Brandy Davis and I have begun a series of online classes through Just Be Yoga Studio in Danville & Walnut Creek, CA. In our first class I offered a brief outline of some strategies that may be helpful at this time. I realize that this pandemic is hitting everyone differently and no list of suggestions will work for everybody. Whatever you are dealing with in our global shitstorm, I hope something here will help.
Honor the Grief
This pandemic sucks.
Everyone has lost something. I have lost my Son’s graduation from West Point, travelling to see friends and family, and leading my camp at Burning Man – which has become a huge part of my life. I know there are people who have lost so much more. Everyone’s loss is important. According to David Kessler, co-author of On Grief and Grieving, there is no value in comparing levels of loss, “The most important loss is yours.” We each have our own significant losses.
We are experiencing loss on a global scale – everyone is traumatized. We need to be honest about our loss and understand that we are weighed down by grief. The spiritual language of lament can be helpful – praying our pain, sadness, and despair. There is even room in lament for raging at God. “Why O Lord . . .?” While lament does not eliminate the cause of our suffering, it does help us move forward. Naming and lamenting our loss can create space for something on the other side of the loss.
Put fear in its place
We are facing dangerous and scary threats that are real. Front line workers are facing the very real danger of not only their own deaths but of infecting family members. I know people who are immunocompromised for whom a simple errand feels like going to war. We need to take this pandemic seriously. This is no time to push the real danger aside. Perhaps now more than ever we need to take our fears seriously.
And yet. . .
Fear can also be debilitating. It grows beyond its helpful purpose and constricts our hearts. Our world can close in on itself as fear run amok crucifies the better angels of our nature.
Here’s how that debilitating fear works. Something happens that is a real cause for concern. We find a mole that is misshapen, for example. Our fear pushes us to do the right thing: make an appointment with our doctor. At the same time our imagination kicks in. We convince ourselves that the mole is a malignant cancer that must be fatal. That fiction plants itself in our brain as if it were a present reality. In an instant we believe we are dying, and part of us lives as if that fiction were true.
It helps to know this about ourselves: when faced with a threat we often overestimate the likelihood the bad thing will happen, and we catastrophize, turning the bad thing into a calamity that will destroy us. We then live as if our life was already destroyed. Our capacity for creativity begins to shrink. Our compassion dries up. Once I learned this about myself, I saw it happening again and again.
It helps to know that the calamity you are projecting isn’t real. It isn’t even likely. So don’t let it own you.
But what if . . .
Sometimes the bad thing we fear happens. The mole is cancerous. We lose our job. Someone we love dies.
Often when this happens our resilience kicks in. We find resources within ourselves we never knew existed. Surprising allies appear and we realize we aren’t alone. The situation that we thought would end us turns out to be a catalyst to something new.
Again and again in my work as a priest I have been with people who have experienced unendurable loss, like the death of a young child. In the moment it felt like there was to future, no way to move forward. While the pain of the loss never completely went away, there was always some kind of unexpected new life on the other side. As Anne Lamott says, “If it feels like a bad ending, it’s not the end.”
I’ve seen this happen on the personal level, I believe it happens on a societal level as well. We have faced horrible times as the human family. Probably the worst on a global scale was WWI and the Influenza Pandemic in the early 1900’s. A more recent example is the fight against racism in our country. We have confronted horrible hatred and violence. At times it must have felt like we would not survive. While it may be hard to see, I believe Dr. King was right – the ark of the moral universe is bending toward justice.
This is not the worst time people have faced crisis, injustice, and horrible government. Sadly it isn’t the last time. It just happens to be our time. It won’t be easy, but this is not the end of the world. I believe that even through this, love will prevail.
So put fear in its place. Let it motivate you to right action. Do everything you can to care for yourself and those around you. Make prudent choices. But don’t listen to the lie that this pandemic will destroy you.
See disruption as an opportunity
While plenty of social upheaval has happened in my almost 60 years of life, I think this is the biggest, most widespread social disruption I have ever seen. In the U.S. almost everybody has shifted their way of living. Disruption does a couple of things.
First, it allows us to see our world and our lives with fresh eyes. Routine can dull our critical senses. We stop noticing cracks in the system. Until the system is disrupted and we begin to question our priorities and choices. At the same time cracks we have papered over in our workplaces or relationships become clear again. “Is this really working.” New possibilities emerge, “What about . . . ?” This happens at the individual level (job, partner, friendships) as well as socially/politically (healthcare, leadership.)
Second, it creates room for change. Normally change is hard, if not impossible. We have our routines that create stability. In some ways we all conspire to keep the status quo in place. But now there is no status quo. Things are shattered. Hopefully this will be the biggest disruption in my lifetime, which means it is the biggest opportunity for us a society, and for us as individuals to change things.
What are you noticing that isn’t working in your vocational or home life? What do you need to let go of or change? What patterns of behavior has this pandemic forced upon you that might help in the future?
What isn’t working for us as a society? Keep in mind, this monumental societal disruption is happening in the context of a series of other disruptions: Black Lives Matter, Me Too and the divisiveness of the Trump Era to name a few. Many people – namely people with all the privileges – for whom it was easy to believe things were generally ok, were already having their eyes opened to how really-not-ok our world is for too many others. Now the house of cards is falling quickly.
While it may feel overwhelming to consider right now, these next years may be the best opportunity you have to make positive changes. It is scary and it will be hard, but we will get through this and can even be better on the other side.
Be gentle toward yourself and everybody else
In “normal times” I find it helpful to give people the benefit of the doubt. I truly believe that everybody on the planet is doing their best given the baggage and trauma they are carrying around. Everyone is doing their best – even if their best is really shitty.
We are not in normal times. We are all struggling with grief, loss, fear, uncertainty and disruption. The situation we are in is overwhelming for everybody. So it is even more important to give people the benefit of the doubt.
Including yourself. If all you can do one day is sit on the couch and watch Netflix, let it be. We will all have different ways of coping. This is a good time to let your judgy inner critic go on sabbatical.
If you have the energy, do something purposeful.
If you aren't a first responder exhausted from saving the world, it helps to do something that matters. But if you can’t right now, remember # 5 and watch another episode of Schitt's Creek. The time will come for you to step up. It just may not be now.