Several weeks ago I introduced Barbara, my first guest blogger. She taught me a valuable lesson about gratitude and as a result of her post I decided to find ways, through this blog, to practice her philosophy.
Regular readers will be aware I try to post twice a week, usually on Wednesday and Sunday, but I missed last Sunday. It was a busy weekend, a holiday weekend in fact. I didn’t manage to post anything by Sunday evening and we were out all day Monday. It’s that Monday, its conviviality, its treasure house of memories and its challenges, that I am grateful for. We spent the day showing interstate visitors around one of South Australia’s beloved wine regions – not beloved just because of its wines but because it is one of the most beautiful spots in Australia.
Back in the 1980s I lived in the Barossa Valley. One of my children was born there, I learned to drive along its narrow back roads and I survived several long hours one night, alone with three children under four and a dog and a goat, sheltering in our farmhouse as flood waters lapped at the veranda. Thankfully, the rain stopped and my husband arrived from out of the night, having found an alternative route that bypassed the swollen creeks so he could be with his family. I’m so grateful he didn’t turn back to the city and leave me alone with our children that wet and wild night. I would have coped if the water had continued to rise, and he knew I would, but we coped better together.
Years later, children grown and my marriage over, I was living alone and often drove for two hours to the Barossa to visit my parents, who by then were living in the Barossa Village Aged Care Facility. I will always be grateful for the care given to my parents, the gentle way the staff dealt with my mother, who suffered from Alzheimer’s, and my father, who grieved for his wife’s deterioration but who always shared a joke with the staff and tried to find a way to make their day less wearisome.
After my father, and eight months later my mother, died, I cleaned my mother’s room, said goodbye to the staff who cared for my parents, and didn’t return to the Barossa for many years except to drive through the Valley on our way north. Monday was the first time I’d been back for a whole day and now I had a chance to share the Barossa with friends. The weather was glorious: the sky an uninterrupted blue; the breeze chilly but tempered by the sun; the vines golden in the glossy winter light. I was the designated driver; after all, the main purpose of the visit was to taste the delicious wines made in the Barossa, enjoy a long lunch and then visit one more winery. It’s imperative, given this, that someone abstain from alcohol and be capable of driving home.
There was a small hitch, however. I used to love driving, and my solo trips to the Barossa, made over five years ago now, were a pleasurable routine. But lately I’ve experienced a deal of anxiety and even mild panic attacks, many of them associated with cars, traffic and driving. My partner, of course, was aware of this, but our friends did not realise their chauffeur was, to be frank, clutching the steering wheel as if it was a club, periodically taking long, deep breaths and telling herself she was a competent and safe driver. It was not, for me, a pleasant drive back to the city, but I did it; we arrived safely, deposited our passengers and later that evening opened a bottle of fine Barossa Riesling to celebrate.
I’m cannot say I’m grateful for the panic attacks and the anxiety. I neither appreciate, nor am I thankful for, the physical and emotional sensations the attacks engender but I suspect there is a gift, one I have yet to discover, inherent in my current affliction. Maybe these attacks are an opportunity for me to develop compassion for others who are likewise affected? Perhaps they are a chance for me to get to know myself better, or develop more refined planning and coping strategies when faced with life’s problems? Maybe it’s a chance for me to reflect on life, how precious it is, how tenuous our grasp on it is, how important our loved ones are, how strangers can become unlikely allies in caring for those we love.
Right now panic feels like the only response we’ve got to what’s going on around us. The natural, psychological and physiological response to war, terror, destruction, abuse, anger and hate is, and probably always will be, panic; to flee, to freeze or to fight. We are after all, animals, albeit of a particular and peculiar species, and survival is our strongest instinct.
Saying, ‘Don’t Panic,’ doesn’t help. Telling us to panic more and who to blame for our fearful reaction, doesn’t help. Admitting to feeling panicked, to being anxious, to being petrified, does. When we name and accept what ails us we can address the cause of our fear and construct a reasoned response. We stop reacting and we think. The reason why we are such a particular species is because we can stop and think. It’s not easy but it is the one truly powerful and positive gift we have. Our ability to think, to solve problems, to find ways to cooperate, to resolve issues is surely a gift for which we must always be grateful.
What do you think: Is panic something we can learn to be grateful for? What does our anxiety tell us about who we are and what we value?