The coronavirus is forcing us to deal with a crisis that was difficult for many of us to imagine, although scientists and others such as Bill Gates have been sounding the alarm for many years. Everyday we hear about mounting death rates, including among the most vulnerable. Unprecedented unemployment and under-employment have many of us wondering how we’ll manage our rent or mortgage payment and support our families.
As much as we might long for a return to normalcy, perhaps with a renewed appreciation for the health and freedom we took for granted, we have no certainty about when this crisis will end. Change is always difficult. We are creatures of habit, easily unsettled when small changes roil our routine, not to mention tsunami-like ones. How might we deal with change a little more gracefully?
Philosophers, who try to instill us with wisdom, have long taught that change is the only constant in life. Everything is continually changing. As Heraclitus put it, “You cannot step into the same river twice, for other waters are continually flowing on.” Buddhist psychology similarly teaches that we create suffering when we cling to how we want things to be rather than accept what is.
Of course, it’s much easier to recognize these truths in our head than to embody them in our lives. But how might we take a small step toward dealing with change without being debilitated by it?
As psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl pointed out in his classic book, Man’s Search for Meaning, there are events that happen that are beyond our control, and then there is our attitude toward what happens, which we have more control over. As Frankl put it:
“The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity — even under the most difficult circumstances — to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish.”
How might we find meaning and courageous dignity during this pandemic?
We live in a culture that values achievement and having control over our lives. Our society tends to deny the shadow side of life: death, illness, and not having all the answers. Many political leaders downplayed the epidemic when it began (and many still do!), perhaps because it brought up uncomfortable feelings for them, or because they didn’t want to upset people with unpleasant truths, or because they didn’t want to be blamed for it (or maybe all three!). Such denial of the shadow side of life has made the problem worse. As the saying goes, “What we resist will persist!”
Psychotherapists such as James Bugental and Irvin Yalom have written about the existential givens of life. This includes dealing with issues such as meaning, our inevitable death, our limitations, and isolation. Oftentimes we have an aversion to these distasteful aspects of life. The positive side of facing these existential issues is that they can deepen us and connect us to each other and with what’s important in life.
We become collectively stronger as we’re willing to face adversity and support each other through it. We become a more compassionate society as sadness and sorrow opens our hearts to each other. Realizing that we’e all experiencing the same fears and powerlessness can remind us that we’re all in this together. Recognizing our interconnectedness might help us feel less isolated, as well as relieve us of the burden of shame we might carry around feeling so vulnerable during this difficult time.
It takes strength to allow for vulnerability. It takes courage to do our best to find our way through. Although we’re physically distancing, we don’t need to socially isolate. Unlike during past pandemics, we now have the technology to stay in touch with friends and community. Sharing our feelings and concerns with people who care about us can help carry us through a difficult time.
The first step toward making positive changes is to accept change — and be gentle with our feelings around it. As we regain some emotional balance — as we self-regulate with the help of friends and community — there’s an opportunity to move forward, which will look different for each of us.
Perhaps we can take some time to do things we’ve always wanted to do, but didn’t have time for, such as gardening, home improvement, or meditation. Perhaps we can re-imagine ourselves in a new career. Or maybe we can make some creative adjustment in the work we’ve been doing, such as reaching out to clients or customers in a more creative, way, adding new twists to what we do, or being more collaborative.
I certainly don’t want to minimize the anguish that many are facing, such as by losing a loved one, one’s job, or one’s health — and by being compelled to stay home. I don’t subscribe to the school of positive thinking that covers over the shadow side of life. I wouldn’t want to inflict positive thinking upon you!
However, although it may sound like a cliche, sometimes it’s true that positive things come out of adversity. There are times when letting go of the old helps make way for the new. May we all find ways to allow for new and creative possibilities to open for us.
Hoffower, H. (2020 Apr 10). Bill Gates has been warning of a global health threat for years. Here are 11 people who seemingly predicted the coronavirus pandemic. Business Insider. Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/people-who-seemingly-predicted-the-coronavirus-pandemic-2020-3