I remember walking home from school through the autumn leaves and sunshine, hurrying a little. Six years old, I had a full bladder and 8 blocks to cover. Things were fine until I reached the notoriously-hard-to-open back door. I yanked; it stayed shut. After a few more fruitless tugs, there on the concrete steps, urgency overtook me.
That may have been the last time I wet my pants, but it’s still distressingly vivid.
So vivid that a friend once named it for me: proximity incontinence. The closer the proximity of relief, the harder it is to hold on. If you’re a marathon runner, that last mile is excruciating. If you’re birthing a child, those contractions before pushing are unbearable. If you’re climbing, it’s the last pitch that destroys you. If you’re writing, final revisions are damn near impossible. And if you’re a kid who needs to pee, the last ten steps are the very worst.
There’s a reason why we give up before it’s all over: it’s agonizing to hold on when you’re almost there. We’re so focused on the future that we can’t remember to live in the present. It can be such a relief to give up.
Many of us are walking around with a bad case of proximity incontinence. Last week I accidentally hugged someone. (Please don’t tell Bonnie Henry, but it felt so good!) I’m finding it difficult to remember my mask. I’ve planned a fall vacation.
And now we are locked down tight again to break the current surge and the spread of variants.
The opposite of proximity incontinence is impulse control: the ability to defer gratification, to live in the uncomfortable present moment. Another name for this is maturity, a character trait of which we are in desperate collective need. But oh, it’s hard to find right now.
The Jungian psychotherapist Helen Luke wrote a brilliant essay entitled “Suffering.” Luke distinguishes between neurotic depression—the suffering we cause ourselves—and real suffering, which she refers to as a humble willingness to recognize, accept, and carry what’s ours to carry. At a practical level, she says that we start by acknowledging the heartbreak of our life’s realities. We may choose, after being present to this pain, to act in some way. But what comes first is the simple shouldering of sorrow. When we refuse to bear our own suffering, Luke says, we end up transmitting it to others.
She goes on, “Every time a person exchanges neurotic depression for real suffering, he or she is sharing to some small degree in the carrying of the suffering of [humanity], in bearing a tiny part of the darkness of the world. Such a one is released from…small personal concern into a sense of meaning.”
The result? Joy. Not martyrdom or a self-important sense of nobility. Just bubbling-up joy, and presence, and meaning, and the knowledge that we’re carrying our part.
The proximity of joy is even closer than the end of the pandemic.