One of the lessons from my elementary school days that still stands out in memory was flower dissection day. I was astonished with the intricacy in a flower. Where before I saw just a flower, now I saw intricate systems for reproduction, male and female organs, color and smell to attract pollinators, a whole interconnection of systems. And this was just what I could see with my naked eye. Later I would discover the microscopic diversity and complexity of plant life. But then as a little 8 year old girl, I was gobsmacked with the complexity of it all.
Isn’t it all miraculous?
These days I need to stop and remember to let my much older self still stand in awe of the complexities of life. The interconnectedness of creation in all its abundance, from the dung beetle pushing its treasured clomp up a hill backwards with its hind feet, to the elements swirling together in a once in a generation storm.
Standing in awe requires both decentering ourselves and paying attention, absorbing both the tiniest details and the grand ones, and realizing our small place in the midst of it all. And even we humans are an amazing complexity of systems and organisms functioning together to keep us alive, made up of around 30 trillion human cells, and 39 trillion non-human microbial cells living on and in us. Our own body is essentially made up of many separate ecosystems. It is staggering.
In this interview, Brené Brown discusses the complexity of emotions we are experiencing as a result of the pandemic and social isolation. Her words bring comfort and solace to all of us, but particularly those of us raised to believe that only positive emotions should be felt or expressed.
These are tough times. And it’s particularly difficult because this is not an emergency you have to gear up for and get through; it’s a slow burn. As she says:
“Normally, in order to get through a crisis, you know, our bodies are built to respond with a lot of adrenaline, a lot of energy, a lot of super coping surge. And then the waters recede or the fires are out or, you know, the crisis ends and we slog our way through kind of cleanup and trying to find our new normal. But we are not going to be able to depend on the adrenaline surge for this, because it’s going to out- it’s going to outpace us. And I think we are hitting that moment where we are weary in our bones. We are physically tired. We, you know, anxiety, uncertainty take a lot out of us physically. I think, you know, we’re on Zoom calls. I don’t know what happened. Like, I work a lot to begin with, but I feel like I’m on Zoom calls from 6:00 in the morning until midnight. You know, and then we’ve got toddlers crawling up our backs and partners trying to, you know, tell us to be quiet. They’re also are being called. And we’re tired. And I’ll tell you, the other thing that’s exhausting; that we are not acknowledging – again as a collective – is grief.”
And the grief is perhaps more extensive than any we’ve felt before. It’s grieving a loss of everything that was normal to us. Brown explains, “Well, I think it’s a very difficult position we’re in right now because I think we are both grieving the loss of normal and grieving the ordinary moments that make the touchstones for our lives. We’re grieving the loss of those at the very same time we’re having to find and settle into a new normal. And those two things are very difficult to do. At the same time, not mutually exclusive, but as close as it gets without being mutually exclusive. So there’s grief, I think. Grief is the loss of normal.”
And it is ok to experience that grief and mourn those losses. We are vulnerable, and there is no shame in acknowledging that:
“To be alive is to be vulnerable, to be in this pandemic, is to be vulnerable every second of every minute of every day. And the thing about vulnerability is it is difficult, but it’s not weakness. It’s the foundation and the birthplace of courage. There is no courage without risk, uncertainty and exposure. And so, you know, I’ve asked 10000 people that this question, starting with special forces military: give me an example of courage in your life that did not require uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure. And in probably 15 thousand people at this point, not one person has been able to give me an example of courage that did not require vulnerability. So we need to dispel that mess and we need to acknowledge we are in a lot of vulnerability right now. That means we can be our best, bravest selves or we can be our worst selves, and I think the thing about choosing to be our most courageous selves is having to understand this is another method to style that most of us know we’re taught growing up that we’re either brave or afraid, that the truth is we can be brave and afraid at the exact same time. Most of us are in these moments today.”
We can be brave and afraid at the exact same time. We can be strong in our vulnerability. And, even though we are living a new normal, we can choose how we show up there.
We are grieving, collectively, the world over, all of us. Grieving the past we’ve lost and the loss of the future we expected. Things will be forever different for us. There are stages to this grief, and we will all experience it differently. But it is in acceptance where we will find the ability to process it and move forward into an uncertain future. This is our now. This is what we have to work with.
In this excellent article on grief, David Kessler shares his thoughts on what we are all going through:
“Yes, we’re also feeling anticipatory grief. Anticipatory grief is that feeling we get about what the future holds when we’re uncertain. Usually it centers on death. We feel it when someone gets a dire diagnosis or when we have the normal thought that we’ll lose a parent someday. Anticipatory grief is also more broadly imagined futures. There is a storm coming. There’s something bad out there. With a virus, this kind of grief is so confusing for people. Our primitive mind knows something bad is happening, but you can’t see it. This breaks our sense of safety. We’re feeling that loss of safety. I don’t think we’ve collectively lost our sense of general safety like this. Individually or as smaller groups, people have felt this, but all together this is new. We are grieving on a micro and a macro level.”
The article is well worth a read, as it helps us put the issues we face now in perspective and give voice to our feelings. He states:
“Understanding the stages of grief is a start. But whenever I talk about the stages of grief, I have to remind people that the stages aren’t linear and may not happen in this order. It’s not a map but it provides some scaffolding for this unknown world. There’s denial, which we say a lot of early on: This virus won’t affect us. There’s anger: You’re making me stay home and taking away my activities. There’s bargaining: Okay, if I social distance for two weeks everything will be better, right? There’s sadness: I don’t know when this will end. And finally there’s Acceptance. This is happening; I have to figure out how to proceed.
“Acceptance, as you might imagine, is where the power lies. We find control in acceptance. I can wash my hands. I can keep a safe distance. I can learn how to work virtually.”
Sometimes dealing with a problem begins with naming it. Grief, that’s what it is. Have compassion on yourself and others. This is hard.
A guy cuts you off in traffic. How do you see him? Is he an inconsiderate lout caring little for the aggravation he causes you or a distracted hapless soul, perhaps late for an emergency? How we see this situation, or any situation, can have a profound effect on our lives.
In this thoughtful essay, Elizabeth Gilbert considers the power of perception. She recounts a time when her father and his siblings were reminiscing about their late mother and how she used to take a sip from any glass of milk she poured for them. They agreed on the fact, that she took a sip, but wildly disagreed on their perception of that fact:
At one point, they found themselves sitting around the old kitchen table, eating sandwiches and talking about the past. My uncle, the baby of the family, looked at the refrigerator and said, “I can still see Mom standing there, pouring me a glass of milk. Do you remember that sweet thing she always used to do whenever she got us a glass of milk? Remember how she’d take a tiny sip first, to make sure it wasn’t spoiled? Always looking out for us.”
My father, the analytical engineer of the family, raised his eyebrows. “No,” he said. “You are so wrong. Mom wasn’t sipping our milk to test it for freshness. She was sipping our milk because she always overfilled the glass. She had no sense of spatial relations. It used to drive me crazy.”
My brilliantly sardonic aunt looked at her two brothers like they were the biggest idiots she’d ever seen.
“You’re both wrong,” she said. “Mom was stealing our damn milk.”
So, what have we learned about my grandmother from this story? Was she a devoted caregiver, an incompetent dunderhead or someone who would steal the milk out of the mouths of her children? (Or maybe just an exceptionally thirsty woman.) The world will never know the truth.
But does the truth really matter?
I don’t think so.
Wow! What a remarkable difference in what each brings to the encounter. Now imagine yourself in each of those mindsets: hostile, critical, or grateful. Which would lead to the happier life?
We don’t have control over facts, but we sure have a tremendous amount of control over how we perceive those facts. We owe it to ourselves to try to see the facts in the most favorable light even if that means consciously going over all the possible interpretations of something and actively selecting the best one to pick.
How many of our daily fears and worries are consumed by things that may never happen? Or by inferences or assumptions that may not jibe with did happen? Or by reliving in our heads over and over again past trauma?
How much suffering is from the actual event or trauma itself?
Sometimes it’s helpful to breathe deeply and remind ourselves of our connection to the earth, our senses, this place and time. Our worries and fears can run wild if we don’t constantly remind ourselves that they are not solid like a pebble in our hand, but amorphous and changeable depending on our perspective.