Turning Circles

by Paul Johnson, LMFT, LPC, NCC
(Originally printed in 280 Living, Birmingham, AL, June 2011)

So I was standing in the middle of the deli at Publix, turning circles, frantic with questions, holding a Cuban sandwich. And I realized, “I’m standing in the middle of the deli at Publix, turning circles, holding a Cuban sandwich. Though dressed nicely, I must look pretty ridiculous. I wonder if anyone has noticed and thought, ‘Who is that nicely dressed man turning circles in the middle of the deli at Publix holding a… what is that… a Cuban sandwich?—hmm, sounds good.’” So I stopped. Someone bumped me as they hurried past me, grabbed a Cuban, and headed for the checkout line. I swayed for a moment, but then I listened to myself breathe, and as the deli stopped spinning, I noticed what was around me. When I did this, the answer, I realized, was right there beside me: in the hot section of the deli, beside the chicken fingers, chicken wings, and macaroni and cheese. All it took for me to find the answer was being still, taking in my surroundings, and remembering. Yet, as usual, just prior, I was freaking out because I didn’t know what to do, consumed with getting it right, which led to circle turning, in Publix, in the deli, with a sandwich in my hand.

You are asking, “What’s he talking about?”

I could be talking about deciding what to get my wife for dinner, or I could be talking about recovering from an unexpected disaster. The answer is that the answer is found by first being still, noticing what is around you, and remembering.

“Still not tracking with you, Paul.”

I know; hang on.

I spent the afternoon and evening of April 27, 2011, with my family in the basement of my brother-in-law’s home in southeast Hoover. I watched in horror the worse thing I had ever seen live on TV—the whirling circling tornado that ripped Tuscaloosa apart and then proceeded through north Birmingham and beyond. I later experienced a measure of survivor’s guilt and wanted everyday to get out there and help with the cleanup and recovery. I was on edge on the inside, turning circles, frantically asking: what do I do, what do I do, how can I help, what do I do?

This is a familiar pattern for me: turning circles, asking these questions, freaking out. In doing so, I not only wear out a spot in the carpet, I create chaos with my poor handling of my anxiety. I worry about doing the right thing, and by right, I mean the perfect thing. It must be right in order for it to be good, for it to be pleasing, for it to please someone, in order for them to be pleased with me (which is the real issue).

On Sunday, May 1, 2011, my wife and I had our third son dedicated at our church. I felt rather uneasy that day, participating in such a rite of passage in the middle of announcements of what could be and needed to be done for disaster victims. My pastor reminded me that it was perfect timing. He said that all of life goes on, and that a dedication is a good reminder that in the midst of the tragic, new beginnings occur (a circle of a different kind). I listened, and noticed that my son gave a few heavy-hearted people a smile that morning, and a renewed energy for the tasks ahead of them, perhaps to dig out another’s newborn clothing from the rubble. Guilt. Anxiety. Angst. I sat in the service, and listened some more. Recovery from April 27 would be an earnest endeavor for the next 10, 100, 1000 days. Particularly the 1000, in all facets of life, but especially in the emotional and relational arenas. And then I remembered, that’s what I do—I help in the recovery of the emotional and the relational. That will be my work, my effort, my contribution.

And there it was. My answer.

When we come to our senses and notice that we are turning circles in the most unusual of places (though perhaps nicely dressed), we must choose to stop, to be still, to notice our surroundings. In doing so, we will find the answer to our angst. Then we will notice our options, and in noticing our options, we will remember what we know, and then it will occur to us, “I do this.” Once that happens, we can match what we see with what we know with what we can do. The result tends to be right, and it tends to be good.

I sat beside my wife as she polished off the last remnants of the turnip greens, the corn, and the okra and tomato stew (that which sat beside the chicken fingers, wings, and mac and cheese in the deli at Publix). She sipped her drink, sighed, turned to me, and said: “That… was perfect.”

I had gotten it right. I had remembered. I had remembered her.

Which was good.

As was my Cuban sandwich.

To talk further about listening or recovering, please consider LifePractical Counseling for your counseling or consultant needs. You may reach us at 205-807-6645, or contact him via our website at www.lifepractical.org. Paul Johnson is a professionally licensed marriage and family therapist and professionally licensed counselor in the state of Alabama.