The Hope of a Drowning Rat
Updated: Jun 18, 2022
It's no secret that fitness is a big part of my life. But it's not just about being physically fit; being a mentally fit person also is really important to me.
But lately I've been in an emotional funk. A feeling I can best describe as a clog in my emotional pipes. Like there's something to be felt and worked through right below the surface, and I just need to allow myself the time and space to plunge it out. But being a mom of four in the first weeks of summer break, this isn't really an easy task. So today I rearranged my schedule to carve out a bit of a morning for myself.
That included my fitness plan changing for the day. I skipped my usual gym morning and instead went for a solo run/walk by the beach. I didn't keep track of my distance or my split mile pace. I just moved faster when I wanted to, stopped when I felt like it, and dictated writing into my phone along the way. This method works for me. I have found when I move my emotions also move. Desmond TuTu termed this as active meditation, which sounds a lot more deep and spiritual than it is actually. All it really entails is moving your body in way that requires little to no brain power, and in that fluid movement your thoughts and feelings start to flow to the surface. It has worked for me time and time again. Today I used the run/ walk combo, but I've also had the same effects with rowing or doing long hold yoga poses.
So today during my active meditation time, these themes kept popping up...
Hope and survival in hard places.
I am the first to admit that I have changed since trauma became a normal part of our lives a little over four years ago. I'm a bit jaded. I no longer see the world as optimistically as I used to. There are hard edges on my heart that never used to be there. I swear more than I probably ought and my affinity for sarcasm has grown. But amongst all this, I've also come to realize that lovely things can appear in unforeseen circumstances. Including within myself.
In The Comfort Book, author Matt Haig writes “...indeed, pain might be a total asshole, but it can inadvertently show us how much space we have inside. It can even expand that space. And enable us to experience the equivalent quantity of joy or hope or love or contentment at some future point in time.”
Ugh, such a truth bomb landed on me when I read this. This life has turned out exceedingly different than what I thought it would. Sometimes it feels like a cruel fate and there is no choice in the matter, but indeed there is always a choice. I could choose to quit--walk out on my family, succumb to some form of addiction to numb the pain rather than face it, or surrender the kids back to the custody of the state. Admittedly, I’ve thought about all three.
But, I won't. So here we are. What now?
It’s crazy how moments of insight can come from the most unlikely places. On my walk/run I stopped and sat by a cluster of rocks by the beach. Nearby where I sat was a small sapling growing from a crack in one of the rocks. It's amazing to me how life can find a way in the most unlikely of places. It's like the sapling is saying, “I landed here. It's not the most ideal of conditions, but I'm going to make it work. Reach for the sun, dig my roots deep, and hang on tight.” I could not think of a better simile for my life. It is what it is, so what am I going to do with it.
But how do we get there though? That place of not giving up and growing where we're planted despite all odds? The answer is hope.
Matt Haig in The Comfort Book writes, “Nothing is stronger than a small hope that doesn't give up.” This one profound statement stopped me in my tracks when I read it. This was it. This is why I keep going, because there is a hope, even sometimes just infinitesimal, that still refuses to give up.
I think people have come to attach such sweet connotations to the word hope. Like it's as lovely and simple as crossing your fingers or making a wish upon a shooting star. But that's not what true hope is really. I feel this quote really nails the reality of hope: “People speak of hope as if it is this delicate, ephemeral thing made of whispers and spider’s webs. It's not. Hope has dirt on her face, blood on her knuckles, the grit of the cobblestones in her hair, and just spat out a tooth as she rises for another go.” True hope is ugly and gritty. It means not quitting when everything inside of you wants to, even when you've been given every excuse to justifiably do so.
This got me thinking of an interesting, albeit cruel, experiment conducted in the 1950’s by Dr. Curt Richter of Harvard University. In the first part of the experiment, researchers placed rats in jars of water and timed how long the rats would tred water before giving up and drowning. The average time was 15 minutes. In further experiments, Richter and colleagues would again place rats in jars of water, but just before the rats gave up the researchers would pluck the rats out of the water, dry them off, and give them a few minutes rest. After those few minutes, the same rats would then get placed back in the jars of water. Any guesses how long the rats lasted this time before giving up? 5 minutes? 10 minutes? Another 15 minutes? Nope. The same rats now on average would swim for an astonishing 60 hours!!! You read right, 60 hours! The researchers concluded that since the rats BELIEVED they would eventually be rescued, they could push their bodies way past what they previously thought impossible. The changed factor from the rats in the control group that only lasted 15 minutes to the rats in the second experiment that lasted 60 hours was simply HOPE.
What a powerful fucking force hope is!
So that is my goal--that I would have enough hope of a near drowned rat. That there will be just enough rescue moments of respite, joy, and victories no matter how small that I am willing to be dropped back in the water and swim for another 60 hours. 240 times longer than originally possible.
By continuing to be like a rat that keeps on swimming, this creates the space for hope, a deep hope that my life literally depends on my continual fight that things might get better. Because sometimes what else is there.
I share this both out of my own need to make sense out of the shit storms of life, and also as a life preserver for others out there battling their own “swim test.” I know society tells us not to air our dirty laundry in public, but what if we were all a little more honest about our struggle. And in those moments of vulnerability, someone else could look into our tear stained eyes and were able to empathize with the pain and momentarily pluck us out of the water and provide a moment of comfort and solace. We may not be able to prevent one another from being placed back into the “experimental survival pool,” but just the power of momentary reprieve will give us enough hope to keep swimming. Knowing the hope of rescue exists, and this helps us refuse to give up and sink.
I am immensely grateful for my “rescuers.” People who provided the simplest acts of kindness or respite. Or even more powerfully, those who simply believed me. So much of the trauma related behaviors of our kids happens behind closed doors while little cherub faces are shown to the world. Never underestimate the power of believing someone’s story even if you can’t see it. It is so incredibly healing. Those of you who have done this have helped me remember I am infinitely more capable than I thought possible. It is because of you I keep swimming and try my best to lift others when I see them sinking.
We all just need someone to hear us. To validate our hurt and the realness of our pain. Nothing is more healing than someone meeting us in our pain. We in the human race have all had our hearts bludgeoned from time to time. And aren't we all during these times of trial just waiting for someone to pluck us out of the waters of tribulation and place us on dry ground even for just a moment so we can catch our breath.
May you cling to this hope too in whatever hard times you are facing or will be facing. May we all have the hope of a drowning rat awaiting sure rescue. That we will know we are infinitely more capable than we ever thought possible. That we will know pain is a cruel, yet wise teacher that will give us lessons in how to believe in ourselves and how to serve those around us. We may not be able to escape the waters of hardship, but we have each other, and that is assuredly why we can hope.
“Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.” Desmond Tutu