Columnist Chelsea Kline: It’s all downhill unless we care for one another

  • Tim Jones photo

Published: 12/2/2019 1:37:02 PM

Sometimes, mistakes can yield some truly funny stories. Better yet, sometimes mistakes can teach us how to live a more meaningful life. But the best is when we can glean the life lessons without suffering through the mistake ourselves, and instead learn from the missteps of others.

Years ago, one of my dear friends went on a skiing trip to one of those big fancy mountains, despite a long hiatus from the slopes. She arrived feeling emboldened, and allowed a casual chat with a charming stranger in the lift on the way up to persuade her to start off on a trail that was too challenging for her.

From the chunky ice cover to the twisting turns — even just the pitch of the slope right off the lift — and she knew almost immediately she had made a bad call. She rapidly cycled through the stages of grief, all while beginning to pick up speed and hurtle down the mountain.

She imagined climbing back up and aborting the ascent. She raged at herself for the overconfidence. She closed her eyes and pretended it wasn’t happening. But she could feel the relentless frigid blast in face and just accepted her predicament. She embraced the reality that she was going to have to maneuver nimbly and, um, right away!

Snowflakes burned her cheeks as she picked up speed. Her quads and glutes were already trembling from the cold, shock of sudden strenuous use, and, of course, nerves. Her chest felt tight from fear, but she had no choice but to press on, so she decided to also just let herself feel astonished and joyful. She even entertained thoughts along the lines of, “I really could die right now, so I may as well really appreciate how beautiful these snow-covered pine trees are.”

In the midst of all these overwhelming thoughts and sensations, she decided against giving herself up for lost, and instead began to talk to her self loudly,

“I’m OK! I’m OK! I’m OK!”

She sang those words as she sailed down the icy slope. She yelled, whispered and cried those words, and continued her self-soothing mantra. She was so focused on her own path down the mountain that she almost missed an opportunity to help someone in need.

Just when she started to feel a little less wobbly and a tiny bit more confident, she happened to notice a crumpled heap on the side of the trail up ahead. Mercifully, the intensity of her panic had just started to wane and she remembered how to stop. She slid over to the side of the trail, and with a tremendous spray of ice and snow, she stopped and landed on her back.

She called out to the heap, which she soon identified as an unconscious person. Taking care not to move them in case of spinal injury, she dug through her snowsuit to locate the cellphone tucked deep inside to call for help. Thanks to her quick thinking, the injured individual was able to get the help they needed.

Of course, I was struck by my friend’s story for the relatable humor of it, the image of a woman hurtling down the mountain yelling, “I’m OK,” and flying past the other skiers.

But it wasn’t until years after the fact that I began to appreciate that this parable provides some instructions for living.

How many of us, in our truest of hearts, feel as though we are ill-equipped and flying downhill at top speeds toward an uncertain final destiny? How many of us wonder how we’ve gotten where we are, have regrets about the choices we’ve made along the way, and are just trying to get through the best we can? I know that many of us strive to soothe ourselves in any way possible, through food, substances, or even whispering, “I’m OK” (or some variation thereof) over and over.

Oftentimes, it can feel like we are alone on that frigid hill and we are the only ones that are wobbly, scared, uncertain, lost. But this skiing story reminds us that not only do we all feel completely and utterly overwhelmed by life sometimes, but that may be precisely the time to slow down. Only then can we truly take stock of our advantages and privileges, which ultimately allows us to shift the focus out of self-concern and into compassion and empathy.

This holiday season, please be gentle on yourself. Please be gentle to every single soul around you, remember that all of us has our own pain. Please try to slow down and see who needs help, and assess what tools you have at your disposal to be of assistance.

This holiday season, I implore you to tune out the blaring consumerist siren songs that desperately and cunningly implore us all to purchase ever more material things to assuage those existential fears that we all harbor.

This time of year, we hear a lot about believing in Santa, or Hanukkah Harry, or simply the spirit of the season. I believe that we have the tools we need to remember how to care for one another. I believe that to do that, we must first acknowledge the long-festering and often minimized catastrophes of embedded and institutionalized racism and misogyny and the subsequent pain and suffering that so many endure as a result.

Life will indeed be a cold and rapid decline into the unknown if we rush around with only our own best interests at the forefront of our minds to the exclusion of all else. We may be pivoting again into the coldest and darkest months of the year, but instead of staying isolated and fearful, we can decide to bring the light and keep each other warm.

Chelsea Kline is the executive director of End of Life Choices New York. She is a graduate of both Smith College and Harvard Divinity School.

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