It’s bloody horrible at the moment isn’t it?
Over the course of a week or so we’ve gone from a relatively normal existence (albeit with worries about developments in other countries) to total lockdown. And even though we had an inkling that this was coming, the reality has sent many of us into shock. There’s still a part of me when I go to sleep at night that thinks that maybe when I wake up it will all have been a nightmare and we’ll all go back to talking about Brexit. But we know now that it won’t – this thing is here for the long haul and we have to try to learn a way to live in this new reality. So how do we do it?
Living with the fear
There’s certain physical side effects of living in such frightening times. I’ve noticed a growing bubble of fear in my stomach and a hollow legged feeling that reminds me of times of shock or heartbreak I’ve gone through in the past. But previously these feelings have been relatively transient – and gradually lessen the further away I got from the upsetting event. But this feeling now, this yoke of fear round our necks and general sense of foreboding will be here for some time and is society-wide.
Until this point I think we in the West have unconsciously had an impression of having some sort of safety net underneath us. We knew in theory of course that bad things happen ‘over there’, somewhere else in the world. But they didn’t happen too much in our country and not to us. But now that safety net appears to have been whipped away and all bets are off. We feel as if our lives as humans are suddenly precarious when in fact they have always been so – we just hadn’t really known it. Because you can’t really ever know these things in your bones until you or someone you love goes through it.
So the question I’m having to ask myself now (as are many others) is whether my definition of ‘happiness’ is wide enough to encompass the current situation.
Can I find contentment while living with fear as my companion? Until now, I’ve had certain ‘prerequisites for happiness’ – the knowledge that my family and friends are healthy, well and safe and are likely to stay that way, at least for a while. But now I and we are being called upon to stretch our concept of happiness to accommodate much more fear and uncertainty than we have ever had to live with before.
The signs so far are, I think, that it is possible to do this, provided we find a way to live on a daily basis, enjoying the moment and without projecting into the future. People are finding pockets of contentment and happiness in the freedoms we do have left: the freedom to go for a run, writing and posting a letter to someone we love and miss, walking the dog or FaceTiming with friends and family. And of course there’s the ultimate freedom that Viktor Frankl talked about – the freedom to choose one’s reaction to a situation.
Indeed, there’s an argument to say that this whole experience is like a (very scary) rocket-fuelled course in mindfulness – it’s forcing us into the moment and waking us up to our lives and what’s important.
Love love love
One of the cruellest element of this illness that its contagiousness means we can’t go and give the people we love who are most vulnerable a cuddle and take care of them.
Previously, I’ve been accustomed to showing love to the people I love in the way I want to – driving across the country to see my parents when I wanted to for example. With that option taken away and with worries for their health and safety setting in, the strength of the love you have for them is highlighted to you. It’s poignant and it’s painful but it’s still beautiful.
Because love is still love even if you can’t channel it in the way you’d like – Viktor Frankl, in his book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ talked about his love for his wife not being dependent on whether she was there or not, whether she was alive or not. The love you have has a force of its own and is independent of whether that person is able to ‘receive’ it and whether one gets to see them.
Are you a human being or a human doing?
I’m also learning to regard the situation as some sort of spiritual training. In life I’ve always been a ‘doer’. I’m not alone in this, particularly living in London where life can be pretty non-stop. But when you’re forced to sit on your hands for a period of time, all sorts of interesting things happen. Decisions that you’d made and plans that you’d hatched before this all hit now seem a bit less clear cut. Having some of my control taken away from me is enabling me to let go of fixed ideas as to how things should turn out.
Of course, inevitably, I’m still attached to some outcomes, like desperately wanting the people I love to be OK. But other, lesser aspects of my life, wanting to move house for example, that seemed so certain beforehand, have become much looser now. It’s like I’m developing a sense of wonderment or curiosity about what’s going to happen next rather than being certain as to what should happen.
Drown out the noise
One of my mum’s favourite phrases is “don’t make a drama out of a crisis”. I never really knew what she meant when I was a kid but never has it been more pertinent than now.
We’re surrounded by a lot of ‘noise’ about the situation: from the media, the Internet, the people in our lives. And a lot of it isn’t helpful. I must have now received emails from every service provider I’ve ever used in my life referring to these ‘strange’, ‘unprecedented’ and ‘unimaginable times’. Such emails may be necessary (for some reason I don’t understand) but they also serve to heighten the anxiety. There seems to be no escape from the situation.
I’m aware that some people continue to imbibe the news by the bucketload but frankly I haven’t got the stomach for it. Because what I’ve found is that my brain cannot be trusted with the contents of the media. If I read something about numbers of fatalities my brain immediately turns that into an inevitability that I’m going to lose the people I love. That’s not mathematically accurate but there’s where my head goes. And I imagine it’s the same for lots of others. Too much exposure to the media detracts from our ability to take this thing one step at a time, one day at a time or even one hour at a time. If we try to do any more than that at the moment, we’ll be overwhelmed by our feelings.
My litmus test when I start to feel tempted to read a particular article or glance at a newspaper is the following:
- is it likely to be helpful to me to read this? and
- is it likely to affect the way I act or don’t act?
If the answer to these two questions is ‘no’ then I won’t read it.
It’s also a good idea to be discerning in your interactions with others. I’m one of those people who tends to ‘end up talking to’ people I barely know in the street. It’s important to be friendly of course, especially at the moment, but I’m learning how to discern quickly which conversations are likely to be helpful. For example, if the other person is a neighbour who knows about a scheme to help the vulnerable in our area, that’s important. Contrast that with a conversation that is likely to create more drama with gossip or speculation about what’s going to happen next, how many people are going to die etc. That, I can live without. There is nothing to be gained here from panic.
This applies to friends as well as acquaintances. There will be times when friends phone, text or email to offload their fears on to you. Sometimes we will have the emotional resources to handle that. Sometimes we won’t. Our job is to be aware of our own emotional state and our capacity to manage that stuff. If I think it will send me doolally to listen to it at that point in time I won’t respond for a little while or I’ll make an excuse to end the call. We’re all being depleted by the anxiety we’re carrying around so we needn’t feel guilty for stepping back a little from contact on occasion. It’s ok not to answer the phone sometimes or to respond to a text or email at a later point when you’re feeling stronger. Being highly responsive is not the best idea at the moment anyway – that’s how the whirlwind of social contagion is growing.
Find new distractions
If you’re anything like me, you usually intersperse your working day with regularly checking Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, BBC News etc. In normal times it provides a bit of light relief. Not anymore. We need to find new distractions. Ones that take us away from the reality of the situation. No more walking down the street, eyes glued to i Phones like the zombies in Shaun of the Dead (not that we can really walk down the street anymore anyway). We all need a break from this situation or our brains will explode. Programmes, books and podcasts about nature and wildlife will be our saviours at the moment. So will fiction, comedy (often of the dark kind) and anything that grounds us and gives us a sense of before and after, like history.
I hope that you all keep yourselves safe, physically of course, but also mentally inasmuch as that’s possible. We’re all in this together.