I’ll admit that when I first started thinking about this article, I wasn’t thinking of the coronavirus pandemic. I wasn’t thinking of social distancing or a world economy on the rocks, people struggling to hold down a job and to stay calm in the midst of a swiftly unfolding virus.
But even before self-quarantine had become the new normal, my habits had already tended toward retreat—into myself, my fears, my own small concerns that feel so mountainous. Even before the coronavirus hit, my life was in a constant cycle of overwhelm. Now everything’s stopped—the plans, the leaving the house for work, the coffee dates and job fairs, the meetings and even face-to-face conversations—but I find myself still battling the same problems, and if anything, they’ve been further highlighted by the extra time that is freed up.
Chances are, you may be in a similar boat. Those old nagging problems of life exist alongside our current reality. And, in addition, you may have recently experienced an uptick of anxiety due to loss of a job, the cancellation of your child’s schooling for a few weeks or for the rest of the school year, or the inability to see aging parents or grandparents due to risks of disease. I’m not here to offer advice on how to solve those problems, but I do want to explore how we can engage more gently with the world and its problems—and even engage more gently with ourselves.
01. Uncover the good news
I have a social media friend who posts a little note about the small, good things he’s done each day—like getting a chance to write to or talking with a friend by phone. It’s comforting to me to remember that even something very small can really brighten our days. On a recent evening, in my little slice of the Midwest, the setting sun gilded the clouds near the horizon, and for a moment, I was still enough to notice them. So often my mind’s in constant motion—involved with tasks or untangling worries. It was a little victory to notice something joyful.
I’ve been finding that amid the constant news that feeds anxiety, what I sometimes need is good news. For example, I stumbled upon the Good News Network, which is dedicated to posting stories that speak to the reality that good always exists alongside the bad. Many of the current stories are actively engaged with COVID-19, and highlight the generosity and kindness of people during this time. While good news is helpful in stopping negative thinking spirals, at other times, I’ve needed no news, and so time away from social media has served to restore balance.
02. Meet yourself again
So many of my fears and worries stem from my relationship with myself. Recently I became conscious of the harshness of my inner voice. In times of overwhelm, I often have to challenge myself to stick with myself. The less secure I feel, the greater my desire to escape my feelings. My escapes are social media and books (how wonderful it is to get lost in another world!). But when I return from these fantasy worlds, there’s still the real one with the real me. Like sifting through news, times of difficulty often point out the need to sift through my stories of myself. It’s the kind of self-care that isn’t very fun, but to do the sifting is an act of love, and one I am worthy of receiving.
To overwhelm means “to turn upside down.” We happen to be in times that have turned many of our everyday routines upside down. Staying with myself in these difficult times personally means journaling out my fears and slowly becoming comfortable with my quirks, flaws, and strengths. An easily-embarrassed person, I can be upturned by a slightly acidic comment just as easily as I can be by a world crisis. The right response to myself in times of vulnerability, whether exteriorly big or small, is empathy. And if I can’t get enough perspective to practice this on myself, asking others to help me meet myself better is a brave act. What do you need to meet yourself well?
03. Accompany others
When I hardly feel equipped to accompany myself, it’s difficult to even imagine accompanying others. For a long time, I’ve bought into the lie that my current sufferings mean I have nothing valuable to give to my family, friends, and co-workers. There have been times when strangers have shattered this lie with a kind word, like the elderly man who sat by me at church a month ago and told me he liked my singing voice. I realized in this moment that even when hurting I can give something valuable to someone else and that perhaps I can actively seek out how to bring a small spark of light into the lives of others.
With social distancing our new normal, I’ve already heard the call from quite a few different outlets to reach out to friends and loved ones. A friend of mine runs a ministry called Project Finding Calcutta, which encourages people to approach those in our neighborhoods and communities like Mother Teresa approached the poor—with a desire to serve them. During this tumultuous time, this friend has been posting appropriately distant ways to reach out to our neighbors to check on their needs. I’ve felt the desire to invite friends and small groups into community via video chat. I had been practicing an emotional social distancing of sorts long before the last couple of weeks, but I am slowly learning that the loneliness I’ve felt is something that can be remedied by reaching out to those around me and simply seeing how they’re doing. This virus has opened an unexpected invitation into the lives of others. Many others may be experiencing loneliness now, and perhaps there is more room to reach out.
In modern times, our society has been one of rapid-fire motion. We are so connected to the world these days that it’s hard not to shoulder too much of the burden that has accompanied the twenty-first century. So be gentle with yourself, my friend. Take it on day by day. Keeping connected to the world might be a bit painful at present, but the world needs your kind of light.