On Beating Overwhelm – Or, A Formal Apology To The Time Known As “Dawn”
It all just feels so much more complicated now than it has in the past, doesn’t it?
Or maybe it’s always felt this complicated, we’ve just been too distracted to notice…
The dictionary definition overwhelm – “to overpower in thought or feeling” – doesn’t hold a candle to Overwhelm In The Roaring (20)20s. I’ve written about what to do when it all feels like too much, I’ve written about being overwhelmed by the good things, I’ve written about Ghost Worries. But the nuances of overwhelm in what I’ve been calling the “For-Now Normal” are really something else.
This is an illuminating time we’re in. We’re learning new things and mourning new losses and reaching new milestones and sometimes all three at the same time, and we have very few places to go to recalibrate our system.
Maybe you’re one of the people privileged enough to own a spin bike so you can ride to nowhere, or maybe you have a large backyard or a multi-story house, or maybe you’re in a studio apartment. Maybe you live with other humans (and/or pets) to talk to in person, mask-free. Maybe you’ve moved in with family, or family’s moved in with you, or are Air BNB-ing it long-term for the time being.
But no matter what your situation, you’re being forced to make do with whatever’s in your immediate surroundings, repurposing them to create escapes and releases and comfort and coping mechanisms when all they’d usually be are the norm.
To be overwhelmed, I’ve learned, isn’t necessarily a numbers game. It’s not to feel as if there are too many things going on or too many boxes to check off your to-do list. My to-do lists have varied over the last year from page-turners to one simple box to check next to the words “make lunch.” If overwhelm was merely about the numbers, I promise you, I’d be spending way less of my days overwhelmed than I currently am.
No; overwhelm right now is maybe what overwhelm has actually been all along: when your thoughts and feelings not only *feel* overpowering, but they morph and shape-shift so often that you lose sight of where you end and your surroundings begin.
Overwhelm is the place you go when you feel like the world is playing a game of tug-of-war and your arms are the rope. Pull, pull, pull, back, forth, back, forth. It’s not the tug-of-war itself that’s the issue; it’s the way your head and heart are trying to compute what the hell is going on. Internal alarms and ticker-tape thoughts and flickering lights and total blackouts from an over-processed processing machine.
I’m up at 5am this morning writing this, every so often glancing over my right shoulder and out my window to see the silver-blue light of morning rising. I look down at the streets, snowy and snow-plowed; someone walks by maybe every five minutes, maybe. Because, pandemic and 5am and bone-ass cold.
I’m up at 5 because I was up at 4:30, because every single human I admire claims to wake up early for whatever reason they deem important. Writing, meditating, moving. But whatever they do, they all claim this is the time they feel they KNOW. The time the doubt and fears fade and they just do what they do.
In many cultures, 4-5am is the time “at which the boundaries that separate the physical realm from the spiritual realm are at their weakest” (quote from this article). “Witching Hour” is usually considered in the 3am or 4am hour, a time that folklore once associated with supernatural happenings. Many articles I read about this time have to do with some sort of spiritual awakening – literally, your spirit waking up – and talk about how many artists, writer, and poets abide by an early waking time.
I always thought it was because it’s the time they’re able to do what they do without being interrupted by the world – work, kids, tasks, partners, friends, colleagues, pets, traffic, the list goes on.
But maybe it’s because it’s the time they’re able to do what they do without being interrupted by themselves.
After listening to a few podcasts a few weeks back interviewing my favorite writers – all who said they were early-morning-people – I announced to my husband, Jeremy, that I was going to wake up at 4:30am the following morning.
He asked me why.
“Because I want to. That’s when the writers wake up, and I want to write when the writers write.” It had never occured to me that I could just make a choice like that and go with it.
It’s been a few weeks now. The first week, I stuck to every morning – now, it’s morphed into about 3 times a week, which is a rhythm I can get behind. The main thing I notice that at this time, at this moment, is that my brain just can’t. It won’t access the overwhelm that plagues most of my days – maybe because it’s tired, or maybe because it hasn’t “warmed up” yet. It’s New York City, for freakin’ crying out loud, a city not only built on overwhelm but thriving on the bet it will make you feel all the things at all the times. It’s 5am but I’m still in the middle of the human-made chaos. Still looking over the same avenue.
And yet…and YET. In this moment, all I feel is the silver-blue light and the soft inhale of the morning and I just KNOW.
To the time known as “dawn,” I apologize for judging and ignoring you. I’ve been so resistant to waking up at 4:30 or 5am unless absolutely necessary, like to catch a plane or teach an early class or finish a project by its deadline. Never did I think “because I want to” was “absolutely necessary.”
I wonder how many other things I don’t do because of what I’ve deemed them, or not – or deemed myself, or not.
I wonder how much knowing I’m missing out on because thinking gets to me first.
So the lesson here is: sometimes you don’t need to “muster up the courage” or “stop overthinking things.” Sometimes you just need to wake up so early that your brain doesn’t yet have the capacity for self-doubt.
And I wonder if that’s been the trick to overwhelm – good, bad, in-between – this whole time. Whether you wake up early or not.
Find a moment.
Just a pocket.
Sit in silence.
Stare out the window.
Make time to be.
Overwhelm yourself with knowing, before life overwhelms you with thinking, and beat it at its own game.
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