On December 31st, like many other hopeful fools, I wrote a love letter with wishes and dreams to usher in the new decade. Similar to my foolish comrades, I made many plans for ’20. This was going to be the year that I created “space” in all aspects of my life; beckoning new beauties to fill the void while coaxing old loves to expand. To pull an exact quote, my letter sounded something like: ”2020, you are the year where my life will become unrecognizable because of all the miracles and magic.” (Technically, my life is unrecognizable now, right?) In the past three weeks, the dynamic fabric that wove its way through our social world has all but split at the seam. Far more than just COVID-19 has gone viral, including collective feelings of panic, uncertainty, a strange behavior of stockpiling toilet paper, hordes of misinformation, and of course, creating content dealing with at least one of the above. Nine months remain of 2020, and though I still wrestle with whether my letter was more pathetic than prophetic, 2020 may indeed be offering us all a prophetic word that none of us really asked for–time to press pause.
Pause is a loaded concept to experience in 21st century modern-day life–especially in the Bay Area. Once considered a luxury of the few, it now blankets every aspect of many of our lives. We’ve learned to manually insert a pause before leaving our homes, getting on planes, planning for the future, or getting within six feet of another human being. And yet, for me all this time spent pausing at home has been exhausting. I was puzzled by my constant flurry of emotions, the ones I met while looking in the mirror, some that I found in the weight of my sighs after contemplative strolls outside, and others buried within the growing knot in my chest of anxiety–a new tangle for every day I failed to fully “capitalize” on this time like the productivity articles touted. As a muggy laziness hung over each day like a cloud, trying to will myself to return to business as usual felt more and more impossible. Whenever I shared these feelings, I was met with a wave of understanding nods that made up the sea of Zoom calls I now waded through daily. Reader, I hope that this post can be a paddle you can hold onto, much like the impassioned wisdom I found in Dr. Ahmad’s Chronicle article. By sharing transparently and combining it with the advice of experts, I gift you this salve and acknowledgement that your wounds are my wounds, and we’ll get through this together.
this is more than one emotion.
My exhaustion stems from the emotional roller coaster that has become my life over weeks of the Bay Area’s shelter-in-place restrictions. No single emotion can capture the experience, although dozens of articles and posts have tried to put their finger on the pulse of our collective feelings. Last week, Scott Berinato, in conversation with David Kessler–co-creator of the five stages of loss and world-renowned grief expert–wrote a Harvard Business Review article titled: “That discomfort you’re feeling is grief.” In The Guardian, a columnist describes the ways that COVID-19 has incited worry and panic in her home life. And still, many others latched onto guilt as their feeling of choice: guilt for the impacts of the pandemic on our environment, guilt for contributing to the spread, and guilt as an American that shouldn’t complain at all given our swath of privileges.
Every feeling that we’re experiencing right now is valid, our work–to paraphrase Susan David a Harvard Medical School Psychologist–is to practice emotional agility. In her TED Connects Conversation on March 24th, she urged listeners to avoid pushing our emotions aside or criticizing ourselves for having negative feelings, instead, she asks us to “…be curious about them…Emotions tell us a story. Behind our most difficult emotions are signposts of [the] things that we care about.” They highlight for us what we value and need to be moving in the direction of. I was exhausted from constantly trying to suppress negative feelings instead of leaning into them for clues to learn more about myself.
Statistically, there is probably an emotion-cocktail recipe out there that best reflects how many of us are feeling. I don’t want to belabor on what that concoction looks like. I want to acknowledge that a wide range of emotions are present for all of us, and opt for a closer look at what is causing some of them to surface. As the quotes, articles, and memes stream into my inbox, I started to gain a bit of clarity on the sources of my emotions. After pinpointing the first source, I can now take the next step and ask myself what is surely to become my mantra for the remainder of the year: what is the smallest step of courage that I can take to move myself forward today? Forward, does not require an elaborate road map or navigation system. Forward only requires the willingness to be present and…a pulse. As Oprah once said in conversation with Pema Chödrön, “as long as there is breath, there is still forward.” Reader, I ask that you treat the remainder of this post as a prompt, instead of an answer. Treat these words as a way to figure out what troubles your own heart so that you can devise ways to extend curiosity and compassion towards it. Fortunately and unfortunately, we are only at the beginning of trying to make meaning of our newly-minted lives.
mirror rendezvous + ugly reckonings = my work.
COVID-19 is far more insidious than diseases we’ve seen in recent years because of its, both, widespread attack on our sense of physical safety, and inducement of mental and spiritual turmoil.* While some of us have feared what may happen to us when we leave our homes, others have struggled even more with the realization of what it means for us to stay in them. For many of us, this time at home has drudged up shameful memories, current heartbreaks, and a slew of traumas.** Demi Lovato, having struggled with body image issues in the past, recently told her fans, “I think it’s so important for anybody that has dealt with body image [issues] that right now, when we’re home with our mirrors…Be gentle with yourselves and take care of yourselves as much as possible.“
Though I had stumbled onto Demi’s words by accident, at the mention of “mirrors,” a lightbulb flashed in my head. These more frequent mirror rendezvous and times alone were affecting me deeply. And at the same time, the world was tugging on engineers and researchers to step up and tackle the ventilator-shortage, there was a global cry for Africans to donate and mobilize efforts on the continent, and there were countless calls on campus for students to petition and volunteer and to do something. Yet, I could not bring myself to do any of it, as much as I wanted to. Simply running from my thoughts and throwing myself into a new project was no longer an option either, I was now surrounded by the pause to face them all head on. After 2+ weeks of shelter-in-place, I was now learning how to deal with, what I call, ugly reckonings. Ugly reckonings are my inescapable realizations that I have been busying myself so that I never truly had to face the person I saw in the mirror. So that I didn’t have to do the work of accepting her where she is, understanding her needs, and unpacking what’s holding her back from the life she wants.
This wave of pause continuously forces me to question the senseless routines and social performances that I’ve been adhering to. I now must ask myself, how does what I’m doing fit with who I know myself to be? Crises create breaks in our routine, they highlight for us what is(n’t) working and may require repair. These breaks can produce a wide range of emotions, from the uncomfortable to the glorious. Regardless of what they bring up, our role isn’t to judge, but to be inquisitive: our emotions are simply doing their job. Ugly reckonings are the raw gaps in our polished routines that are now filled with us. They are the moments when we realize we no longer have an audience, and must instead find a way to just be.
entering unchartered territory.
Human beings, unlike other Earthly creatures, are gifted with the ability to make choices in spite of their reality. In quoting Viktor Frankl, a German concentration camp survivor, Susan David says, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. And in that space is our power to choose. And it’s in that choice that lies our growth and freedom.” The space between stimulus and response is a pause, is a deep breath, is counting silently to ten. We exercise our greatest strength when we learn to wield our pauses for reactions that reflect our highest values. I don’t want to sugarcoat this experience or romanticize it in any way, we are living in a crisis of epic proportions. Each of us must grapple with our individual realities and answer, what does it look like to stay put in a home full of mirrors? Full of reminders of who you are right now. What does it mean when we can no longer walk out of the door and immediately be recognized for who we want to be seen as? I am inviting myself to practice choosing answers to those questions that actually works for my life.
We’ve collectively entered into unchartered emotional territory: concurrently confronting the scripted lives we deemed normal and navigating the emotional tides washing all of our business up onshore. We now stand nose-to-nose with the routines we’ve memorized that shy from reflecting our highest selves. For me, small steps for braving this time will look like getting outside, sharing vulnerably with someone I trust, being honest about my need for more breaks from work, and naming my negative feelings instead of hiding them. I ask, what has your own reckoning looked like and what small courageous step can you take today?
~ack (with ❤️ to my guest editor vo who made this post possible!)
*While COVID-19 has surely touched many aspects of our lives, these feelings of anxiety, desperation, agonizing fear, and helplessness are ones more familiar to some of us than with others. We are in an unprecedented time of global suffering and action, and I am hopeful at the world we will have when the fog of uncertainty settles. Nevertheless, I urge those that rarely have had to grapple with such feelings to reflect and journal about these moments. When others call on you to stand with them in the fight for their humanity, declaration for equality, and desire for safety; you have no blind eyes to turn. Having now lived through what is a fellow person’s daily reality, we must all put our energies towards creating a better world for all. My heart and prayers for all those who are fighting for their lives and the lives of loved ones, and for the many people in this world that have no clue what a fightless life looks like.
**Given this time may be particularly distressing for some, please take the time to reach out to a loved one and/or schedule a meeting with a licensed care provider. Top online therapy programs have been aggregated at the link provided. For more resources and tips for staying mentally healthy, check out this Time article and strategies developed by the UN Dept. of Mental Health and Substance Abuse.