Condition | Anxiety
Also suitable for: Fear for Children • Fear for the Future • Sleeplessness • Stress • Worrying
For as long as anxiety has existed, human beings have woken up panicking in the night. And anxiety has existed for a long time: at the very least, since we first became aware of ourselves and of the future, however many millennia ago. Yet it was not until the modern age that anxiety seemed to become an epidemic. Ironically, in a time of greater plenty, health, and comfort worldwide than ever before, we are more racked by worry than we have ever been.
No one tells you when you become a parent that you are condemned to worry for the rest of your life. Lying awake at night is usually the worst of all: the blank space of the darkness provides a theater for the most intense and unlikely of worries, putting your sense of powerlessness, of your own vulnerability and of the vulnerabilities of your loved ones, into even sharper perspective. The nighttime is when there is nothing to be done except brood.
These nocturnal concerns are not easy to escape, but I find the calming words of Wendell Berry's "The Peace of Wild Things" help me put things into perspective. Although I live in the middle of a city, far away from the wood drake and the great heron, I can see them in my mind's eye when I whisper his words. Perhaps it is the poetic equivalent of counting sheep, but this poem helps me to calm my mind and my breathing, and drift into unconsciousness.
The Peace of Wild Things
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
Condition | Compulsive Behavior
Also suitable for: Addiction • Obsession • Self-Destructiveness
It's a sad fact that when people are having trouble coping, they often turn to solutions even more destructive than their feelings. Whether they struggle with a drug addiction or simply a propensity to pop over to McDonald's after a hard day, I'm constantly speaking to those who no longer feel in control. I also meet people who have suffered at the hands of others' bad habits, or who have even been subjected to abuse, and who therefore feel that their minds are no longer entirely their own.
It can be hard to imagine changing oneself in the face of pressures like this. When you can't envision a world without a destructive habit, or thoughts that tear you down, that lack of hope can make it even harder to move on. There's nothing more frightening than feeling trapped in a prison of one's own mind and compulsions.
I like the solution offered by these lines by Susan Coolidge because it's straightforward. "OK," they say, "things have been bad. They may be bad again; they may not. In the meantime, let's take heart with the day. Let's begin again and see what happens." It doesn't need to be dramatic, this change in outlook. It's about acceptance, low-level optimism, and incremental change. There's a wisdom to the way so many of our modern-day mantras focus on living in the moment, relishing the now, and smelling the roses; and there's a reason that Alcoholics Anonymous recommends recovery be approached one day at a time. Breaking things down into bite-size chunks doesn't just make them more manageable: it also provides us with many more chances to start again if we fail. This poem urges us to appreciate the fresh beginnings that every day brings with it. But we don't need to stop there. After all, if tomorrow can be the first day of the rest of your life, why not make this very second its first moment?
from New Every Morning
Every day is a fresh beginning;
Listen, my soul, to the glad refrain,
And, spite of old sorrow and older sinning,
And puzzles forecasted and possible pain,
Take heart with the day, and begin again.
Condition | Depression
Also suitable for: Hopelessness • Intractable Misery
The difficulty with depression is that it can make you believe some very illogical things. Once it has its hooks into you, you can end up feeling like you'll never pull yourself free without unraveling completely. There's no escape, you tell yourself. This is just who you are now; this is how you'll feel from now on.
Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Time and again, in my life and the lives of my patients, I have seen these wonderful, transformative moments that wrench you out of misery and show you the glory of the world as if it were a brand-new discovery. You can start the day hopeless and end it knowing that everything is going to be OK. Life can change very, very quickly, often from a source that you never would have expected.
I love the sense in this poem of an unfurling of possibility and excitement. Suddenly happiness is not only plausible, but rushing out of you like a flock of birds in flight that bowl you over and leave you breathless and laughing. There is a sense of such joy, gratitude, and wonder in this poem that I challenge anyone to read it without experiencing at least an echo of that feeling in themselves.
I give this to patients to let them know that they have something to look forward to. One day soon the eyes of their eyes will be opened, and they will be able to see the world for what it is: glorious and infinite and yes. Soon, I tell them, this flood of happiness will be yours. And when it happens, you will suddenly know that it was always inevitable.
"i thank You God"
e. e. cummings
i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun's birthday;this is the birth
day of life and love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)
how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any-lifted from the no
of all nothing-human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?
(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)
Condition | Psychological Scarring
Also suitable for: Emotional Baggage • Feelings of Brokenness • Cynicism • Fear of Vulnerability • Self-Isolation
Most of us feel as though we are damaged in one way or another: that there is something within us that is broken beyond repair. Perhaps we only have a small crack. Perhaps there is a chasm within us. Either way, Izumi Shikibu's poem "Although the wind" wonderfully shows us that we should appreciate ourselves, flaws and all. Although we may find that our vulnerabilities, like a gap in the roof of a ruined house, leave us prone to being tossed about by the wind and the rain of an uncaring world, it might also be that without them we'd be missing out on a transcendent view of the moon. We run a risk when we allow ourselves to be moved, or to love, or to feel. We leave ourselves open to pain-a powerful disincentive. But could we imagine being moved by a work of art or a beautiful view if it didn't resonate with the "broken" part inside of us? There can be no beauty without the ghost of pain held within it.
Better than we do today, the ancients understood that darkness and light, love and pain, have always gone hand in hand. In the original Japanese, these lines are about a thousand years old, and yet they perfectly express the agony and the insight that come with being emotionally open. Of course, we could choose to patch over our cracks, to build up our walls and our roofs until the wind can't shake us. But would it be worth it, if in so doing we also shut out all chance of new feeling, new light? Sometimes, it is good to be shaken.
"Although the wind"
Izumi Shikibu, translated by Jane Hirshfield
with Mariko Aratani
Although the wind
blows terribly here,
the moonlight also leaks
between the roof planks
of this ruined house.
Condition | Existential Crisis
Also suitable for: Mundanity • Boredom
Sometimes you can get so caught up in the jumble of life, the pace and relentlessness of it, that you forget the fundamental amazement of it all. That there should be a world at all, particles and stars and gravity, is an inexplicable wonder. That we are present, too, not only here but conscious, experiencing joy and memory and all the thousands of things that we feel every day, is extraordinary beyond the mind's power to understand.
And it is our minds' limitations, I think, that tip us back into our mundane concerns and irritations. The sheer improbability of the world, its strangeness and its hugeness, is too much for us to consider for long. We are not equipped to understand the enormity of what we are and where we are, let alone why we are. Alongside the wonder and the gratitude, there is a terrible fear. Fear of the unknown is nothing next to fear of the unknowable.
Is it any wonder, then, that we retreat to our little internal courts, where petty problems vie for our attention, and diversions in their belled caps prance for our amusement? No. In the safety of our own little worlds, we can ignore the larger questions and the larger certainties. How much easier it is to fear an exam result than one's own insignificance in the overwhelming grandeur of the cosmos.
What this poem teaches us is that when the curtain falls back, and we are again presented with that terrifying mystery, we must learn to be brave. However uncomfortable it may be, it is only by confronting the primary wonder of the world that we can understand it in any depth. Denise Levertov shows us that if we are to truly inhabit the universe, we must look it in the eye with awe and gratitude. And then we must take what we have learned in that moment of understanding, and use it as perspective. Ultimately, to become humbled and small in the great cosmos is much more important than battling with the traffic warden.
Days pass when I forget the mystery.
Problems insoluble and problems offering
their own ignored solutions
jostle for my attention, they crowd its antechamber
along with a host of diversions, my courtiers, wearing
their colored clothes; cap and bells.
once more the quiet mystery
is present to me, the throng's clamor
recedes: the mystery
that there is anything, anything at all,
let alone cosmos, joy, memory, everything,
rather than void: and that, O Lord,
Creator, Hallowed One, you still,
hour by hour sustain it.
Condition | Old Age
Also suitable for: Despair at the Absurdity of the World • Existential Angst • Hopelessness • Pessimism
When people tell me in the Pharmacy that their lives can't get better-that they've had their shot and now things are irredeemably bad-I often give them this poem. It appeals to the elderly, many of whom see their lives as winding down and getting progressively worse. I also offer it to those who are fragile, or who've suffered a loss from which they believe they will never recover-sometimes, for example, the death of a child.
All of these people have reason to be pessimistic. Their expectations of the world have been dashed, even if those expectations amount to little more than that inescapably naive, subconscious belief we all share: that aging and death will never actually happen to us. Yet there is also room for hope in even the most hopeless of existences. Into each life, some sun must fall.
There is a fairy-tale belief that we all hold on to, deep down, that things will be fair and that the things that happen, to us and to others, will basically make sense. When this expectation is frustrated, we lose our sense that the world has a narrative and a guiding principle. This can be desolating.
A poem like J. R. R. Tolkien's "All That Is Gold Does Not Glitter," with its almost Arthurian final couplet, offers back that faith in justice and goodness. It gives us hope that the right and the good can triumph in what seems a godless and random world: that there will be order again, and a framework through which we can understand our pain. The metaphor of life as a narrative comes up again and again in my Poetry Pharmacy precisely because it's so powerful-and Tolkien's poem emphatically drives it home. We just need to wait for the cycle to complete itself, it tells us. The worst thing we can do is stop reading before the end of the story.
All That Is Gold Does Not Glitter
J. R. R. Tolkien
All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.
Condition | Glumness
Also suitable for: Fear of Being Unloved • Loss of Perspective • Weariness • Feelings of Unattractiveness
When we think about the things life still has in store, it can seem that our best days are behind us. We may be middle-aged and single, and fear we will never again be caught up in the whirlwind of infatuation. We may despair that we are unattractive, and will always remain so. Sometimes, we think we carry an incredibly heavy burden-only to realize that, as my late father would have said, "It's all in the mind."
When I talk to someone who seems to be struggling, but who I know would have the strength to shrug off all their burdens if only they could bring themselves to do so, I tend to show them Adrian Mitchell's brief poem "Celia Celia." There's a wonderful bathos to moving so swiftly from such deep and dreadful thoughts to an intensely simple solution. So you're sad. So you're hopeless. So what? There'll always be a naked Celia to picture, when High Holborn (a street in London) seems too depressing to be walked alone.