It is Memorial Day Weekend, 2016, and I have chosen to put my efforts and attention to focusing on what I am grateful for.

I am doing it with vigor and determination, pushing myself to keep at it, because there have been some challenging moments in recent days, and I don’t want to suffer. I choose not to suffer. I don’t want to be a hypocrite by making recommendations to others I teach or work with who may be feeling vulnerable or troubled that I don’t apply to myself.

And – lo and behold – success!

I am not feeling depressed or in debilitating emotional ache.

I do feel very sad for that which is actually very sad – but that sadness is a healthy and nourishing response to certain brutal circumstances, and I feel appreciation that I am willing and able to make the effort to feel that way, whilst also making effort to prevent the creation of potential pits of debilitating emotional pain that would be all too easy to create, fall into, wallow in, and perhaps drown within.

Eeeek – no, cancel those dismal possibilities!

What a waste of time and energy in this precious gift of life that succumbing to such self-defeating actions would be.

Making effort is the way to go for me!

So what am I referring to? What are the events that have taken place that are giving me the opportunity to practice what I preach, minimize emotional pain, and thereby live in a place of a gentle tranquility and acceptance?

I’ll get specific!

Challenge Number One: Witnessing direct aftermath of plane crashing into the Hudson River on Friday evening, May 27th, 2016.

I am very fortunate, living in Manhattan just a minute’s walk from the river. One of the most restorative activities I enjoy is walking by it as often as possible, which is usually at least 4 times a week, weather permitting. On this Friday evening I began my walk at about 7pm. I did not actually see the plane hit the water and sink, even though I was on the NY side of the river - almost directly opposite the location where the plane descended (it went down on the NJ side). Perhaps I was looking in a different direction at that very moment, but I surely saw and experienced the aftermath.

Within literally minutes - the sirens of fast approaching fire engines, ambulances, and police vans on both sides of the river were heard and seen, arriving within 5 minutes. Massive fire engine vehicles speedily and skillfully were being maneuvered down the slopes of what normally are slender walking paths leading from Riverside Park towards the 79th Street Boat Basin. Such masterful driving of such hefty and heavy vehicles was stunning to witness. A band of police water craft, I estimate that there were at least 14 of them, sped towards the site of the accident at an incredibly rapid speed. Helicopters hovered above, daylight at that time, but after sunset the light the helicopters beamed down obviously helped the efforts that were going on below.

 If the pilot had had any chance of being rescued in that circumstance, I can’t imagine anything humanly possible that could have been done in addition to what I was witnessing. Incredible. I was able to hear some of the instructions from rescue/recovery workers to one another via the loud speakers in their vans – how swift, alert, no-nonsense they were. I continued walking north, not wanting to hang around the busy area, and later as I turned back heading south on my way home, at around 9pm, I asked one of the lieutenants whether a rescue had taken place. He replied that he could not say at that time. When I got home and turned the TV news on, I first heard that a rescue had taken place with the person being transported to hospital, but soon after l heard it reported that in fact the body of the pilot had been recovered.

People who had been relaxing on the NJ side of the river prior to the accident were close enough to see the pilot try to exit the plane as it sank. Apparently someone on a nearby boat had approached the ailing plane to help – but could not get there quickly enough, he got to the area too late as the plane had sunk by that time. I imagine it was most shocking and chilling for people to witness up close, so close, this man alive, but ultimately with no immediate possible way up or out of the situation in which he drowned.

I felt shocked, grief, concerned, and hopeless. It seemed there was nothing I could do to help in any way.

Many raw memories had been evoked as a result of what I saw. I was in New York City Sept. 11th, 2001, and spent months following that doing volunteer work with recovery workers: people in the same risky and heroic roles as those I had witnessed this evening. The angst and bewilderment of that time was felt within me again. Also, I felt grief that on this evening a man, innocently flying, succumbed to whatever engine failure took place, and died.

Yet the constructive thing I could actually do was to calm and steady myself.

So I reminded myself, with gratitude, that the situation could have been so much worse. Due to the skill, experience and composure of that pilot – many lives that could have been lost were saved. Had he not consciously steered the plane over the water, minimizing the danger to others, making what pilots who were later interviewed on news programs said was a brilliant action akin to that which Captain Sullenberger had made some 7 years prior (with happier outcome in his “Miracle on the Hudson” ) – one can only imagine the tragic possibilities. I felt sad, but immensely inspired, to contemplate the heroic act of this man who may have made such effort to save lives even as he realized the dire nature of his fate at that point.

I also felt profoundly inspired by the presence and focus of so many skilled and strong people trained to handle crises of this, and worse, nature. Since September 11th. 2001 I have seen the unified and supremely capable abilities of such people, and frankly I have felt and feel that I may be in the safest city on the planet.

So instead of allowing myself to succumb to depression and hopelessness after this Friday evening’s tragic event, as a consequence of those contemplations that I have shared with you here, I felt very sad, but also inspired and uplifted. Yes, I shed some tears of sadness in remembering some of what had happened in 2001, and also for the man who lost his life this evening, but there were also tears of gratitude and awe at the good that is revealed and implemented in such tragic circumstances.

2. Challenge Number Two: Abusive words from person.

Without going into details, some time ago a dear friend/colleague and I presented for 2 days at an event, with the promise that we would be paid for our work afterwards. This did not happen. On a couple of occasions after the event I emailed the person who did not pay, diplomatically and non-angrily requesting payment, initially receiving some brief non-committal responses. But when I made my request again just a few days ago – the response practically “knocked my socks off” (an Australian Expression!). It was abusive beyond belief, and contained lies and accusations and what appeared to be a clear attempt to expose raw nerves within me and pour boiling oil onto them.

Big ouch. Felt shocked. My friend had also read the abusive words that were directed at me, and wisely presented the realistic perspective: “That person is off their rocker”.

 It felt very comforting to feel the empathy from my friend, but to substantially get myself out of the state of shock and ache took solid effort on my own. I did it. How did I do it?

Choosing to do so. It would have been all too easy to indulge myself in self-pity and anger at the unfairness of the situation.

But what good would that have done? None.

So I reminded myself that this person was not coming from a steady place when he wrote those words and at other times; that as much as I detest his attitude, he is not totally an evil person (I have witnessed him being extremely caring and loving to his family); and that I can stand what I don’t like – I just don’t like it.

I calmed myself. That doesn’t mean complacency. I am not happy about the situation, not at all. However the outcome of my efforts, the feeling of choosing my attitude and experience, has given me a stable place from which to decide what, if anything, to do next. My willingness to think rationally prevented my feeling furious - which would only wound me and have no impact on that person, and helped me to keep things in healthy perspective.

It is far from the end of the world if someone doesn’t pay what they owe – and if they don’t, it informs me that they are not to be trusted in such circumstances and makes probable the end of any working relationship with them. I am grateful that with my effort I can let go of anger and prevent the harboring of resentment. I can live longer and happier as a result – that is common sense, but for those inclined to like research that backs up such premises – there is plenty of research around that strongly does just that!

 It is freeing to “un-stick” oneself from getting stuck in the mires of restrictive and unhealthy emotions. I am grateful that I am willing and able to do so – even though initially it may appear to take Herculean effort! It is effort well worth it.

Challenge Number Three: Holiday Weekend, and quite alone.

Those are the facts. Many people who live nearby, including friends and neighbors, have gone to lovely out-of-town places to enjoy recreational and relaxing times over the days. And more painful – I am missing my deceased loved ones (though my doing so is not restricted to Holiday Weekends by any means).

Again I have a choice- I can wallow in self-pity, telling myself I am so deprived and it is not fair, and think other such thoughts from the school of pandering and creating emotions that keep one down.

I have chosen not to do that. How? I remind myself of the many things I have to be grateful for – good health; work that feels less like work and more like my fulfilling purpose; that I do have friends I like and love – and even if they are far away now, I can look forward to spending time with them in the near future. I remind myself that, yes, I am deprived of being with the ones I adore who have passed away, but then I focus on how good it was that we had the time we had, and l feel how much I love them. Which I most deeply do.

 I remind myself that the lonely “Holiday Weekend” situation is immeasurably worse for many people than it is for me. There are people lonelier than I am, who perhaps don’t have good memories of deceased members, some of them may have been abused one way or another. There are those who have health issues and problems, including those who are elderly with few or no people they feel close to as time goes on and relatives and friends pre-decease them. There are those with extreme financial concerns.

I remind myself that I can whine about being alone this weekend, or see this time as a good opportunity to catch up with writing and other projects, which I may not have done if busy socializing. I remind myself that I can take time to do things I enjoy – like my river walks (fortunately, the Friday night event is a rarity indeed).

And then I made phone calls to people I know who I thought might also be feeling lonely and somewhat down (remember days in your past when you too may have made personal phone calls instead of mainly sending texts and emails to people !). And my phone calls brought smiles to some of them (they told me so, and I could hear it in their voices), which in turn was pleasing and warming to me.

So – I still miss being with loved ones, I am not thrilled about being quite alone this weekend, but I am not depressing myself about it, I am focusing on what is realistically positive about these 3 days alone – even if not my preference, they still can be very good. I feel quite tranquil as a result. Patient and accepting. Feels good. And I am realistically optimistic that there is great probability that in the future, many holiday times will be spent sharing joyful moments with others.

Before I end this piece, I want to share my thoughts about those who are in really rough circumstances – not only on Holiday weekends, but much of the time. I mentioned some above – people suffering from ill health, people who might receive negligent or abusive treatment from others, people who have financial and work related concerns, people who feel deeply unsupported and despondent.

My wish and hope is that somehow they will make effort to focus on what still is good in their lives. To search, locate, focus. Just like the tenacious recovery workers did on Friday night. They were not going to give up till they completed their mission. It may be difficult to recognize good things in the midst of emotional and/or physical pain, but it is NOT impossible if we have the willingness to do so. It is certainly possible for most of us – others have done it thereby proving it is humanly possible. To name a few such people:  Nelson Mandela finding meaning in life despite decades of imprisonment; Victor Frankl and others – including my parents – who survived horrors of World War 2 camps and sadistic treatment and yet maintained hope and found meaning through even the smallest of life-enhancing thoughts and observations; and Christopher Reeve who replaced the depression he felt, after becoming quadriplegic, with a sense of purpose and productivity through his activities to raise awareness and money for stem cell research. The result of his efforts can be seen in 1000’s of people who now live productive lives, yet who had been suffering from previously incurable illnesses until they became recipients of the stem cell transplant treatments which literally saved their lives.

If we are not suffering from cognitive impairment, if we can think, and are willing to think about our thinking, we can choose to focus on what is good in our lives, despite and including the tough challenges we face. In-so-doing we can have the powerful experience of creating our own emotional destinies. We can minimize misery and maximize joy.

How good is that.

About the Author

Debbie Joffe Ellis

Debbie Joffe Ellis, MDAM, Licensed Australian psychologist and Licensed New York Mental Health Counselor, teaches at Columbia University in NYC.

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