Exhibit A: She unexpectedly got pregnant and then married. They were living long distance, until he moved to Canada when the baby was born. But his business was in the US, so they went down south, only to get “invited to leave the country” a year later. They arrived back in Canada with a toddler and $200. They made things work but just months before they opened their restaurant, baby #2 showed up. Surprise! But still, she felt guilty that she hadn’t moved forward creatively. She hadn’t made anything in years. Was she still an artist?
Exhibit B: She spent four years in a depression, facing down suicide several times, surgery, weight gain, eviction. She moved in with her mom and only just got her own place and a job three months ago. She was a finalist in a comedy competition a few weeks back—her first time doing stand-up—but the thought of doing it again is exhausting and overwhelming. She wants to work on her one-woman-show, but can’t find the energy. Is she self-sabotaging?
Exhibit C: Within one calendar year, they went from a three-week hospital stay to coming out as transgender, ending their marriage, starting a new relationship, parenting two kids through major transition, and navigating their own transition. So…how’s the novel coming along?
It’s easy to see from the outside, or with hindsight, but when we’re deep in weeds of survival, we rarely understand—or give enough credit for—how much of ourselves that takes.
There’s a huge difference between survival mode and creation mode. How do you tell which is which?
But first, a word about ableism
Our cultural obsession with productivity and the expectation that we all adhere to a continuous robotic level of output is deeply messed up.
It causes serious damage.
No person can be—or should be expected to be—consistent or competent or functional all of the time.
We are human. Shit goes down.
All of us experience periods when we don’t have the room for a single goal or aspiration—we are working our asses off just to stay above water. Sometimes, no matter how hard we paddle for breath, we sink and struggle. These times can last weeks; they can last months or years. For folks experiencing structural oppression, they can last generations.
But somehow, we all feel the pressure to constantly lose weight and get raises and travel the world and create masterpieces.
Sometimes, the masterpiece is making a hundred bucks last until Friday. Sometimes, the weight loss we need is to drop the pressure of unreasonable goals.
And I say this as a person obsessed with dreams.
Accepting the fact of survival
The main reason I could make my Paris dream a reality—besides unbelievable amounts of privilege—was surrendering to survival mode…for six years.
Dreams and creative work couldn’t happen until my divorce, depression, and cripplingly low self-worth were addressed. That meant learning about self-care and, more essentially, self-love, doing a lot of work in therapy, and rebuilding my life from the ground up. It meant getting sidelined by a rage that lasted two years and finding a way through that. It meant figuring out a balance between income-earning work and the hours and hours of unpaid labor it takes to stay mentally, physically, and psychically healthy (an ongoing, lifelong project).
Once I’d come to a place of relative competency with all of that, I had the psychic room to dwell on What Might Be. And I had the spoons to spare to make a start at it.
(If you have not heard about Spoon Theory, drop everything right now and read up.)
And now: acknowledge yourself
So. If you are in survival mode or are coming to suspect that’s what’s going on, I urge you to be gentle with yourself.
Instead of beating yourself up for being 40 and not having your novel done, how about acknowledging yourself for surviving debilitating illness, loss, litigation, career transition, or, for God’s sake, gender transition? Instead of looking at all you haven’t done and haven’t accomplished, how about giving yourself some credit for what you’ve endured, what you’ve been through and breathed through? Instead of measuring yourself against other people’s performances of success—the photos of babies, the awards, the show dates, the weddings—how about giving yourself a trophy for the valiant effort of paying rent and making it through today.
I mean it. This is not a consolation prize or a participation award.
This is a real and deep acknowledgement of the improbable act of survival. The heroic effort of staying here with us on Planet Earth. The majestic display of human resilience in the face of adversity, change, illness, oppression, catastrophe, and a culture who believes you should be a smiling robot.
It is also an acknowledgement of what you’ve given up. The dreams you’ve sidelined. The goals you’ve put on the shelf. The selves you’ve stripped. The things you had to let go of so you could face the job at hand.
The labor of survival
If you are in survival mode, it’s usually not because you want to be. Most of us working to stay level would love to aspire to great and glorious adventures. And so, there’s resistance to deal with, too. Or rather: acceptance that needs to happen. Grieving. Some anger.
But, I have to say, there is beauty, too.
There’s a liberating and radical simplicity to saying ‘fuck you’ to fitness plans and watercolor classes in favor of early bedtimes and focused recovery. I got a secret thrill out of relentlessly and shamelessly clearing my calendar during my year of miscarriage. Nope, nope, nope. Nothing that steals my energy gets to stay.
I no longer had room for bullshit. And if you’re in survival, neither do you.
The work of survival is beautiful work.
You do what’s best for you, no matter what. You put what is essential first and you ruthlessly remove the rest. You pare down. You get lean. You get real about self-care. Really real. You surrender. And there, you find a power you didn’t know you had.
You see who is really there for you. The numbers are small, but the people are extraordinary.
If you can release the energy-thieves of resistance and anger quickly, you might have a whisper of creativity to spare. Not, maybe to write screenplays or plan expeditions, but to let your survival be artful and a little lovely.
To find pleasure the 20-ounce coffee you need to get through the night shift, instead of guilt or self-recrimination. To find relief in the sleepless overwhelm of new parenthood. Liberation in no longer trying so hard to appear perfect and together and in control. Compassion in the midst of hard loss.
Survival is human work. The work of flesh and blood and souls. It is not the realm of shiny, smiling robots, but a path of warriors who have faced the enormity of this human life and, somehow, kept breathing.
How are you navigating survival? Share your experiences in the comments below.