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A Fascination with Storms - Understanding an Obsession with Shared Stress





I’m fascinated with storms. Since elementary school, snow, heavy rain, hail and thunder have made me sit up and pay attention.

Stories of snow days eventually expanded to awareness of earthquakes and hurricanes, and an interest in survival under the most unlikely circumstances, like plane crashes or lightning strikes.

Meanwhile, everyday life was stressful. This was not because I faced dire challenges, but because the ordinary challenges of life were unusually difficult for me.

By midlife, I had begun to see my fascination with storms as a way to connect mentally and emotionally with other people, in ways that otherwise were too mixed with negative emotions.

Because of my particular mix of strengths and weaknesses, I experienced imposter syndrome at many points in my life – both doubting my ability to do a good job, and feeling anger at others when they wrongly attributed errors to me or failed to notice my strengths.

At least some of my interpersonal conflicts were in fact caused by my own errors or defensiveness. But part of the conflict was that while persons who criticized me felt empowered to say demeaning or condescending things to me, I constantly felt like I was disempowered from defending myself.

Learning and acting are parts of careers, and during the course of my decades of adulthood, I have learned the repetitive processes that many people learn over time, to achieve tasks.

What I have not learned is sarcasm, or the method that I think many people use to release anger and frustration by complaining about other people to their friends.

Dismayed about criticisms aimed towards me, I have never wanted to direct anything similar towards others, and in fact view it as hypocrisy. So a primary interest of my life has been seeking ways to find emotional equilibrium, common ground, clear communication, and mutual compromise.

I have also learned to improve processes from the beginning, before they can become a source of frustration, and to head off any failures to perform before they materialize, by asking necessary questions.

One method of avoiding anger at other people is to view any stressful situation as one would view a storm. The stress is inevitable. Wishing the stress would just go away is not an option. With storms, the key to safety is to plan ahead, take cover at appropriate times, and accept loss.

Imagine you are experiencing an earthquake. Perhaps you are sheltering under a heavy table. Maybe you are in an old building, and you’re heeding the old advice (not usually applicable nowadays) that you should shelter in a door frame.

The earthquake, when it passes, may leave you filled with adrenaline and prepared to endure deprivation you normally could not cope with.

The same deprivation and willingness to endure uncomfortable circumstance could happen in the event of job loss, relationship loss, or illness.

But just as people all get older, and tensions in relationships and jobs seem inevitable, storms and earthquakes are inevitable too. They vary in severity. You can see them coming but not prevent them. Some of them, like serious illnesses, even result in permanent loss of ability and ultimately death.

On August 23, 2011, I was working in a bus garage during the 5.8 Mineral, Virginia earthquake. I saw a stool tip over in the garage. A few pieces of the ceiling fell down. I saw a wrench bounce on top of a large metal table and then fall to the floor.

It was only a minor earthquake. The buses in the garage did not tumble off their lifts. After a short drama of evacuation and evaluation of very minor structural damage, the bus garage was back in service and life went on as normal.

There are three major things I have learned, both from life and from natural disasters: how to hold on, how to rebuild, and how to learn.

The first technique is learning how to hold on. That afternoon in the bus garage, I was literally holding on to a printer in the office as the ground shook, and as I saw objects shake outside the office window.

I did not know what had caused the shaking, since earthquakes are unusual in Virginia, and despite having lived my entire life in the state I had never before experienced one. Many in the garage thought a bomb must have gone off, a September 11 style attack, since we were in Fairfax, Virginia, not that many miles from either the Nation’s Capital in D.C. or the Pentagon in Arlington.

As I stood there, holding on to the printer, I mentally accepted that the end of the world could have come, and that an explosion or something dramatically worse could follow within the next few moments. I stood there watching the shaking, accepting that I could die.

In fact all people die eventually, of course, a fact most of us become aware of very early in life.

The illnesses or accidents that happen may modify when and how loss happens, but that loss in fact will sometime happen is inevitable.

The key to remaining calm as I stood there, holding the printer, was knowing that in that moment, there was nothing else I could do. There was no one to run and save, including myself, since running through the garage was no less dangerous than remaining in the office.

If I had been a swimmer caught up in the waters of a tsunami, or a survivor freefalling from an airplane, I would have depended on some combination of luck, skill, health, and will to live to keep me going. But as it is, I just needed to accept that I live in a world where there will sometimes be earthquakes, either literal or metaphorical ones, and that just showing up to the office and holding on while they pass is an acceptable choice.

A short time ago, I unexpectedly lost a job that was a stretch for me: a dream job for which I was not entirely prepared.

The loss was both expected and unexpected. Sometimes people will buy beachfront property at a discount, knowing they can’t insure it, knowing that the chance of a storm is great. They buy it anyway, figuring there won’t be another chance to buy beachfront property at such a price. And if they can’t get it at such a price, they can’t get it at all. And life is short.

Rebuilding after a loss like that is a little bit like staring at a healed wound, wondering if the injury that happened while trying a new activity really happened. Did you really want to try that new activity you had never done before? Is it true your arm will never be the same? Yet you will never again be that same person who was always too afraid to try things.

Even after a loss that was the result of a risk, you gain for yourself the knowledge that as an individual, you are capable of personal action. The unproductive behaviors of depression, like binge eating or social withdrawal, can exacerbate the injuries you feel when your actions have negative consequences. As painful as a failed personal action may feel, you do in fact need to make choices and positive actions in the world again, because that’s what life consists of.

In other words, you need to be always willing to rebuild, even if you know that you may be destined to suffer another storm before your new home is even livable. Even if you suffered from your first real career move, you need to be willing to charge forward into your second one.

Maybe, like me, you’ve spent a good portion of your life trying so hard to stay safe that you’ve left yourself unsteady.

Like a person with an inflamed joint, you may feel you can’t win: if you walk on it too much, you’ll only feel more pain. But if you don’t exercise it at all, the muscle will become weaker over time, leaving you more vulnerable to future injuries and immobility.

Therefore, when you take opportunities you want to learn, and even overcome fear and obstacles to learn, but you don’t want to become reckless.

Taking a new job and learning new skills will always involve some level of risk. Remember you only live once and that some risks are worth taking. The ones that feel right to you may have qualities of not being an all-or-nothing gambit, building on strengths you already have, and utilizing genuine passions that give you motivation beyond monetary rewards.

Criticism of people who pursue new hobbies might include statements that the person never finishes something once they start – perhaps so afraid of failure that they bow out after the work turns out not to be easy or have quick rewards.

A good sign that your learning and rebuilding journey is on the right path is if you are going back to something you already learned about before, and building your way higher. Your labor might have greater rewards when you continue to build on previous skills.

Not only that, but when you rebuild from the wreckage of an abandoned dream, you already know the hurdles you faced in the past that left you feeling too tired to continue. This time, you have more energy to push past those road blocks because you don’t have to spend as much energy learning the basics, which you already know.

If you’re at a crossroads in your career or in your stage of life, take heart. You’re still alive, and still on your life’s journey – whose ultimate conclusion you have known since your childhood.

There is no way you can really mess up as long as you have a will to see where you are and where you are going. If you’re in a storm, seek shelter or fight through water as the situation presents itself. Plan ahead if you can, but remember that in some situations you might not be able to.

Good luck to you – in fact, good luck to us both. Perhaps we’ll meet sometime on the journey.

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