Sailing on Rough Seas: On turbulence, arrhythmia, and “steering into the skid”

I’ve been thinking a lot about turbulence lately. My recent flights across the country were on the bumpy side, and my dad said my stepmom recently had a flight that was the worst she’d ever experienced. I’m thinking that increased turbulence may be with us for a while.  While this is an apt metaphor for a lot of things going on in my life and in the world, a quick google search on “climate change and airline turbulence” yields a lot of hits like this one, suggesting a link between increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and increasing and increasingly severe and dangerous turbulence impacting air travel.

Google defines turbulence as: “violent or unsteady movement of air or water, or of some other fluid, as in, “the plane shuddered as it entered some turbulence”; or conflict; confusion; as in, “a time of political turbulence.”  The opposite of turbulence is “laminar” or “streamline” flow, when a fluid flows in parallel layers, with no disruption between the layers.

Now, some kinds of instability we can, over time, learn to predict and compensate for. While I’m not much of a sailor, my one experience on a heaving deck (with many of the other passengers near me heaving their guts out) taught me that over time, I could learn to avoid motion-sickness by keeping my eyes on the horizon as much as possible and gently swaying my body in opposition to the swaying deck. Apparently this “observing, interpreting and swaying in accordance with the motion of a vessel” is what’s known as getting your “sea legs.”

But this sort of rhythmic instability due to waves on the ocean is much different from turbulence, which by definition includes unpredictability and even chaos (thus, “unexpected turbulence” is apparently a redundant phrase). While airplanes ahead of us on the same course can radio back to warn us of increased likelihood of turbulence, and there is apparently some ultraviolet way to see its effects ahead, science cannot so far predict when and where these disruptions will occur. Given my limited understanding of chaos theory, I’m thinking we may never have the capacity to predict the details of turbulence in fluids because they are inherently unpredictable.

While some political instability is somewhat rhythmic (swings back & forth from left-of-center to right-of-center), other changes are far less predictable. The dismantling of the Berlin Wall. The election of Donald Trump. Who’d ‘a thunk?  How are we to operate in such uncertain times? Can we (must we?) somehow try to be prepared for the unpredictable?

We can keep our seat belts fastened throughout the duration of a flight and pray we’re not unlucky when we need to use the restroom. We can try to set our lives up so that we do less travel by air. We could even start wearing helmets on planes. But are these fearful and cautionary approaches the only options? While I’m all for prudence when it’s not overly restrictive (leaving my seatbelt off while sitting in an airplane seat really doesn’t buy me any freedom!), I’m not so keen on letting my fear dictate significant choices.

As I help my communities craft responses to our country’s swing towards proto-fascism, I am trying to find the fine line between prudence and cowardice. So far, I am still signing petitions with my real name; I even helped write and have signed a pledge of Solidarity and Sanctuary by members of the Madison Jewish community to our Muslim and Latino neighbors. And, Don and I are hosting our congregation’s Shabbat potluck and discussion about the pledge on the evening of the inauguration, and are agreeing to post our address on Facebook for the event. (And, I’ve so far only joked about changing our bathroom-remodeling project into a project to create a hidden annex….)

Perhaps part of the answer to living in turbulent times is to learn, like new drivers in snow, how to “turn into a skid.” This is a completely counter-intuitive motion that, if we practice it and make it habitual, can save us from spinning completely out of control when our wheels slip on ice. What would “turning into the skid” of the Trump election look like? Is it some kind of aikido blend with the “opposition,” where we listen deeply and learn to see things from their perspective, and even join them where we can, in order to try to steer back towards a more laminar flow?

On the topic of personal turbulence, I’ve been having a variety of symptoms that have been worrying me. My cardiologist is telling me that my heart palpitations (premature ventricular contractions) are nothing to worry about, and my stress test this past week indicated I was able to exercise at the level of a typical 21-year-old (and probably more than I myself was capable of at 21!). Can I learn to take this arrhythmia, this, ka-thuMP-ety-THUmp in stride? Can I do so even while I’m exercising, when my instincts are screaming to slow down and figure out how to make it stop? People (including my cardiologist) say “listen to your body.” But at age 21 and for a lot of my life, my body appeared to be “telling me” to slow down or stop at the first sign of discomfort. If “turning into the skid” is a model, perhaps increasing my speed rather than decreasing it will help my arrhythmia?! (On the stress test, the palpitations didn’t happen at the max heart rate I achieved, 189; they happened in the “cardio” range of 120-140).

Part of my practice these days is to try not to get too caught up in the stories when the truth is actually unknown. I keep noticing that I’ve slipped into believing the story that “there’s something wrong” with my health. Lately I’ve been practicing, when I notice it, saying instead, “there’s something different.” It is not my goal to learn to ignore my sensations. I think noticing changes can help me be more responsive in each moment.  If I continue my practice from my cancer treatment of “surrender to the unknowable,” perhaps I can learn to be present enough that I can observe, interpret, and move in accordance with some of the unpredictable skids, curve-balls, and jolts that are inevitably coming.  I want to remember that my “instincts” may initially steer me wrong.

I think the same is true in this collective moment. I don’t think politics will ever be streamlined or laminar flow, despite my fondest, most naïve, conflict-avoidant wishes. And it’s possible that extreme disruption may create openings for positive change. But, as Maria Popova said in a 2015 interview with Krista Tippet in On Being,  she learned from a conversation with Andrew Sullivan that our culture needs stewardship as well as disruption. If we keep reacting rather than responding, we may exacerbate the perturbations, rather than helping them attenuate more quickly by “steering into” them. I think this is a lot of how systems thinking works; it helps us to see how our reactions are making things worse, rather than better, and to find the key leverage points that can shift things back towards a healthier balance.

I think responding appropriately to turbulence also takes a lot of creativity. I was reminded of this in a small, personal way two days ago. After my morning practice (Pilates, Jo kata, and meditation), I checked my email and discovered my 8:30 meeting had been cancelled. I went downstairs for breakfast, and realized our kitchen freezer was out of frozen fruit. I went down to the basement freezer, which I had happily purchased this past May as an anniversary present for Don, and happily filled all summer with vegetables from the farmers’ market and extra servings of lowfat snacks and meals. With huge dismay I realized that somehow we had left the door of the freezer open, and it had been open long enough to defrost or partially defrost almost everything in it!!!

I started to feel a bit panicky (I abhor waste!), but with help from my friend who was visiting, sorted out what needed to be thrown away (the things on the top of the door, which were no longer even cool), what could be refrigerated and consumed or given away soon, and what could be moved to the smaller upstairs freezer. And, since my meeting had been cancelled, I decided to do some cooking. I made several completely new and bizarre dishes that turned out quite well (including fruit soup and pumpkin-cauliflower lasagna!)

As we face into this new year in these turbulent times, may we support one another through loving presence, and practice observing, interpreting, and moving responsively and creatively in accordance with the swiftly changing and unpredictable terrain.



1 thought on “Sailing on Rough Seas: On turbulence, arrhythmia, and “steering into the skid””

  1. Just finished a day and a half retreat which start an 8 session sequence on racial justice. A curriculum by and for Unitarian Universalists. Tge facilitator had us looking at our values, what obstacles we put in the way if achieving objectives in line with our values, and our fears. She said more than once, “you fear you’ll fail, you’ll lose members, and you might even die.”

    Tge nessage for me was, Yes, there is turbulence. Now what? Let’s give voice to our worst fears and then get to work!

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