“The source of all sorrow is the illusion that of ourselves we are anything but dust.” (Thomas Merton)
On this Ash Wednesday – in the middle of a pandemic, where COVID deaths in the United States now easily surpass the number of American deaths in World War II – Merton’s words ring particulalry true. I don’t remember a year where my soul has been more ready for the 40+ day season of intentional contemplation that is Lent.
Remembering today that I am made of dust – and to dust I shall return – reminds me how often I cling to earthy attachments, and how this brings with it great suffering. The admonition of St. Ignatius to “hold things lightly” also comes to mind.
My tendency is to skip past Ash Wednesday, to quickly divert myself to my longing for more, for hope, for Easter. This year, I’d rather learn to sit in the tension, in the reality of hardship, to not push these feelings away, and to realize this is a vital part of being human as well.
Before this year, from December to March, I spent most of my adult life inside. During these months in Minnesota, where I live, high temperatures typically remain below freezing, and it’s not uncommon to wake up to a reading of below 0 degrees Fahrenheit, not counting “wind chill.”
Although I intentionally exercised several times per week, much of this time in previous years was passed in my gym where I watched old episodes of Friends while artificially bounding on an elliptical machine. This felt easier. When I considered going outside, images came to mind of my whole body shivering uncontrollably, my face becoming numb, my fingers and toes feeling like they might be seriously frostbitten, my nostril hairs freezing as I breathed in the cold, dry air.
With COVID-19 cases surging as we entered the winter months this year, I faced a clear choice: (1) continue the comfortable routine of previous years by working out inside my gym, knowing this would mean I would more likely contract and spread the virus, or (2) extend my summer and fall habits of exercising in the great outdoors. Favoring public health, I decided on the latter: I put my gym membership on temporary hold, and with some trepidation, I planned for a winter of outdoor adventure.
I’m now a few months into this new lifestyle. Some days, I walk or hike on paths near my home, aided by the most marvelous invention I never knew to keep myself from falling on the snow and ice: Yaktrax. Other days, when I have more flexibility in my schedule, I practice my classic ski technique at a local park or snowshoe along the pine tree-lined trails of my favorite local nature center. Weekends provide opportunities for more extended travel or adventure, such as half-day trips to formerly unexplored or underexplored Minnesota State Parks.
A few insights have been essential to making this work. First, I have new appreciation for the Scandinavian saying: “there’s no such thing as bad temperature, only bad clothing.” Although it was an investment, purchasing high-quality outdoor clothing from REI has been well worth it in terms of comfort in the cold. (There is a point where I “draw the line,” though, and for me that’s 0 degrees Fahrenheit, below which I move my body inside.) Most importantly, I’ve needed to shift my attitude toward winter. Inspired by recent psychological research by University of California – San Francisco researcher Virginia Sturm and colleagues – showing increased positive emotions and decreased emotional distress when individuals engage in regular “awe walks” – I’ve changed my focus from efficiency in exercise to getting lost in wonder as I look for what is vast, unexpected, and unique outside. If the conditions are right, I’ll also sometimes bring my camera to see if I can photograph some of the beauty around me.
Sometimes, after dinner, the dishes washed and the kitchen reasonably cleaned, a window of time opens. My family disperses into their various corners of our home, allowing me to settle into the living room. I switch into comfortable clothing and I wrap myself in the soft, oversized blanket my wife gave me for Christmas.
Tonight, I look outside, into the darkness, where the only light comes from the faint glow off the newly fallen snow. I listen to the breeze shaking the trees, rattling the house, causing the chimney to whistle.
During an awful pandemic that mostly restricts, in the midst of a Minnesota January, freedom can sometimes be found. There are options for what to do I don’t remember always having.
There are times when I light a fire in the fireplace and drink some herbal tea before settling into some pleasure reading, writing, or Netflix. Occasionally, a family member joins me for a game of Yahtzee or Quirkle. Some nights I go upstairs and settle into my tub, surrounded by candles, smells of lavender, and classical music played by Alexa.
In the past, I probably would have interpreted these unstructured, unplanned, unexciting nights as “boring.” However, I’m now finding power in reframing them as opportunities to “settle.”
One of the fresh perspectives I’ve appreciated this year is that of Sikh activist, best-selling author, and popular TED talk speaker, Valarie Kaur. A few months ago, on Twitter, Kaur asked:
“Over the course of [this year], what have you discovered is most essential to YOU?”
I posed this question (virtually) last week to a group of students I help lead through a Christian student club on my campus, and their responses were thoughtful. “Time outside in nature,” one said. “Being able to easily and physically spend time with family and friends,” said another. “Or just brief interactions with strangers at the store,” I added. “Hugs,” someone said, before following up by saying “and things to do outside the house.” “Moving my body,” added someone else. “Knowing that I am not in control and that I need a source I can ultimately trust,” reflected another.
Sometimes, what is most essential is what we have long taken for granted.
As Frederick Buechner once said:
“Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”
The year 2020 was not a wasted year. It was a year ripe for listening to our life experience. May we learn from our life and intentionally create something new and better – for ourselves and our communities – in 2021.
I’ve been collaboring with Springtide Research Institute for some time, in various capacities, and I’ve been so impressed with their surveys and analyses about themes of loneliness, religion, and the importance of mentoring in young people. The following guest post is from Springtide’s media relations’ specialist, and is very timely. Hope you enjoy!
It’s an experience so common it might be considered a holiday cliché if it weren’t true: that inevitable, excruciating barrage of questions, often directed at young people about their accomplishments, goals, or plans.
I’ve experienced it firsthand, when I announced to my now-wife’s family we were getting engaged and was immediately grilled by an uncle about my employment status and earning potential. But others have it worse. I cringe recalling a family member’s boyfriend being interrogated, then advised, then compared to others about his life choices, prospects, and setbacks. He’d had a particularly difficult year, and the onslaught of questions from an intoxicated aunt bordered on cruel. He did his best to remain calm and composed, but he had arrived ready to relax, eat, and chat light-heartedly.
In fact, that’s what most young people are hoping for – and this holiday season, when many have undergone incredible stresses, it’s more important than ever to be sensitive about heavy or hard conversations.
Well over half of young people – about six in ten – do not want to talk about difficult things during the 2020 holidays because they want it to be a time of joy and lightheartedness. Who can blame them? Studies have found that Gen Zers have been the biggest losers during the pandemic in terms of the job market, the economy, mental stress, and depression. Even more, as reported in Springtide Research Institute’s November, 2020, survey of 2,000 young people aged 13-25, 44% wouldn’t feel safe, welcome, or encouraged to have vulnerable conversations about difficult topics over the holidays this year.
Unlike older adults, young people – and particularly those under the age of 18 – do not always have the freedom to opt out of in-person holiday gatherings. I still remember the subtle threats my father used to ensure I was present at family holiday parties, despite my complaints from time to time. Now that 2 in 5 Americans have confirmed they will attend holiday gatherings this year with 10 people or more, it appears there will be plenty of opportunities for older adults to do right by young people, who would rather avoid trying to debrief or grieve the difficult year they’ve had.
With that in mind, here are a few tips for adults hoping to be hospitable to young people at holiday gatherings this year.
In the Christian calander, Advent refers to the four Sundays and weeks leading up to the celebration of Christmas. In Latin, Advent means “coming,” and this season provides a window in time for Christians to intentionally dwell in a spirit of longing, hope, and patient waiting and anticipation. In a year of public health crisis, financial and work uncertainty, racial unrest, and political strife, this emphasis strikes a new resonance in our life experience and has the potential to impact us more powerfully than in the past.
Kate has put out a free Advent devotional, and I find I am profoundly drawn in by her thoughts, as she so beautifully and compellingly connects traditional Christian faith with the suffering of this year and this moment. Part of this ability surely stems from her own experience and struggle with as someone who suffers as a stage IV cancer patient, (which she discusses in her amazing TED talk). For example, in the “liturgy” she shared today, Kate invites us to pray:
“blessed are we with eyes open to see the suffering from pandemic danger, sickness and loneliness, the injustice of racial oppression, the unimpeded greed and misuse of power, violence, intimidation, and use of dominance for its own sake, the mockery of truth, and disdain for weakness or vulnerability, and worse, the seeming powerlessness of anyone trying to stop it.
blessed are we who despair for our democracy, and ask: what can we do to protect it?
blessed are we who ask: where are you God? and where are Your people the smart, sane, and sensible ones who fight for good?”
As I meditate on these words, I am stunned by the realization of how much pain this year I have consciously or unconsciously tried to suppress. I feel my perspective broadened and made more whole by inviting and welcoming “eyes to see” those who are sick, lonely, and oppressed. I recognize, afresh, the extent to which truth, weakness, and vulnerability are being mocked, and how that makes all the problems we’re facing worse. I appreciate the despairing concern for our democracy and world. And, I agonize over why “God’s people” so often are part of these problems, and why they are not more often involved in the fight for good.
This prayer validates my experience and urges me to have more empathy for those who are struggling right now and do what I can to help. As Kate concludes her “liturgy,” it builds a conviction to “take hold of hope, as protest.”
As we look toward Christmas this year, we do so with a realization that God doesn’t shy away from awfulness (like I tend to do). In fact, God enters in vulnerably – rejected, in the midst of a genocide, and in the humble form of a baby. Emmanuel remains with us, in suffering, and God calls us to be present, in suffering, as well.
“The higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of information, but to face sacred moments.” (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel)
The year 2020 will go down in history as a year of public health, economic, and societal crisis. Much less acknowledged, however, is the profound emotional and spiritual malaise* many people feel. In fact, in the United States, emotional distress is three times higher than previous years and happiness is at a near 50-year low.
For many of us, something seems “off.” Perhaps this feels like a sense that something is vaguely “missing,” or maybe we “long” for something more or different. Probably many of us have grown “numb” to these feelings over the past several months – without fully realizing it. We may not understand why we’re feeling the way we do or appreciate how much our inner lives really have changed.
It’s with all this in mind that I’ve been reflecting on some new research published this week in the journal Psychology of Religion and Spirituality.
In this study, 2,889 participants were asked about the frequency with which they generally experience “sacred moments” in their everyday lives. Specifically, individuals were instructed to rate, on a scale of 1 (never / not at all) to 5 (very often), how often they experience:
“a moment that felt set apart from everyday life,”
“a moment… that was really real,”
“a moment in which all distractions seemed to melt away,”
“a deep sense of connection with someone or something,”
“a sense of uplift,” and
“a sacred moment.”
Results from this research show that individuals’ experiences of sacred moments predicted “higher levels of positive emotions and greater presence of meaning, as well as lower levels of perceived stress, depressed distress, and anxious distress.”
What is it about “sacred moments,” as defined and measured in the above study, that might be most essential, that might be most involved in predicting higher well-being? When I consider the scale items mentioned above, the one that stands out most focuses on moments of deep “connection with someone or something.” I imagine that deep experiences of connection drive the sense that moments feel “set apart from everyday life” and “really real,” for instance.
A self-fulfilling prophecy is a process by which expectations elicit behaviors that ultimately confirm those expectations. For instance, many psychologists discuss how stock market trading can be influenced by a self-fulfilling prophecy. When individuals believe the stock market is going to rise, they buy, and the stock market does rise; when people believe the market is going to fall, they sell, and the market does fall.
The COVID-19 pandemic may demonstrate many more examples of the self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, many individuals believe there’s nothing that can be done to prevent the spread of the virus and that everyone’s going to become infected at some point no matter what. Such people may argue that lockdowns, social distancing, and masks don’t make any significant difference, and this may lead them to argue for re-opening, go to bars, and not wear masks. And, when enough individuals demonstrate this pattern, the virus does spread, as it has in many regions of the United States.
How will similar self-fulfilling prophecies impact what happens this academic year as elementary, secondary, and post-secondary students return to school? Some say that elementary school children can’t possibly wear masks during an entire school day. Many argue that middle-school and high-school kids can’t possibly control their bodies and remain physically distant from their peers. Others are convinced that college and university students will, of course, go to bars and party. Across these levels of school, many believe that the quality of education will definitely be lacking. We may be in for a very difficult fall and winter if these are the assumptions that guide us.
There actually is a great deal of controversy and debate among researchers who study the self-fulfilling prophecy: maybe self-fulfilling prophecies elicit certain outcomes because people’s expectations are accurate in the first place. For instance, it’s true that students experience certain struggles conforming to public health guidelines because of developmental needs and that following these guidelines is particularly difficult for some due to various underlying conditions. There definitely are unique obstacles for education during a pandemic.
This raises a key question about people’s mindsets, with potentially critical consequences for this pandemic: do we emphasize limitations and obstacles in our thinking and assume that behavior cannot change, or do we emphasize possibilities and assume that behavior can change through effort, persistence, and accurate information? In some ways, the answer surely depends on the individual and situation. We need to be real. At the same time, what if we lean optimistic this academic year and assume that young people are capable of social responsibility and that schools can be a spark for transformation?
For anyone who regularly reads this blog, you might remember me writing a post in March of this year about C. S. Lewis’s essay “On Living in an Atomic Age,” from his book “Present Concerns.” As it’s become clearer to me that COVID-19 – particularly in the United States – is likely to continue to be a source of concern well into next year, and as my family increasingly exposes itself to the risk of contracting the virus (especially as school opens), I’ve continued to reflect on this essay as a way to come to terms with my feelings of anxiety.
Although I recognize the atomic bomb has substantially greater risk to humanity than COVID-19, I’m going to take the liberty to replace Lewis’s references to the atomic bomb with references to the COVID-19 pandemic to make the connections as clear as possible:
“In one way we think a great deal too much about COVID-19. ‘How are we to live in an age of pandemic?’ I am tempted to reply: ‘Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night…
In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before COVID: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways… It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.
This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are going to catch COVID, let the virus when it finds us doing sensible and human things… Disease may break our bodies, but it need not dominate our minds…
What the wars and the weather… and COVID have really done is remind us forcibly of the sort of world we are living in and which… we were beginning to forget. And this reminder is, so far as it goes, a good thing. We have been waked from a pretty dream, and now we can begin to talk about realities.”
There are three main insights I gain from this.
First is one of radical acceptance. In addition to the painful consequences of racism and job / financial insecurity that this year has brought to the forefront of our minds, COVID-19 teaches us how this world is broken.
This leads to a second realization, that I am in a state of mourning. And, I’m not the only one. In fact, Michelle Obama recently labelled her experience “low-grade depression.” I personally wouldn’t go that far, but there is a sense of loss I feel this year with my realization of the true state of the world. The more people I talk to about the state of the world, the more common I believe many people are grieving.
According to the most recent data available, approximately 30% of American high school students take a course in Psychology. In addition, approximately 1.2-1.6 million American students take an Introductory Psychology course in college every year.
To the extent we have control over our curriculum, we who teach Psychology courses have a unique opportunity and responsibility during the fall of 2020: we can help educate a significant slice of American youth about some of the behavioral and psychological aspects of the great challenges defining this time. We can encourage greater insight and inspire prosocial change.
Below are three topics we can integrate into our fall courses that are particularly timely and important, with some suggestions for how to do so.
1. The psychology of group behavior.
COVID-19 spreads through droplets, yes, but those droplets spread from person to person through specific behaviors. Racial inequality is systemic, yes, but systems stem from, and are maintained, by specific behaviors. Climate change is a widely considered a “threat multiplier,” a meta-problem that increases the likelihood of pandemics and many other social problems; it also is caused by specific behaviors.
We teachers of Psychology can focus on individual differences in behavior and why individuals do what they do, and each of the above problems can be fruitfully explored from this level of analysis. However, if there ever was a time to explore the psychology of group behavior, this is it, as each of the above current problems also demonstrates how behavior is powerfully determined by the norms of individuals’ groups.
As the number of cases of COVID-19 continues to increase in our region, I continue to think of this excellent article from Christian Century. It challenges the presumption that the most productive metaphor for what we’re doing as a society is “waging war against the virus,” and instead raises some very thought-provoking questions:
Christopher Sardegna | Unsplash
“What will it mean for our country and world to live well with this pandemic?”
“Will we be patient and kind?”
Will we be able to truthfully accept and faithfully bear this tragedy, even as we try to conquer it?”
“How will we care for those who cannot be cured – a question made painfully difficult by the six or more feet of space that separates the dying from their families?”
“How well will we grieve – privately in our own homes, locally in shifts of ten, and collectively as a human race?”
Even as public health experts and government authorities continue to advocate for physical distancing to minimize the spread of COVID-19, compliance appears to be diminishing. For example, mobile phone data across the United States reveals trends, beginning toward the end of April, of individuals spending more time away from their homes.
Of the many reasons why individuals may not comply with physical distancing guidelines, concerns about mental health may be most prominent. A Gallup poll conducted in April, for instance, indicated how emotional and mental health seemed to be the strongest consideration for individuals maintaining distancing, as compared with concerns about physical health and financial hardship.
United Nations COVID-19 Response | Unsplash
The pandemic clearly is not just a crisis for physical health and the medical system; it also is an enormous challenge for mental health and the mental health system. New data released over this past weekend by Jean Twenge hints at the magnitude of these problems. In her survey conducted on April 27th, Twenge asked U. S. adults how sad or nervous they felt and compared those responses with demographically similar adults who answered the same questions in 2018. She found that roughly 70% of Americans demonstrate “moderate to severe” mental distress now, during the pandemic, a rate three times that reported in 2018. Young people show the greatest distress, a group other research has also found to be most socially isolated.
And yet, even as these problems become more evident, no major mental health organization – such as the American Psychological Association (APA) – publicly opposes physical distancing guidelines. Instead, mental health and behavioral experts point to ways to maintain distancing while at the same time attending to individuals’ mental health.
When people ask me how I’m doing in this time of “shelter-in-place,” I sometimes will make an attempt at humor and respond: “I’ve always thought I could have been a monk.”
I’ve long been intrigued by monks and by monastic living.
Whenever I’ve had the opportunity, I’ve tried to learn what I can about monks and monastic living and to incorporate those insights into my daily life. Many years ago, for instance, I participated in the sunrise chants of the Benedictine monks living at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, and this taught me something about the vitality of intentional prayer, particularly early in the morning. Since it aired 13 years ago, this On Being interview with Shane Claiborne about “a monastic revolution” has challenged me to be a “real Christian” and follow the sometimes very straightforward and radical teachings of Jesus. Similarly, I’ve been struck by this publication of “the Monk Manifesto” a few years ago, particularly principle #3: “I commit to cultivating community by finding kindred spirits along the path, soul friends with whom I can share my deepest longings, and mentors who can offer guidance and wisdom for the journey.”
As I think about this, I wonder if part of the challenge many of us are facing right now is this: we’re living sort of like monks as we “shelter-in-place,” but without the knowledge of tradition, support, or intentionality that typically comes with monastic living.
If you guessed the 18-29 year-olds, you’d be correct.
In a recent nationally representative survey, 69% of 18-29 year-olds reported being lonely or isolated in the last 7 days (59% of 30-49 year-olds reported this, as did 45% of 50-64 year-olds and 39% of those ages 65+).
Of course, this isn’t a competition, and we who call ourselves Christians – and we who call ourselves compassionate humans – seek to care for those in need no matter the age or background. Still, I bet not many would guess that young people are those most struggling with feelings of loneliness or social isolation during this pandemic.
In another nationally representative survey, 66% of 18-25 year-olds said they had no one to talk to about these feelings. And, 80% felt better when a trusted adult outside their household reached out to them.
Do you know a young person – outside your household – you might connect with? Maybe a child, grandchild, niece, nephew, member of your community, or someone you barely know but feel like might be struggling?
A call, text, Facetime, or care package dropped off at their front door might mean more than you realize.
“What enables a student to be a successful learner in school, while others struggle?,” I recently asked. As I said in a previous post, part of the answer may have to do with trusting that a student can learn independently, just as kids typically learn independently before formal schooling begins. Teachers and parents can encourage students to reconnect with their “lost instincts” to learn on their own, particularly at this time when students must learn at home without as much direct supervision.
The student experience is complex, however, and often neglected. As education theorist, John Dewey, wrote in the early 20th century: “the center of gravity is outside the child. It is the teacher, the textbook, anywhere and everywhere you please except in the immediate instincts and activities of the child.”
As I have tried to understand what enables some students to thrive in school during my past 20 years of college teaching, I have returned again and again to three interrelated domains that may be most fruitful to explore: (1) mindset, (2) self-discipline, and (3) motivation. Psychological research has found these domains to be most critical in student success.
One of the primary psychological determinants of a student’s performance concerns how they explain success and failure to themselves. In over 30 years of research, Carol Dweck, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, consistently has found that individuals with a “fixed mindset” – who believe that success and failure reflects a certain level of ability unlikely to change no matter what is done – often show lower levels of performance over time. Dweck finds this may be due, in part, to the fact that people with fixed mindsets are less likely to seek challenge at the outset and less likely to persevere when challenges arise. In contrast, individuals with a “growth mindset” – who believe that ability can be developed through hard work or effort or trying out different strategies until one works – often show higher levels of performance over time. People with a growth mindset are more likely to seek challenge and believe they can overcome challenges with perseverance when they arise.
What enables a student to be a successful learner in school, while others struggle? This question is being asked with renewed urgency, as many students work from home without as much face-to-face involvement from teachers, and with many parents trying to help their children in this new environment.
The pandemic is excruciating for many reasons, but it also contains great potential for new growth as well. In this time, we may gain an opportunity for insight into the dynamics of education and to better understand factors that help students thrive.
It may be helpful to start by considering the basic structure of our modern education system. Most schools, Paulo Freire classically observed, apply a “banking model” of education. In this system, the teacher plays the central role in what happens in the classroom. We might add that teachers are often controlled by administrators and authorities beyond them as well. In this system, Jerry Farber suggested that students are socialized to be timid, depending on the teacher’s direction more than themselves.
To the extent this is true, teachers, parents, and students may be experiencing “withdrawal symptoms” at this time. Well-intentioned teachers may be trying to perform a “virtual miracle” as they try their best to continue instructing and guiding students while at a distance. Likewise, well-intentioned parents may feel like they need to take on the full supervisory role of the teacher at home amidst many other competing demands and concerns.
I have always loved what Christians historically call “holy week.” Part of this is because, as someone raised Catholic, I remember this week as the time in the year when church services follow a different rhythm. That is, rather than repeating the same basic structure of the Mass like most Sundays, holy week consists of services for Holy Thursday and Good Friday that feel unique, more soulfelt and dark. But, then, I’ve long believed Catholics practice sadness better than Protestants.
Interestingly, as my theologian friend, Deanna Thompson, points out in her book “Glimpsing Resurrection,” most Christian churches do not mark “Holy Saturday.” She writes:
“It is a day that is attended to only briefly in the Biblical story, a space where meaning is elusive and hope can be hard to see… This day between cross and resurrection seems like a nonevent, a time of waiting in which nothing of significance occurs and of which there is little to be said.”
And, yet, this is the day that marks how, as the Apostles’ Creed acknowledges, Jesus “descended into hell.” It is, as Deanna mentions, “a story of abandonment and separation.”
Yesterday, I participated in a webinar on “The Science of Happiness During Covid-19” (the discussion begins at 16:14 below). In this program, Marina Tolou-Shams (Director of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry at San Francisco General Hospital) interviews my first Psychology mentor, Dacher Keltner (Professor of Psychology at the University of California – Berkeley and founder of the Greater Good Science Center) about happiness during this time of pandemic.
Dr. Keltner summarizes much of the literature on the science of happiness by discussing three important areas of individual practice: (1) coping, (2) gratitude, and (3) awe. Each of these may play a critical role in helping individuals through the various stresses we encounter during this pandemic.
As Dr. Keltner notes, there is an impressive research literature on the benefits of gratitude, some of which I discussed in this post about thanksgiving. Practicing gratitude during a pandemic is not meant to be pollyanna, but rather an acknowledgement that, even though the world is in crisis and we may be experiencing many difficult emotions, there also are aspects of life for which we can be thankful. Taking a moment everyday to talk or write about these good things can help shift us toward better emotional balance. For example, my family and I are taking a moment at every dinner together every night to discuss our “highs” and “lows.” The “lows” help us to express times of struggle or dissatisfaction, but the “highs” help us to be more aware of what is good, and also to look for patterns of behaviors that might be helpful for us to be intentional about implementing in the days, weeks, and months ahead. For instance, last night, all four of us had a “high” of exercising in one way or another, and this says something about how important exercise is for our well-being now.
I feel like I’m finally settling into a bit of a rhythm during this time of “shelter-in-place,” and most days, I start with some kind of spiritual meditation. One that has particularly struck me came from a podcast by Krista Tippett, host of one of my favorite programs, “On Being.” (I’d encourage you to listen. The podcast is about 10 minutes long.)
What initially made me pause was how Krista referred to how individuals typically gain a sense of self-worth, and how this time of pandemic is sometimes proving to be a mental health challenge because of that. In fact, research in Social Psychology by Jennifer Crocker shows how people use many strategies to find worth, some of which are more steady and healthy than others. Krista points out that in our individualistic, modern world, many of us have been taught to believe our worth comes from achievement and activity, and how this source of worth is now being threatened because we are not as able to achieve and be active as we might prefer. Others, in contrast, may find worth through their relationships with others, and that, too, may be challenged now during this time of physical distancing.
As an alternative to these sources of self-worth more likely to fluctuate – particularly in this time – Krista discusses how, at her best, she finds worth in simply “being human.” This idea is heavily referenced in Humanistic Psychology and particularly the writings of one of my Psychology heroes, Carl Rogers, who basically argued that all humans have dignity by birthright. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, this kind of inherent worth is thought to stem from the fact that we are “children of God,” “made in God’s image,” or possessors of a “Divine spark.” That means we don’t need to strive for worth; we already have it, if we’d just accept it as ours now.
In a passage that has become one of my spiritual touchstones, theologian Paul Tillich put it this way:
“Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness… Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness and it is as though a voice were saying: ‘You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted.'”
A few weeks ago, when the novel coronavirus was just starting to spread in the Western world – and along with it, many people’s fears – I became aware of an essay by C. S. Lewis: “On Living in an Atomic Age.” The entire essay can be found in Lewis’s collection “Present Concerns: Journalistic Essays,” but the following excerpt has been most circulated:
In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. “How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”
In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.
This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.
C. S. Lewis
As noted by Aaron Earls in this response, many people seem to be misinterpreting Lewis’s thoughts here. As he suggests, Lewis would not tell us to ignore the coronavirus, to just go on with our lives by “doing sensible and human things” (in fact, that wouldn’t be “sensible”). Experiencing a daily threat of the bomb is not the same situation as experiencing a global pandemic, and our actions need to fit the situation. As the top scientific and public health experts are telling us, it’s key that we adapt our behavior to stay home and socially distance to decrease the spread of the virus to the fullest extent possible.
When I first read Lewis’s essay, I felt strangely comforted. Humans have lived through epic tragedies before – such as during the days when there was significant threat of the atomic bomb, the great wars, and the plague – and the novel coronavirus falls in that long line of global crisis. This has helped me to connect with ancestors – including my dad who fought in World War II and likely had to deal with a lot of the same feelings as I am now – as well as many more before me. Many did not survive, but this crisis is helping me to connect with a sense of humanity common to all people across ages, races, religions, genders, etc., and that feels really important. If we are learning nothing else from this pandemic, I believe, it is that we are all far more interdependent than we previously realized.
I think Lewis’s main idea comes in his obvious point that we all are certain to die, many of us in rather unpleasant ways. Most have not really seriously entertained that thought or worked through how to deal with it. We have not yet prepared ourselves for suffering.