Calming the Beast

In the 1980s I rode horses with my friend Judy. Judy was a timid rider at first; we covered the countryside on my friend’s hunters, horses used to traveling cross-country and jumping obstacles. Hours-long rides, covering hill and dale, hopping over logs and some man-made fences, we were challenged and grew in tenacity, all-the-while, laughing and making wonderful memories.

My husband and I spoke of hindsight bias the other day and I know that I have some, but I was strong and pretty fearless, confident in my skills. I will always treasure those memories as some of the best of my life.

“Winston,” an English Hunter

Riding one summer in Ireland along the rocky shores of County Sligo, one of the men had been put on a very large, very excitable horse. After 30 minutes he gave in humbly, and switched to my smaller, calmer horse. The big dark bay I was put on settled down and we finished the ride a few hours later. Was it my skill? Maybe, but I also believe it was due to experience with many horses and a lack of anxiety. Horses sense the rider’s calm.

At Rosses Point, County Sligo, 1984

Something began to change in my “calm, anxiety-less” demeanor after completing college, becoming a registered nurse and having children. My kids would now say that I am an anxious sort. I never used to be. Once upon a time I was the go-to person to get on the crazy horses because of my calm. What happened? I believe that with my education of disease processes, with experiences in traumatic injuries, and with the great responsibility a parent feels, I became a worrier. I do work on it, and it has lessened since the children have grown older. The worries are now more about their driving, or dating, or navigating this increasingly complex world.

Back in the 70s and 80s we watched a popular show called The Waltons. Set in Virginia in the depression era the series followed the lives of a wholesome, large family. I loved it. It seemed like we were lightyears ahead of those times with appliances, fast cars, chunky mobile phones the size of a brick; we were so much smarter and advanced. At the time I watched it, the depression era was 35 to 45 years past. Now, my days riding with Judy and riding in Ireland were 40 years ago. I look nostalgically back on those simpler times, much as my parents did while watching The Waltons.

The world has continued to advance exponentially. We now have immediate connection and knowledge at our fingertips with smartphones. The James Webb telescope is transmitting back incredible, challenging photos of the universe. Artificial intelligence has become a reality to the extent that experts argue on what limits should be set for it.

And yet, have we come as far as we would have thought, as far as we should by this point? I believe that this process of improving human rights is continuous. I do wish we were not so polarized and could work together more efficiently and diligently. Perhaps the news and social media have stewed a pot that was more manageable when not boiling over, out of control.

Judy is sailing with her husband this week. They are taking a break from the anxious world, instead, courageously navigating the Atlantic Ocean. Her daughter got word to her that I was thinking of her and our times together so long ago. I was told that she smiled thinking back to them, too.

Nostalgia and good memories are balm for the unrest around us. Gratitude is calming and centering. No matter the tumult around us, no matter the inability to get a “good bit in the beast’s mouth” and guide it right where we want it to go, we can sit astride it with experience and confidence. “Nothing is new under the sun.” Humanity has in many ways been here before, and our contribution of calm, of gratitude, can make a difference in the anxious world.

On “Justin” with my nephew. Justin, an ex racehorse, calmed beautifully over time.