Mental Forecast: Partly Cloudy with a Chance of Passing Befuddlement

I’d prefer, of course, to blame it all on COVID-19, civil unrest and the general zeitgeist.  No such luck. It is solely due to my own sloppiness (how I managed to read information, mistype it, and then overlook my error multiple times while editing, I cannot know) and thus, in my recent article, “The Sin of Referral,” misidentified the professional group mentioned; it should have been the American Counseling Association, rather than the American Mental Health Counselors Association.  I apologize for this.

I would also rather credit COVID with what has apparently been seen, by some parties, as my dismissal of the suffering of young people during the pandemic.  My ability to be clear has failed me; certainly, this was not my intention. I work with many young people and their families, and their suffering has been genuine. I am also aware, however, that young people were suffering greatly, and in a terrible upward surge, for the past decade or more.  The research on the compelling correlation between smartphone use and emotional distress of many kinds, especially in the young, is readily available for the curious reader.  I stand beside the assertion that we adults bear responsibility for teaching young people how to think, how to interpret the signs of the times, and for modeling hope rather than despair, resiliency rather than defeat.  If the constrictions of this past year are unbearable, how do we make sense of the diary of Anne Frank? Of the countless children, in England, Germany and elsewhere, sent away from family to live as often unwanted guests with strangers to be safer from bombs during WWII and yet played, studied, made friends? Of the lives of so many on this planet now, where abysmal living conditions would seem to quell any hope or joy, and yet one finds giggling children, cooing parents, adherence to principles, and the shy, burning moments of young love?

I could point to the fact that in my particular field – the mental health field – we are receptacles for our pain, our loved ones’ pain, and the pain of everyone with whom we work. Yes, this is always the case, and now the strains of the pandemic, unemployment, loss of loved ones, separation from loved ones, has crept like lava over the normal pains of life: grief, depression, anxiety, loneliness.  Most of our conversations are one-sided, in that those conversations occur solely for the benefit of one party, and the party had best not be the therapist. The mutual supportiveness of two-sided conversations is necessarily truncated. Add to this that friends and loved ones (like ourselves) have little reservoir from which to offer solace.  Most of the therapists I know have dug even deeper into prayer, into silence with God, and turning more to colleagues whom we know are on that same trail for encouragement and support.

Perhaps you, too, are noticing strange mental impacts from the cascading stressors of the past year. Perhaps not; we are prone to generalizing from what we know, and if we are introspective at all, then our own experiences are what we “know,” at least to some extent.  I know I am in many ways an odd duck; I dislike clothes shopping and like crows. I would rather stay home and read than to go “out.”  The outside chance exists, then, that it really is “just me,” and the rest of the world is rolling along, firing efficiently on all cylinders.

I doubt it. It doesn’t look to be so.

So, here is an antidote for me, and perhaps for you. Somebody you know, at any rate, could use some.

Grace. Just give one another a bit of grace, even more than in so-called “normal” times, in which grace was already in grievously short supply.

Guess what? People will say things that are stupid, or inaccurate, or sound awful out of context (and stupid and inaccurate, even in context). Even professionals will sometimes screw up! Your physician might seem to not as focused as you’d like, your counselor may give you homework that doesn’t suit or not explain herself properly.  The dentist’s office has to close on the day of your cleaning because of a COVID breakout. None of these is the equivalent of giving you poison or leaving a surgical tool behind when you are sewn back together. Give them a bit of grace.

The mail will be slow. There will be inexplicable gaps on the grocery shelves. (I did lose some patience when Dove dark chocolate and Nestle’s Peppermint Mocha coffee creamer were AWOL at the same time; it seemed a harsh injustice.) People will be anxious and insensitive, so wrapped in their own fears that they forget other people are as fragile and sacred as they.

Friends, family, professionals and strangers alike may be so eager to comfort you that they inadvertently do or say something not entirely useful. They offer silly, unwanted advice and unhelpful platitudes. Let it pass.  Assume, perhaps, you misunderstood, misheard, misinterpreted. The possibility exists. Accept the spirit of kindness and let the trappings go.

One of the side effects of grace is that it enhances humility, and that, too, is a good thing. This way, when I (or you) am the one who fumbles, missteps, speaks foolishly but with good intention, I can, with some embarrassment, acknowledge the error and accept benevolence.

…and if all this talk of grace and humility is more uncomfortable for you than an N95 mask with an extra cloth mask over it, then consider this:  just be kind, for crying out loud. Cut someone some slack. Including, of course, yourself.

The forecast for me, for the time being, is (mentally) partly cloudy with a chance of passing befuddlement. Expect periods of anxiety throughout the evening.  The morning, as all mornings are, will be glorious.

How about you?

COVID-19: Surviving and Thriving

We’re worried about our loved ones, our own health, our school work or livelihood and what the months ahead will hold for our families, our communities, and our world. Being separated from one another makes it harder. Here are some strategies that can help:
1. Establish a daily routine and keep regular hours. Get up at your usual time; go to bed as usual. Use a checklist, a schedule or whatever structure helps you stay focused on positive, constructive actions.
2. Pray! Pray alone; pray on video-conferencing with friends and family; pray while watching livestream worship services. Include in this: daily periods of silence – not just telling God what you want done; instead, begin learning to sit quietly, observe your zigzagging thoughts, and not immediately take all your ideas so seriously.
3. Physical activity: an hour or more of physical activity, if you have medical clearance to do so, will help reduce the physical and mental effects of chronic stress. If you are able to be outdoors without being in danger of infection – enjoy a walk in nature. If not, seek opportunities indoors: walk in place; dance with your kids; be creative!
4. Reach out to someone who needs encouragement every day. Call, email, text, video chat, or send a note in the mail – be a light for someone who is alone and discouraged.
5. Check for news updates twice a day – more than that and you are often reinfecting yourself with the same negative news. Even if your logical brain recognizes it as last hour’s news, your emotional brain is again jolted with a bit of fight-or-flight about the pandemic and its consequences.
6. Odds are, you have more time on your hands than usual. Why not pick something to learn about on your own, with family, or with friends as an online/videochat study group? Can you practice a new skill, start a book club (hello, e-reader plus video chat!), or study a long-neglected area of interest? If you ever purchased arts and crafts supplies for “someday,” bought and neglected a language-learning app or fondly recall an elective course you’d wished was your major – it’s time to bring those interests into the light of day.
7. Take some time each day to journal about the experiences you are having during these strange weeks. Writing things out may help you clarify your emotions and thoughts, and help you see your experiences from a slightly “outside” perspective. Close your daily journal entry with a few things for which you are grateful.
There are lots of other ways to survive and thrive as people maintain social distance, self-isolate, and shelter in place…while we can’t control everything, we can exert control over our responses. Pick the story you want to be able to tell yourself, and others, about how you handled the COVID-19 crisis. Are you going to be able to tell a story of faith, compassion and grace under pressure – the year you became passable in Portuguese, started a book club via Skype or Facetime, and became a hula hoop expert? Or will it be the year you zoned out in front of 24/7 news for untold days, slowly becoming more burdened with ennui and inertia?
Choose to persist in faith, maintain your healthy habits, nurture others and grow in wisdom.
Choose life!