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  • Tim Mathis

Uncertainty sucks, but it's also normal. How to accept reality and move forward during crisis.

Updated: Feb 14, 2022

Lessons from thru-hiking, cancer, and Covid-19 about managing modern life's rolling existential crises.

I started thinking about 2015 a lot in 2020, when the coronavirus hit.

2015 was the year that Angel and I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, and it was also the first time I felt the type of existential dread we all started waking up with after waves of hospitalizations and deaths began hitting around the world, threatening lives and livelihoods for years to come. It’s the same feeling that was triggered for me a month before Angel and I were set to start the PCT, when my dad was diagnosed suddenly and unexpectedly with glioblastoma, a terminal form of brain cancer.

I made the connection early on between the events, because I instantly recognized the feeling I’d been feeling. The uncertainty and sense of impending doom, and the sense that the future is out of my control. Similarly, the sense that I’ll likely be fine through this, but that people I care about deeply will not. The sense that really, I want to hope for a positive outcome, but that actually isn’t realistic. Too much is already in motion that’s determined that my dread is well-founded. Bad shit will happen, and life will never be the same again. The sense of being blindsided by mother nature. The sense that there’s no real way I could have prepared for this emotionally. And the sense that I actually have no idea how any of this will shake out, or what will come afterwards.

I'm guessing that's familiar to a lot of you by this stage, and I'm guessing it's a feeling none of us will forget who've lived through Covid-19.

In 2015, it was a real, but small scale, crisis for me, of the type that happens to thousands of people every day, and really impacted primarily my family and our friends. With Covid, the whole world was catapulted into the same situation. All of us were threatened in some way or another - from losing our faith to losing friends to losing jobs to losing our way of life. None of us are emerging out of it the same as we entered. Some of us died. Those of us who are surviving are still being changed in ways that we can’t predict or control. Although it seems like things will hit an equilibrium, none of us (still) know how long this will last or how it will all shake out. Existential dread is the name of our collective diary entry about modern life.

I made the connection between the events early on, the way certain smells trigger memories involuntarily, and it also hit me that the things I learned during my dad’s illness and death might be broadly valuable for people trying to navigate modern life. The experience didn’t provide answers, but it did teach me that there are strategies to get through.

So what do you do?

The rest of my story is that 2015 was also a year that my life changed in positive ways. What were the positives? I came to a stronger sense of what I value, and what direction I want to point my life. I developed a stronger sense of connection to my community of people (even if Angel and I have been largely drifting around ever since). It was the year I made the decision to get serious about lifelong goals to write some books, to travel more. I also decided to stick with some things I was already doing - to keep nursing, and keep something in my life that feels like a directly positive impact on others, to keep immersing myself in the outdoors as a way to experience the fundamentals of human existence. I don’t look back on 2015 as a positive year. I wouldn’t repeat it by choice and I don’t really know that I’d say the costs were worth the benefits. But I do look back on it as formative in positive ways, and full of experiences that I draw on constantly.

I’m confident that it's possible to experience a multitude of life's traumas in this way. But it helps to have a strategy to be sure that's the case. I don't have all the answers, but I did learn some things.

What do you need to do to accept reality and move forward while it seems the world is crashing down around you?

Based on my experience, the first step to getting through an extended period of dread and uncertainty is admitting that you have a problem - you have to radically accept the negative aspects of the situation that are out of your control. There's nothing wrong with hoping for the best, unless there is no realistic chance of "the best" happening. This hurts at first, then it releases some of the anxiety of uncertainty.

In 2015, very shortly after he was initially diagnosed following a seizure, we knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that my Dad was dying. His cancer was going to take him no matter what we did. He was rushed into surgery, and after a biopsy of his tumor, the first thing his surgeon told us was that his cancer was a glioblastoma and “not survivable”, and average prognosis was about a year. While they initially put a rosy spin on what his recovery would look like from the surgery, we also realized that in many ways brain surgery had taken my dad's personality. A thumb sized chunk of his brain was gone, and along with it many aspects of what made him who he was. He was there, but not there, and we didn't know how long he'd survive. That was the reality.

When Covid-19 hit in 2020, the reality quickly set in that the disease was here for good, circulating everywhere around the world, and there was no quick or easy fix. Even in the few places that seemed to maintain some measure of control, it was clear that the economy would be massively impacted, and the average person's ability to function would be interrupted for years, if not permanently. Even after the vaccine came, all of our lives were, and will continue to be, different. The prognosis at an individual level is of course much better than glioblastoma, but at a population level this has been a crippling illness. We all live in communities, and no community has gotten out unaffected - we’re not going back to normal.

Collectively, there's been nothing to do but take a deep breath - it’s scary, but we've all had to accept what is happening.

In the same vein though, it’s important not to catastrophize. Don’t even catastrophize death. For some reason in the midst of crisis it's reassuring to remember that the worst case scenario is death, which is going to happen at some point anyway - some day we’re all going to die. So the worst case scenario is that something that is inevitable will happen sooner rather than later. When you accept that, you can recognize that your response to the current situation has analogies to every situation. What do you do? You take the situation you’re given and you try to make the best decisions you can. Is this hope? I’m not sure - but it’s a commitment to being the person you think you should be, doing the best you can, and contributing something good to the world in an unfamiliar context. It's also, I should note, a commitment to making it through this. That may just mean living the best life you can with what time you’re given, but for most of us it means steeling yourself to push through a hard time that you'll eventually emerge from a different, and maybe even better, person.

For dad personally, doing the best he could with the time he had is what it meant. And in that time, after surgery, he pulled off a cross-country move to Las Vegas to spend the last months with his grandkids (which was a move he and mom had been talking about for years). That was a hard process - transferring healthcare providers across the country was a huge additional pain to coordinate, and he didn't need the extra exhaustion. But he was exhausted anyway, and no intervention was going to get rid of his cancer so who cares? It meant leaving behind his home of more than 60 years and the rest of his family, but that was going to happen anyway soon, so it wasn’t something he could change. We knew in his situation that lots of bad things would happen, but we also wanted to make sure that some good things happened.

Your reality may be less dire, but there are analogies in this to every crisis. Things suck, and more bad things are definitely coming. But keep perspective - Covid-19, for instance, has been a reminder that pandemics (and, ahem... terrible government management of them) are normal. So are wildfires and earthquakes and divorce and war. Whatever your situation, you’re not unique in it - you just might not be used to it. In any crisis, you need to make the best decisions you can with the information you've been given. You will make it through, most times. Some bad things will happen. But you can also make sure some good things happen if we don’t get defeatist, and don’t catastrophize.

Okay, but how do you decide what to actually do when your options suck?

In the midst of crisis, it’s okay to recognize that you may be trying to choose the best of several bad options. It’s normal to feel paralyzed or defeated in those situations. But it’s important to keep moving towards your values and goals the best way you can figure out. Because change and life will come, whether or not you decide to have your say in the situation.

You'll feel much better about life if you decide to have your say.

Angel and I knew my dad had terminal cancer. And we knew that we wanted to spend as much quality time with him as we could with the time we had left. We also had a massive life goal we’d been preparing for a year which we'd already quit jobs to pursue, and post-surgery, after we had him settled in Vegas, my dad insisted we go. Angel and I had to make a decision, and we hedged our bets. He'd had surgery that was ‘mostly’ successful. Doctors said he’d likely have a good amount of time - a year, two possibly. Maybe even 5 if his cancer wasn't fast growing. We decided to go on with the PCT, monitor the situation, and integrate Dad and Mom into the experience as best we could. On the last road trip I ever took with my Dad, they drove from Vegas to the Southern Terminus in California and dropped us off, taking the first steps north with us. It's the last really positive memory I have with my Dad. Our plan was to see them along the way at Big Bear and maybe a couple of other points, and then to move to Las Vegas afterwards to spend however long the rest of my Dad’s life would be with them.

In the Covid-19 crisis, most of us accepted quickly that there was a pandemic spreading and taking lives. That wasn't negotiable, even if a lot of people extended their period of denial for months or even years. The only thing to do has been to take the options you have and make the best decisions you can with them. While life takes some options off the table at times, that doesn’t mean that there are no options. There are always options until you’re dead, and you have to choose the best ones you can. That might mean using the destabilization of a pandemic to fight for a better world. It might mean figuring out how you can contribute to your friends and neighbors. It might mean working to make sure your business or government retools for the new situation. It might just mean supporting your friends and family as we weather a long winter together. You have the options that you have, and if you choose consciously which ones to take, you'll feel better about it.

Having said that...

Remember that in the midst of this uncertainty, you’re going to make some bad decisions. When the lights go out, and you're flailing in the dark, there’s no way to get everything right. Give yourself some grace for this, and recognize that no choice is perfect and all choices involve costs and benefits. Some days you may be too exhausted to make any choices. That’s fine too. Take a day off.

While we planned to spend the months after our PCT trip with my dad, after my parents came to visit in Big Bear (only a few hundred miles into the PCT) I never saw him walk under his own strength again. He collapsed the day we hit the midway point on the trail. His cancer was back, the tumor larger than it had been at his initial diagnosis, and with glioblastoma this means there are no further meaningful interventions that can be done. In the 10 minutes after getting the message, we abruptly made the decision to quit the trail. We worked our way to Vegas and arranged an apartment, expecting to spend the last months of his life with him. But his health fell off a cliff. He was never really back cognitively, he declined rapidly and passed away within two weeks - about 4 months after his initial diagnosis, and well less than the average prognosis. In retrospect I’m not sure that I feel we made the right initial choice to start the PCT, because we spent the only semblance of healthy existence he experienced in the couple of months after his surgery wandering in the literal desert. But we made the best choice we could with the data we had, which is all we could have done.

The world is going to be in flux. Trust the data, trust the experts, look at your skills and options and goals and do what seems best. Because…

When you make a bad decision, it just means that you have given yourself a new set of options. After Dad died we debated staying in Vegas, working, hanging out with my mom and generally grieving. We were on the edge of buying a car and taking jobs to this end. (Angel already had accepted an offer.) But we had an honest conversation with ourselves, and with my mom, and we changed our minds. We decided to go back and finish the trail. Because of the hiatus, that meant taking on a challenge that a few months ago would’ve seemed impossible - hiking 25 miles a day until the snow flew in October, aiming to beat the weather and finish the trail. Mom drove us back to the trail and took the second set of first steps with us north again. She also made a decision, trained for months, borrowed gear, got advice from some supportive friends, and met us at the end on the trail on her first overnight backpacking trip. It would be the first of several more trips we’d take together the next few years, and it seemed from an outside perspective to give her a sense of purpose and independence - pursing a dream my dad never would have taken on himself. In this case we all made the right decision, I think. We were guided by the same values and relationships as when we'd decided to leave initially. We took a different risk, but this time it panned out. We finished the trail, and with my mom spread some of my dad’s ashes at the Northern Terminus . We were emotionally exhausted but there was no more meaningful way to experience some degree of closure on my dad’s life, with my mom. All that physical and emotional suffering culminated with a moment where we could say we were done. (Not done, of course). That wouldn’t have been an option if we hadn’t taken the first steps earlier when we found out the bad news.

In a situation that’s in flux, options will be continually opening and closing. Keep moving along the path.

Even if you commit to making decisions and moving forward, maybe the hardest bit can be the uncertainty. The emotional weight of it all. The bad news hits, then you just sit with it and wait for doom to come without really knowing what that doom entails. When you’ve radically accepted a hard reality, it’s normal to wake up every day with a vague sense of sadness and dread. That’s what happened for me in 2015, that's what happened for me in 2020, and I'm sure it's what will happen for me again in the future. I would guess that you've had the same experience.

What helps? How do you manage uncertainty and dread?

When my dad got sick, I was lucky to be thru-hiking because exercise actually impacts your feelings. The type of anxiety that you feel in the midst of crisis, I think, is there to get you doing something. And if you don’t do anything, the feelings don’t improve. If you do, they do. Running a lot would’ve been better because it produces positive emotions. Hiking was therapeutic because it exhausts you and dulls your emotions. And being on trail I didn’t have that much choice over whether to keep going. A good diet also helps, though less immediately. Thru-hiking encourages the opposite of that. But at home, you should really get some exercise and eat as best you can.

It was also helpful to be on trail in the face of the uncertainty of what came after my dad’s death because thru-hiking is an exercise in figuring out the minimum that it takes to be happy. Just the stuff on your back, relationships, food and shelter. Thru-hiking teaches you that you can not just survive, but be happy with this. As with accepting death, there's something therapeutic about this. Even if most of what you have is taken away, it's still possible to live a meaningful life you enjoy.

During Covid, when I was thinking particularly about the economic fallouts, this was a reassuring lesson to have learned. If you’ve learned to be happy with almost no material possessions, you know you can handle it. Much is uncertain. If you're reading this, it’s unlikely that you won’t have what you need to survive and figure out ways to live a fulfilling life in any given situation. Go with that. Even if the worst happens, you can find ways to have a meaningful life.

Thru-hiking is also an exercise in the experience of the world as a beautiful place. I really do think humans are made to be outside. When you’re fully immersed in it, you just don’t feel the same way you do when you’re inside, out of the elements. It sucks to get rained on for days at a time, but otherwise I’m not sure there could’ve been a better way to put things in perspective and remember that we’re all part of something bigger than to live outside in the western United States for 5 months.

I believe that in crisis, you really do need to get outside. Seriously, watch the birds, who don’t give an eff about disease or politics or whatever is troubling you. Jump in a lake, or just let yourself get rained on for a bit. It’ll release a lot of that malaise you’re living under naturally. The truth is, we are all just one small part of the grand evolutionary history of the universe. Go experience that for a minute or two. It's safe, and it helps.

Another thing we learned is that in this type of crisis, relationships get you through. This means several things.

When something happens to upset your existence, it makes you realize (if you didn’t already) that for the most part, your life ultimately centers on relationships with people you care about. During my dad's illness, for me that meant things drilled down rapidly to relationships with family - helping my dad live out his life as best he could. Helping my mom get through this. Figuring out how myself and siblings could make these things happen. Figuring out how to continue to be a husband when I felt like I couldn’t manage any more emotional energy.

We’re not all in the same boat, but we are in the same ocean. It’s a good analogy. In my family, obviously my dad got hit way harder by the waves of brain cancer than the rest of us. But we were all impacted, and we went through it together. We go through things together.

One of the biggest anxieties with uncertainty is that you'll be left on your own to cope with a situation you can't manage. But in any given crisis that's unlikely. With Covid, while the challenge has not been the same for everyone, it has impacted all of us and we’ve all had to figure it out together (whether we like it or not). That’s a positive thing. It’s reassuring somehow that to know that we’re all confronted by change and uncertainty. We all have to sort it out together. Crisis is a reminder that we all have to rely on each other. Play your part, but also recognize that others will also be playing theirs and you’re not in this alone.

Because people help. Maybe in ways you never expected. When my Dad got sick and died, friends reached out who had gone through similar experiences, and established the connections we needed - even if we didn’t know we needed them. Angel was a major crutch I needed. She let me be a mess, even though she loved my Dad and was a mess too. Siblings could commiserate in that they were having a similar experience. I was very happy to have someone to occasionally grab a drink and decompress with who was as emotionally exhausted as I was and experiencing the loss in a very similar way - they’d lost the same relationship I had. Back on trail people joined in the effort and kept us going - physically and emotionally. We have friends who were so supportive, and rallied around not just us, but also jumped in to make sure my mom got something out of this too - to make sure she didn’t lose hope, had something to work towards, had what she needed emotionally and financially. It felt both possible and meaningful to keep moving forward because it wasn’t just us trying to make it through.

In Covid, however we voiced it, we've all experienced the crisis and struggled. We’ve helped each other through, even though it's been impossible to predict at any given moment what the future would look like. Some have been more helpful than others, but we've all been swimming in the same ocean.

Even having said all of that, to conclude on a point of realism, it’s important to recognize that even with all of your coping skills perfectly executed, in the midst of crisis most times you won’t feel good, but that doesn’t mean the plan isn’t working and you should stop moving.

After we got back on the PCT, for two months of hiking I felt numb, angry, depressed, sad, and physically and emotionally exhausted. There was plenty that happened that was meaningful, but I wouldn’t say that I have many memories that I would describe as positive. I’d cry regularly, curse more regularly, and push forward in an emotionless void most of the rest of the time. That lasted for months. But it was a process that transformed me. Completing the trail was getting closure on the whole experience. It gave me time to think about what’s important and what I’d be afterwards. I didn’t even exactly realize it was happening, but it was. Afterwards there were just some things I knew I wouldn’t go back to. I was totally ruined for the rat race and centering career goals. I felt unmoored by the loss of my father, but somehow also freed by the experience of the PCT. I had a better sense of who I wanted to be in life (if not necessarily how I wanted to get there), and I felt like a real adult for the first time. I can't point to a time when any major changes happened - I just went in one person, and came out a different one.

As I'm writing this, we’re all still in the midst of Covid, but I think that lesson has already started to come to pass. The world feels different than it did prior to Covid. People seem to be taking things more seriously. There's tension and frustration and negative energy and exhaustion in the air, but it seems like there's also something like a commitment to push for a better world. The protests and movements that happened during the pandemic will stick with us as much as the suffering. It's impossible to predict the directions that the things we've learned will take us, but it's somewhere different from here.

When you push through, experiences that you wouldn’t choose can have consequences that you will appreciate and draw on later. You'll come out of it a different person, and we'll come out of it as a different society. If we're intentional about sticking to our values, in many ways we will be glad about the changes that happen, even if we aren't glad about the process. That's not a reassurance that everything will be okay, but it is an important final point - humans - including yourself and the people you love - are resilient.

I would guess that 2020 was a worse year for most people than 2015 was, but for me they felt similar. And the lessons learned in 2015 and 2020, I think, are things that can help you get through any. crisis. When the world feels like it’s crashing down, don’t catastrophize. It isn’t. But actually yeah, in a lot of ways maybe it is. But it is what it is, and you can’t control that. Keep to your values and pursue your goals, focus on maintaining supportive and healthy relationships, do what you can to make yourself feel better and manage your emotions healthily, and keep moving even if it doesn’t work. It won’t make the situation go away, but it will get you through. Eventually we’ll all change because of this, and some of those changes will be for the better. Stay sane and keep moving even if the world is crashing around you.

If you found this helpful, you’ll also probably like the book I wrote, The Dirtbag’s Guide to Life, which is pretty much just more stuff I learned on the PCT that is applicable to life more generally.

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