In every life, there are moments (or months) that feel endless, when we don’t like where we are but fear we can never get to somewhere other than here, sometime other than now.
This is the nature of fear. It can hold us so tight in its embrace that one moment can seem eternal, and we forget all but a tiny fraction of who we are and what we are capable of being.
One such moment happened years ago, when I was hitch-hiking in Europe. Today, during the pandemic, it seems incomprehensible that anyone could have traveled so openly. At one point I was hitching from southern France to Sweden with Ingrid, a Swedish friend I had met in Nice, France. I was actually escorting her home, as she had run out of money to fly or take a train and I didn’t have enough to lend her⎼ and I wasn’t ready to say goodbye. The fastest and easiest route was through Germany. We decided to stop off in the capital, Berlin, and found a ride to take us there.
It was 1966. Germany was divided into 4 zones: one controlled by the Union of Soviet-Socialist Republics, one by each of the main Western allies⎼ the U. S., Britain, and France. Berlin was similarly divided but was located in the East or the Soviet zone.
When we arrived at the border between East and West Germany, we found it to be a scene out of a war movie. It was heavily fortified. On the Eastern side, not only were there East German troops but Russians. An American troop convoy, with several truckloads of soldiers, had arrived just before we had, and the border guards were inspecting the vehicles before letting them through. This was the height of Soviet-American tensions from the Cold War. Just four years earlier was the Cuban Missile Crisis. Five years earlier, the Soviet-Russians ordered the wall between East and West Berlin to be built to stop people from escaping Soviet oppression.
Two border guards stopped our car and told Ingrid and me to get out. We were led inside a cement block building where we were searched and asked to take out our passports. When Ingrid opened her passport, her photo fell from the page to the floor. At that moment, everything stopped, and we froze in place. A large female soldier took Ingrid’s arm and led her to a back room. I was told to stay put.
While I was waiting, the driver came in with our backpacks. He said he was told to continue on without us and left, wishing us luck.
Here we were, stuck at the East German border, with no ride, my friend being questioned in a back room, the authenticity of her passport now doubted by authorities hostile to both our nations. Any attempts by me to ask questions about Ingrid’s status were rebuffed.
And it was getting late in the day. Hitch-hiking across the border was difficult anytime, but at night, it could be dangerous.
I don’t know how long we had to wait, separated from each other, isolated in literally hostile territory. I didn’t know back then how to meditate and couldn’t sit still. I couldn’t stand. My body felt like a universe at war with itself.
An hour or two, or an eternity later, the female guard brought Ingrid back. They had confirmed the validity of her passport. I don’t remember any of the other details, except we got out of there as quickly as possible and headed to the border. Since our ride had left, we had to find another one. A truck eventually stopped for us and took us to Berlin.
I barely breathed during the whole trip.
Then, it was over. We got out of the truck, thanked the driver, looked around at the old buildings around us, some still marked by bullet holes from World War II. We turned to each other, grasped hands, laughed, and danced, danced like crazy people. We eventually made it to Sweden.
How do we understand any difficult time as we are going through it? The novelist C. K. Chesterton said, “An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered.” What if it’s more than an inconvenience, more than a moment or an hour or a day and it goes on and on? What if it’s a pandemic that has put our lives in question and whole nations on hold? Our plans, our hopes, dreams, even our needs all halted.
I don’t know. No one does. And that’s the truth of it. We were always in a place of not-knowing what will happen but now it is abundantly clear to us.
We are also living through one of those times in history when history itself is threatened. A time we never wanted to know about except maybe afterwards, when it is over, and we can read about it in a book or website. This moment we’re living in is one of those times that “try people’s souls.”
Just four months ago, many of us worried the administration of hate would never end. Yet, we resisted a racist wannabe-be dictator, with the biggest sustained protest movement in modern U. S. history. We threw out of office the leader of the political pandemic and are now (hopefully) working on the racism and division.
Most people alive in 1989 thought the Berlin Wall would last forever. But on November 9 of that year, in a seemingly sudden moment, it was dramatically breached and pulled down. Almost a year later, Germany was re-united and soon afterwards, the whole union of Soviet Republics dissolved.
And now we are left with a mutating pandemic and we can help bring that to an end, too. We are on the edge of a moment when any step we take can be decisive and meaningful. When we could easily run and hide but we know, no, we can’t do that. We can wake up in this moment.
We can get better at facing what we never wanted to face. When we get depressed or anxious, we can keep in mind the enormous reality that confronts us. This time in history has been getting to so many of us. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation health study, almost half of all adults in the U. S. report a negative impact on their mental health due to the stress and worry over the pandemic. With children, it is even worse.
So, let’s find ways to help ourselves and others through these next several months. We can practice mindfulness and learn to interrupt, question, and let go of habitual thought patterns that lead to suffering. Learn from what we face how to face it.
And we can put out our mental thumbs each moment despite not knowing who, if anyone, will stop for us.
*If you are feeling depressed or anxious, please don’t try to go it alone. Take care of yourself. Be kind to yourself. We all deserve to be treated well by anyone, but certainly by ourselves. Call, text, email friends or family, find a counselor. And find a way to help others. This is a good way to find the strength waiting in yourself.
This post is republished on Medium.