. The implementer who stays busy to stave off anxiety. The do-er desperate to avoid an end-of-life realization like Henry James’ unfortunate character.
All the spiritual teachers suggest upon opening your eyes in the morning, practice feeling grateful for the priceless gift of being awake for one more day. (I’m hearing the Blind Boys of Alabama singing “This May Be the Last Time” as I write this.) You might even go on and be thankful for the love of family and friends, for good work, comfort, closets full of warm clothes, pantries full of food.
It’s not that I am ungrateful, although I’ll admit to taking my blessings for granted much of the time. This uneasiness feels like something very old, dating back to childhood, possibly my mother’s or even her mother’s childhood. The nonspecific dread of feeling unsafe, that something terrible is coming. And no matter what you do, you will be blamed. You are small, weak, powerless, and wrong.
There is no logical reason for this feeling. It seems too simple to write it off as a holdover from the usual childhood traumas. I wonder if I’m tuning in to energies far beyond my own small life. The world is not a peaceful place. Though I am physically protected from the great suffering and upheavals, perhaps this is a vibratory ripple, something as tiny as a bird landing on a telephone wire.
The threshold between dreaming and waking is a thin membrane. It’s a moment when the veil is lifted, exposing the true state of things. Sleep, after all, is a kind of death. One slogs or staggers or flies through an Underworld of ghosts, nonsensical happenings and weird creatures. On waking, perhaps we are all clairvoyant for an instant; we are all time-walkers. Souls with no bodies, wandering through night worlds, surprised by the dawn. We scurry to find shelter in our to-do lists, to hide away and hope to live through one more day.
Though it happens rarely, I do know what it’s like to wake up and feel a rush of excitement and enthusiasm for the day. To feel both at peace and eager for what’s next. It tends to happen when I am deeply and happily engaged in a big creative project. Preferably one that isn’t giving me fits, stressing me over deadlines or the slog of revisions. It’s more often that golden stage of pure, joy-filled creation. Of discovery and magic and wonder. What psychologists call the “flow state,” when everything feels natural, easy and inevitable.
This would suggest that creativity is a sort of antidote to the anxious unease that runs as an undercurrent through my days and greets me in the morning. Not as a way to tune out or numb out. Quite the opposite: it’s a way to connect, tune in, channel, step into the river. Part defiance, part acceptance, part service, immersion in creative work is an act of gratitude for the gift of life. Even while knowing that none of us will survive it.
If creative work is not always available, there are other ways to avoid the fate of Henry James’ protagonist. William Stafford ends his poem, “Reminders,” with the astonishing line: “In this life I will more than live.” It’s a short poem, packed with tiny ordinary details of noticing. This is one of the great effects of poetry like his: to startle me into awareness of and delight in the world around me. Again, it’s not a panacea. It’s not going to stop the war in Syria or reverse the lead poisoning of the children in Flint, Michigan. Somehow, we were made to hold all of this in our one body—the suffering and the delight, the sorrow and the joy. Tomorrow when I wake up, maybe I’ll remember that.