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You Just Can't Get on the Train

I've been practicing feeling helpless. I have an amazing ability to believe, despite repeated disappointments, that when "it's all done" I will "feel better." "It" is always an inherently undoable undertaking, such as finishing ten distinct projects in the next four hours that each need two hours of attention. Or attaining the Platonic ideal of the arrangement of furniture in my apartment. Or figuring out and accomplishing my life's purpose by dinnertime. And "feeling better" is always that I will finally feel relaxed, fulfilled, like I can just f-in' sit down for a minute.

The challenge is to accept helplessness without collapsing into hopelessness, to not metaphorically or literally just put my head down on the table and weep.

When I refuse to accept my perpetually shocking and inconceivable lack of omnipotence, I sink in to a quagmire of hopelessness to rival the quagmire of fighting a land war in Asia. When I allow myself some knowledge that there are people I cannot change, systems I am not in a position to improve, situations over which I am truly helpless, I am amazed how the panic subsides. I suddenly have ideas about how to accomplish something that seemed impossible moments before. My ability to do what I can do is restored. It is exactly the opposite of what my fear tells me: that if I stop running, I will be overcome by the existential equivalent of George Jetson's treadmill (sorry kids, you'll have to look that up).

New York subways during rush hour are often filled to where every standing person is in full body contact with at least two other people. How we manage not to look at each other and navigate this outrageous intimacy with strangers is a miracle of urban etiquette. But there comes a point where truly no more people, due to the laws of physics, can get on the train. Then the conductor announces, "Stand clear of the closing doors. There is another train immediately behind this one." One day, when I was blessedly seated on such a train, the conductor came over the speaker and said, "Stand clear of the closing doors," then paused where the reassurance of "there is another train immediately behind this one" is always inserted. There was a moment of quiet and then he said, "Well, it just means you can't get on the train!" The teenager next to me and I turned to each other and burst out laughing. It just was what it was. You just can't get on the train.

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