Well That Escalated Quickly
Just 30 days ago we were going about life as usual. We were planning after church trips to Target and lunch at Buffalo Wild Wings, we were discussing summer vacation destinations and trying to think of excuses for skipping my cousin’s wedding in May (Okay that was just me, please don't tell my cousin). Some of us were getting ready for March Madness – if only we knew how “mad” March would soon become.
And today, (March 31, 2020) we are enduring a reality that is unprecedented in modern times. None of us have lived through anything quite like this, and we are adjusting to what could become a “new normal” for months to come. We have all been shown just how fragile “normal” life can be, and it’s scary. We have seen grocery stores stripped clean of items many of us had taken for granted, we have watched schools, stores and churches close and the nightly news is mainly bleak.
Those of us in essential roles are being screened daily, and many of us harbor fears that range from getting a fever to bankruptcy. If you are like me, you are wondering how this pandemic will affect your paycheck, your ability to pay the bills. The stress, anxiety and fear unleashed by an “invisible” killer has been surreal to this point, and according to some sources, we are in for at least another month of it. In normal times, our emotions can get the best of us but these aren’t normal times. If you want a demonstration of how edgy and scared people are, just try sneezing in the grocery store.
So how do we keep our fears from getting the best of us? And if you’ve got kids at home, how do you help them with the anxiety they feel? At first my youngest son was happy to be out of school and play video games all day. Now he is shushing me during the nightly news, chain smoking cigarettes, and I could swear his hair is getting gray. Seriously though, he wants things to go back to normal. Don’t we all?
Imagine the fear and anxiety this is causing for everyone. Many of us were already living with frequent anxiety, and many of our normal coping mechanisms have been put on hold (going shopping, getting together with friends, etc.) Many of us have to develop NEW coping skills for these negative emotional states.
What is the best way to navigate out of negative emotional states? G.P.S., of course. No, your Garmin isn’t going to lead you to a safe place where money grows on trees and everyone has plenty of toilet paper, that’s not what I’m talking about. “G.P.S.” in an acronym for a powerful tool to help guide us out of negative emotional states such as anxiety, fear, stress, anger, resentment, etc.
G.P.S. = Gratitude, Purpose and Spirituality
Like you, I’m scared. I’m scared of being laid off and not being able to pay the bills. I’m scared that someone close to me will catch this terrible virus and possibly die. I’m scared for my friends who are paramedics, and the many nurses in my family. I’m scared that there are people who are ignoring the “stay at home” advice, taking oblivious family outings to Wal-Mart with at least one kid with a wet cough, runny nose and conspicuously red cheeks indicative of a fever of at least 101 degrees. (That can’t just be my local Wal-Mart) - I’m a little edgy, sue me.
But here’s the thing, I don’t have a lot of control over external events. And in all of the fears I just cited, I can find things to be grateful for if I look hard enough. While I’m scared of my job being affected, I’m also VERY grateful that I still HAVE a job, I’m grateful to be at work today. I’m grateful that administration and medical leadership where I work are taking steps to protect my health (and the health of my peers & the public). I’m grateful for our local, state and federal leaders who are working tirelessly on solutions and safeguards. I’m grateful to those of you in essential jobs still showing up to work every day, despite the personal risks because you believe in helping people.
I often complain about living in the Midwest, but right now I’m actually grateful to live in a rural area where we can all spread out a little. I’m grateful that my wife works part-time at a grocery store and can get us toilet paper (it’s the little things, you know? And no, I can’t hook you up). I don’t have enough room to list all of the things I’m currently grateful for. I suggest that if you or someone you love is struggling with anxiety, you start to actively focus on gratitude. I’m still alive, I’m still relatively healthy, and I’m not currently going hungry…I’m grateful. I challenge any of you to maintain negative emotions (such as anxiety) and be genuinely grateful at the same time. It’s not possible.
Gratitude doesn’t resolve these things I’m afraid of, but it helps to keep me from dwelling on things outside of my control. Choosing to focus on gratitude gives me some power in uncertain times when we all feel a little powerless. If your kids are scared have a serious discussion about what they are grateful for. Help them out with suggestions, this will help them to refocus and you might see the anxiety ease up a bit.
Next is purpose. What is it (if not a sense of purpose) that gets you out of bed each morning? Purpose gives us something outside of ourselves to focus on. Right now writing this article is providing me with a sense of purpose. I learned a long time ago that I’m (generally) happiest with my life if I’m being of service and helping others. Helping seems to be my purpose. When I focus on fulfilling my purpose, I’m spending less time inside my own head, and less energy entertaining and feeding my anxiety.
Purpose gives us goals and puts us to work, purpose gets me through today and it will get me through tomorrow if I let it. Realizing (and following) your purpose will see you through to the other side of this. Purpose drives our lives and moves us toward health. If you are struggling right now – take some time alone to think and figure out what your purpose is. Ask yourself: “what actions tend to make me feel truly fulfilled as a person?” If you can answer that question, you have a good idea of your purpose. Then determine what you can do (today) to begin to fulfill your purpose. Maybe your current purpose is as simple as “I’m just going to be the best human (or nurse, or mom, or whatever you are) that I can be right now, and I’ll try to be my best again tomorrow”.
The last part of the G.P.S. is spirituality. I’m not the one anyone should take religious advice from. I’m not a super churchy person, I can’t cite scripture and I couldn’t name more than 4 of the apostles if you paid me. While spirituality can encompass religion, spirituality itself is something a little different. When I practice “spirituality” I do so by trying to stay fully aware that I’m just a single part of something much bigger than me. That’s it. I’m me, and I’m important, but I’m just a tiny cog in an infinitely big machine. To me, spirituality is coming to terms with the idea that the universe doesn’t revolve around me, rather I’m just a tiny part of the universe.
On a micro level, I’m a part of my hospital team. I’m important, but I’m one piece out of many. And on the macro level I’m also a part of the universe, I choose to believe that I’m here for some reason but I also believe that I’m way too small to truly comprehend that reason. God (or the universe) has some sort of plan for me, I’d sure love to know what that plan is – but I don’t and I probably never will. So I have to be okay with that and follow what I sense to be my purpose. The spirituality part is acceptance…no…embracing, that I’m a part of something larger than myself.
When I consider my spirituality within the context of a global pandemic, I accept that whatever happens is what was meant to happen. I’m important to a lot of people, I’m important to God and/or the universe, but I’m not so important that I’m immune to struggle or suffering. My spirituality helps me to accept that struggle and suffering are not anomalous; they are a part of the process of being alive.
The only way to strengthen any muscle is to stress and tear the muscle so that it heals slightly bigger and stronger. This pandemic may cause me some pain or discomfort, but when I survive pain and discomfort; I’m a better and stronger person for it. And if I don’t survive the pain or discomfort (if the illness takes me), I accept that’s what was meant to be. I don’t have to like it, and I will take precautions to avoid it, but ultimately I’m not the one in control of the universe.
The universe may hit me with things that hurt, but I choose to believe that my suffering serves a higher purpose. Spirituality is a personal thing, but exploring it can help one to find meaning in pain & suffering. In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl demonstrates how this mindset can help one survive through even the hardest of times. Fair warning: maybe don’t read that book to your kids though, it’s a rough story.
Listen; maybe dial the whole spirituality part down a couple of notches when talking to your kids, (unless they are really into Zen, Logotherapy and Carl Jung, I suppose) but definitely use your G.P.S. to help guide you through these troubling times, and teach your kids that focusing on gratitude, purpose and spirituality can help them feel a little less afraid.
We are all in uncharted waters, people are dying and platitudes provide very little comfort for their families and friends, I understand this all too well. What we can do is honor those people by living the best lives we possibly can, every day. We honor them by working to fulfill our true purpose, even on days when we don’t feel like it. We honor them by choosing to focus on things within our control, accepting the things NOT in our control and taking life (and staying home) one day at a time. We set ourselves up to be at our best when we focus on gratitude, purpose and exploring spirituality. And if we can also stop hoarding toilet paper, that would be great too. Hang in there folks, this too shall pass.