Anyone who knows me, really knows me, will be able to tell anyone who may ask what my first priority and main motivator in life is: fun. Hands down that is what drives me. When I am planning to do something, or, thinking about going somewhere I invariably ask, ‘will this be fun?’. If the answer comes up ‘yes’, I go for it. If it’s a no I take a hard pass and keep looking for what will be fun. Even when getting ready to go to work, or, preparing for the grind of the day-to-day, that we all inevitably face, I think of ways I can incorporate fun. Maybe it’s getting a special coffee, wandering through a bookstore on my lunch or connecting with a friend over a joke. Fun comes in many facets and forms and I am, unabashedly, here for all of them.
Interestingly though, I have been coming to realize my second priority and motivator in life is mitigation. Damage control. This recent discovery has been interesting and, while it is not necessarily new for me, it is the first time I have some conscious knowing of it so that I may now attempt to give language to it. It is interesting to me because of how I approach life which is with a lot of abandon and a kind of go for it and then get on with it mentality. But, as mentioned in my last piece, this Peter Pan is growing up a little and, in doing so, is realizing some things along the way. The main thing I am realizing right now is that my love for mitigation makes total sense because there is a huge difference between mitigation and avoidance.
See, I had mistakenly equated mitigation with being an avoider and I am not someone who has ever really avoided life. I have sometimes, it’s human nature, but, overall, I am more of a head on type of girl. Which explains why, when I mistakenly equated mitigation with avoidance, mitigation felt wrong to me and like something I probably shouldn’t do. I had wrongly thought mitigation meant avoiding harm. Now I see it means the total opposite. Yes it means doing damage control but not avoiding damage which would literally be an impossible task. Damage control via mitigation means acknowledging the harm, leaning into the damage that said harm can cause and then getting about the business of learning from and, wherever possible, making it better.
So now, like fun, I’m here for mitigation and, as it turns out, I’ve been here for it all along. As I said, I have never really avoided damage having long known, probably in large part due to being born with a disability, the futility of doing so. I have though often asked myself what I can learn from life’s unavoidable harms. The most recent harm being my Dad’s death. It was like an oncoming train. I saw it coming but my feet were cemented to the tracks. I was going to get hit and the damage was simply going to be unavoidable.
In the wake of the hit, I saw the damage everywhere but I was so sick of being in a permanent state of wreckage, I walked away from it for a time and just left a mess in my wake. In avoiding the damage I defaulted to unhealthy patterns and, in what will be a shock to exactly no one, the damage got worse. There wasn’t damage control so much as damage multiplication. I needed that time though before I could eventually default to my curiosity and my desire to learn; the two things that ultimately saved me as they allowed me to lean into and sift through the damage so that mitigation efforts could really begin.
As Tom Hanks says, the business of being human is no nonsense and damage cannot be avoided. As a result, we may get sadder as we get older, but, we also enjoy living more. We do because we avoid nothing, not even damage or pain, and so we get closer to the truth of who we are and live more fully. Neurosis may be a substitute for legitimate suffering (well played Carl J., well played) but suffering can never really be avoided. It is inevitable and the people who sometimes find life hard don’t find it so because they are doing it wrong. On the contrary, as Glennon Doyle says, they find it hard because they are doing it right. They are not avoiding, but, they are mitigating and mitigation is hard.
It involves staying in place, like on a yoga mat, in a hot class and a really hard pose and asking: what can I learn from this pain? How can I grow? And the mitigators surround themselves with those who allow them to be both held and free so that they may work to lessen the damage that life puts upon all of us at one time or another. The people who hold us and let us be free can’t give us a map to a place they’ve never been, but, they can bear loving witness as we chart our own course.
So now that I have consciously uncoupled the words mitigation and avoidance, I realize that they are two very, very different things. One (mitigation) is a tool by which we can grow while the other (avoidance) is a tool by which we shrivel and shrink. Mitigation (thank you for this word and your gravelly voice and, you know, trying to save people Dr. Fauci) is the process by which one can reduce “the severity, seriousness or painfulness of something”.
Avoidance is just, well, to use a very extreme example, being Donald Trump and, oh I don’t know, pretending a life threatening virus that requires mitigation is not there or that “like a miracle” it will just disappear on its own. Avoidance is the literal act of “keeping away from or not doing something”. It is the act of putting on blinders and pink paint and when someone says, ‘look at that elephant stomping around’ you say, ‘ what elephant? There’s no elephant here. I don’t think I’d even know what an elephant is.’. Yet, as my wise friend says, “pain is unavoidable. Suffering is optional. And…sometimes…you have to dance with your shadow to figure it out.”. And it is precisely that shadow dance that brings us to mitigation, that brings us to healing and, ultimately, to full and beautiful life.
It is clear that a person can never really get to mitigation by avoiding. Nothing can be changed until it is faced and every box of darkness we are given are gifts if we let them be. No one can reduce harmfulness without first leaning hard in to the harm. If anything, avoidance makes harm worse and mitigation, or control of the damage, literally impossible. Interestingly, Gwyneth Paltrow, Queen Goop, vagina candle maker and creator of many other things that can be easily mocked, blown off or otherwise brushed aside as functions of her celebrity, her privilege or both, actually had something very wise to say about mitigation in the context of her divore from Chris Martin.
In an essay written for the September issue of British Vogue, Gwyneth talks about her and her ex-husband “consciously uncoupling” as a way to mitigate the damage of their divorce on their children, and, on each other. She writes many things about that concept, primarily, that she had to lean into her own damage in order to mitigate its impact on her and her relationships. Surprisingly, even in spite of the hurt they caused each other, she found a way to love her ex-husband and to acknowledge that the parts of him she fell in love with were still there and still loved by her; even as they got divorced and she got remarried. Paltrow writes, “We lose all the nuance of life when we make it all bad or all good.”. That felt so refreshing and so true. It did so because we live in a time without a lot of nuance. Instead there is tribalism, polarization, a ‘you’re-either-with-us-or-against-us’ mentality and an intolerance for discourse or critical thinking and it’s a shame.
Discourse, critical thought; tolerance for discomfort and uncertainty are the only things that get us to mitigation, to harm reduction and to controlling the damage we can do to ourselves, and, to those around us. In that same essay, Paltrow also writes about the function of Goop and her role in it. As being a person who puts ideas out into the culture that get mocked or judged, until eventually, getting adopted by the culture at large. This was a negative and dispiriting experience until she found a way to mitigate its damage which she did by, what else, looking for the nuance, the shades of grey and recognizing not everything can be simplified and, subsequently, compartmentalized. She writes, “Although at times it has been painful, especially early on, I have come to love this role in the cycle and the curiosity that drives it.”.
Curiosity, even and especially, about our fears, our loneliness, our heartbreak and our damage are the only ways to ever reduce the harm of said damage. Melissa Etheridge is another woman looking to mitigate damage after losing her son to an opioid addiction. In a refreshingly candid and unvarnished interview with Rolling Stone, Etheridge opened up about her sons demons and how, even as his mother, she had to step back from him and his addictions in order to mitigate the damage his issues were having on her. And now, in the wake of his death, she is acknowledging that any guilt she may feel “just gets smaller and smaller, because it doesn’t serve me anymore…And you can’t lay down. You can’t be shattered. You can’t die and give up. You know, that’s what my son did. It’s [life] to be lived. It’s to learn. I still struggle with it [Beckett’s death] but that’s what I can say.”.
Apparently, Melissa isn’t afraid of Mom or any other type of shaming that might follow such a response. Many people see this as cold and her not hand wringing or flogging herself enough. She, however, seems to understand clearly and deeply that enough is actually enough and that while Beckett’s story ended in the middle, so too did her story as his mother and she has to find a way to mitigate the damage of that ending as she moves forward with her own life. The world will damage and harm us, that’s just the way of it. The world will also bring us fun, pleasure, unspeakable joy. Our job is to seek the former and mitigate the latter. We can’t avoid the latter because we need it; we need all of it. We need the joys and the harm, to teach us, to shape us and to, at the end of the day, let us grow, let us become and let us experience life in all of its many, and unavoidable, facets and forms.