Friday Fictioneers – La Serenissima

Every week, Rochelle Wisoff-Fields (thank you, Rochelle!) hosts a flash fiction challenge, to write a complete story, based on a photoprompt, with a beginning, middle and end, in 100 words or less. Post it on your blog, and include the Photoprompt and Inlinkz (the blue frog) on your page. Link your story URL. Then the fun starts as you read other peoples’ stories and comment on them!

FF - Venice - 180620

PHOTO PROMPT © Fatima Fakier Deria

La Serenissima

Venice, my home, is stone, stone on wood, wood in water. I live in a half-world of aqueous reflections, stone in water, water on stone, a confusion of images.

Nowadays I only dare walk its streets in daylight.

As I cross the square, a boatman sings of sunlight on tranquil water.

The canal smells cold as an open grave.

I take a deep breath and immerse myself in the shadows of the street. My heels clatter, my heart races.

Here, two years ago, masked and cloaked in midnight’s blackness he snatched me, and in five frantic minutes stole my serenity.

In the moment – be happy!

Bluebell wood 170508

Life holds many joys; the vigorous growth we’re seeing in gardens and fields; lambs gambolling on the moor; the love of families and friends. Even memories can bring us joy. Every day I look at the photograph of my wedding day – it’s in the bedroom, right in front of me as I drink my first cup of tea. It always lifts my spirits, not just as I remember the day itself, but because the picture reminds me how lucky I am to still be happily married to Daphne after more than forty years.

But life can also feel tough. There may be challenges at work, within the family, within society more broadly. Personally, I am deeply concerned about the political situation in Western democracies, where we seem to be increasingly polarised. We all have times when we feel sad; we all experience anger; we have all felt fear, or apprehension.

Now, here’s an interesting thing. Our brains process our feelings separately from our rational thought. Feelings come from our emotional brain, the amygdala, which is a very primitive part of the brain. When the emotional brain feels we are in a threatening situation it causes adrenalin to flood the body. This quickens the pulse rate dramatically and sharply raises levels of glucose in the blood. This is the “fight or fly” response, preparing us for combat, or for escape.

Once upon a time this was essential for our survival. In Western society that is no longer usually the case. In fact, repeated stimulation of the emotion of fear can lead to anxiety, where even ordinary daily life feels threatening. This can be sufficiently intense to disrupt our lives (been there, done that – it’s horrid).

Our brains process our feelings separately from our rational thought.

Our emotional brain has no way of knowing when it’s making the right response to a situation – it relies on our rational brain to tell it so. If our rational brain is consistently viewing a certain type of situation as a threat, then our emotional brain will believe it. So, for example, if we constantly worry about what’s going on in the world, our rational brain is sending the message, “I’m in a dangerous place. I’d better be on the alert.” Our emotional brain believes what the rational brain tells it, so that at the least sign of threat it goes, “AAAAGGGGHHHH!!! What’s that???”

The good thing is that our emotional brain also believes the rational brain if we consciously think positively about life. When, every night before bed, we write down three things that have gone well during the day, we are sending a powerful message to the emotional brain that life is good. When we count our blessings every morning, we are sending a message to the emotional brain that life is good. When I look at the photograph of my wedding day while drinking my first cup of tea of the day, I’m saying to my emotional brain, “Life is good. I’m happy.”

And when we do that consistently, day after day, the emotional brain gradually turns more to happiness, and less to vigilance. We become happier and more relaxed people.

And, while I don’t expect St Paul had this in mind when he gave the advice originally in his letter to the Philippians (Philippians 4:8), it certainly sums up well a good way of staying positive:

“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.” (NIV translation)

I hope you found this interesting and helpful. It’s meant to encourage a more positive, and therefore happier approach to life in those who are basically well. If you are constantly apprehensive, depressed, or listless, to the extent that it affects how you live your life, I strongly advise you to seek professional help.

 

In the moment – the power of a symbol

Sufferers from anxiety know that the condition can be debilitating. I was in that state some years ago; thankfully I’ve now recovered. In the recovery, I learned a number of mental habits that help me to avoid recurrences; living ‘in the moment’ is one of them; hypnosis for relaxation is another. I recently came across another influence, namely the power of symbols.

Miyajima cherry blossom 170425

I’ve recently returned from a holiday in Japan. I’ll start this post by confirming what a wonderful holiday it was. It was full of interest, full of beauty, full of emotion. My wife Daphne and I really enjoyed it.

It was a big, important holiday; we cashed in savings to be able to afford it. I was looking forward to it eagerly – but I was also apprehensive, because I am prone to anxiety attacks. They are sometimes very unpleasant, and they’re triggered by stress…

Travel – especially long haul flights – can be stressful. A different culture – and Japanese culture is pretty different from European culture! – can be stressful. Visiting a place where you don’t understand the language can be stressful – and although English is taught to all children in Japan, it’s not widely spoken, and only the most important signs are in English as well as Japanese.

And yet I have returned feeling tranquil, and the feeling has endured. This was sufficiently unexpected that I have tried hard to understand it. I wouldn’t say that I’ve reached any definite conclusions, but here are some of the thoughts.

Before going to Japan, I recognised that I might suffer from anxiety, and I accepted the possibility. I find that acceptance is a big deal. It goes at least halfway towards dealing with anxiety symptoms. I must make a very clear distinction at this point. To accept the possibility that something might happen, is definitely not the same as expecting it to happen. It’s the exact opposite of worrying about something. It’s realising that something may happen, and saying “Yes, I understand that, I accept the possibility. I don’t have to worry about it.”

So I considered in advance what might happen.

The anxiety would be very unpleasant. Could I get through an attack without going home? Yes. Could I get through two attacks without going home? Er, yes, probably. What about repeated attacks? It would spoil the holiday but I’d survive.

What about a worst-case scenario? The worst case would be that I would have repeated anxiety attacks that would leave me feeling so vulnerable that we would have to return home before the end of the tour. It would be a great shame to lose the holiday. It would cost a lot of extra money to change flights for an early return.

I consciously accepted that this could happen, and used my usual hypnotic relaxation regime to put aside any worrying about it.

I’m sure it helped. But I’m equally sure that it’s not the whole story.

Could the tranquillity have arisen as a result of having succeeded in surviving the stress of the holiday? I took on the challenge of a visit that in prospect I found quite intimidating, and came through it unscathed. Was I just feeling relief?

Well, I suppose it’s possible. But the tranquillity seems such an active feeling. I’m a slightly different woman from the one who set off to Japan. I would have expected relief to be a reactive feeling, and to dissipate quickly.

One of the features of the holiday was that we visited some important Buddhist temples, and Shinto shrines. Buddhism is based on the Four Noble Truths, and the Noble Eight-fold Path, and includes a recognition that human suffering is unavoidable. It also teaches, among many other things, that true happiness can be attained despite human suffering, by relinquishing useless craving and by living in the moment. Surrounded as we were by pilgrims, it seems possible that some of their piety ‘rubbed off’ on me, so to speak.

Beyond any of these possible explanations, though, my emotions tell me that the answer may lie in the symbol of cherry blossom. It was the ‘Cherry Blossom Tour’ that we took, and there were several occasions when the symbolism of the blossom overwhelmed me emotionally. The blossom is beautiful – and transient. But the symbolism goes far beyond the recurrence of beauty in the world despite personal tragedy. I can’t explain it; I had to experience it.

I suspect that Japan has given me a most valuable gift. I’m so glad we took the holiday!