Alive, Awake & Making It Through

Here we are, humans on the earth during and after a global pandemic. It's not like there wasn't a bunch to cope with already. But we're alive and awake and, with a lot of help, making it through the best we can. I'm waxing psychological about all that.


This is going on a while.

Maybe at the beginning, you were mobilized. Whether actively (routines!) or passively (Netflix!), you were engaged in making it to the other side. Some moments were better than others, but on the whole you were coping. Just gotta get through this.

But as time wears on, coping gets harder. We look for relief and it doesn’t come. We look for the end and it’s not in sight. The “just gotta get through this” attitude wanes as we realize that we don’t know how long this will go on. Perhaps some things get easier, perhaps some things get harder. But it’s not over.

When humans suffer, we like to know how long we’ll be suffering for. We try to find out when we can expect discomfort to abate. In a way, this helps us feel the suffering less. We attach to the upcoming relief, and that lessens the immediacy of the sensations. This also helps us protect the rest of our experience from the distress. The pain is contained, separated from “normal” life, and therefore normal life feels less painful.

This serves us well much of the time. But it doesn’t always work, especially when discomfort goes on a long time. After a while, there’s no way to separate our current reality from, well, reality.

In other words, we’re in it.

This is no longer a short-term experience. Here we are, running a coping marathon, one that none of us got to train for. We are in something lasting, heading somewhere unknown. And that asks something different of us than a sprint.

If your tried-and-true coping mechanisms are becoming weary, no longer buoying you as they often do, this is sometimes referred to as coping fatigue. Like a muscle, coping gets worn out. When this happens, it can dawn on us where we are. What we’ve kept at bay arrives. And we feel what we were trying not to feel.

The good news is that coping fatigue can give way to a moment of adaptation. Under new conditions, we are called to adjust. And in so doing, we can find what we need to endure for the longer haul.

If you find yourself here, consider how you process. Maybe you write in a journal, text a loved one, sit quietly in solitude, or commiserate with friends. Maybe you read articles and books, make art, pray or worship, or talk to a therapist.

Whatever the form or venue, you might find yourself:

1. Accepting what is. Sometimes in coping, we try not to let things change. But they have. We are now somewhere new. Some things will go back to the way they were, and some things won’t. We can hope, but not predict. So, here you are. Now that you are here, what do you need to accept as a more lasting part of this new normal?

2. Changing expectations. Now that we are settling into a reality that we acknowledge is not simply a fleeting departure from our lives, perhaps it’s time to examine your expectations. Which ones need to be adjusted to what is possible now? Where can you relinquish outdated standards, for yourself, for others, or for situations?

3. Grieving your losses. Some losses happened right up front, while others are rolling out over time. Some we can hope to make up for in the future, while others must be honored as irreplaceable. From where you sit right now, what has been lost? What do those losses mean to you?

4. Keeping comforts close. Our blessings don’t take away our pain, but they accompany us, reminding us that life is more than suffering. Through these changes and losses, what comforts, pleasures, and joys are seeing you through? What bright spots have endured or revealed themselves to you?

5. Realizing what matters. A radical shift in perspective can illuminate what’s important. Things that mattered before can fall away, while other things are revealed as pillars. How have your priorities shifted? How is this changing what you are called towards, what you are called away from, and how you spend energy?

6. Learning lessons. Sometimes all we can learn is “I survived.” Other times, we can search for meaning. Maybe this moment brings new insights and perspective. Or perhaps, longstanding ways of making sense of yourself and the world are challenged or affirmed. How does this experience fit with what you already believed? What new wisdom have you gathered? What questions does this experience open in you?

How has your coping adapted through this time?

The other day, I was driving home from picking up a cloth mask. I was listening to music, singing along, as I often do during normal times. Then, without thinking, I touched my face.

I caught myself as the knuckle of my pointer finger scratched the side of my nose. I threw my hand back onto the steering wheel. Oh no, I thought. Oh no.

I started to think, what had I touched. The inside of my car. The outside of my car. The mailbox. The plastic package with the mask inside. I’d tossed the mask on the passenger side floor, and immediately sanitized my hands before touching the wheel to drive home.

The knowledge that I had sanitized my hands did little to quell the anxiety. What if I did a bad job? What if this hand sanitizer is faulty? What if we discover that none of this sanitizing stuff is even working? Years from now, when we’ve all gotten sick?

It happened quickly, the rabbit hole. The music still blared, but I stopped singing. In two weeks, I’ll know I’d gotten it here. I have so few exposures, this will surely have been the one. I could see the news articles: “Hand sanitizer proven ineffective,” “Woman left home only once to pick up mask, contracted Covid-19 from mailbox,” “Right hand more dangerous than left hand in transmitting virus to face, study finds.”

In an instant, I saw myself sick. I saw myself in the hospital. I saw my loved ones weeping. My chest felt constricted, fear stealing my breath, as would the illness I feared I contracted. This is what it will feel like.

Then, again without thinking, I said aloud:

“We were so scared then.”

I heard myself tell, from the future, the story of this time. The story of my fears, not all of which came to pass, but which nevertheless were profound.

Not just my fears, our fears. That this panic, vigilance, brutal uncertainty, is how we lived for a while. I could see myself, much older, in an armchair with a mug of tea, recounting to someone of the next generation this story for their social studies project.

There is something elemental to storytelling. To sitting around a proverbial (or real) fire, sharing and listening. Creating a narrative, and hearing those of others, can help us make sense of things. Inside ourselves, a narrative provides a bit of reprieve from the roiling, consuming intensity of feeling.

It’s the difference between being in the middle of the ocean, and standing hip-deep near the shore. You are still wet, the waves are still knocking you around; but you are not overtaken. You can see the ocean, describe it, label it, tell people around you what’s going on. Something from outside – in this case, the beach – is brought to bear to help contain the experience. In other words, there is more than just ocean, and you are more than just in it.

We don’t have to wait until it’s over. We can begin to tell our story now. We can narrate for ourselves, and each other, what this is like to be in. Articulation – whether through talking, writing, music, art, movement, or even inside our own minds – can give us a place to stand inside the experience, closer to the edge.

In moments of idle intensity, fear that action can’t dispel, see if it helps you to imagine how to express the experience.

How will you tell this story?

When we’re having a rough time in our lives (for example, coping with a global crisis and accompanying difficulties for an indefinite period of time), we are often told to turn towards self-care. Ramp up the self-care. Make time for self-care. Focus on self-care. Self-care, self-care, self-care.

And what is self-care? Depends who you ask. But typically, it’s an activity. Something you do for yourself, by yourself, to take care of yourself. Often included are things like resting, practicing mindfulness, engaging in hobbies, and getting outside. Good things, right?

The thing is, wellbeing is a collaboration between the inside and the outside. Inside ourselves, we can notice what’s up, figure out what we might need, make plans to address that need, or signal that need to others for support.

But the outside has to provide. The outside has to help us understand our sense of what’s up; validate what we might need; provide the time, energy, and resources to address that need; and respond to the signals for support.

In a society with a vested interest in not providing collective care on the outside, of course individual acts are going to be the focus. To varying degrees, we are left to our own devices to do the entire job for ourselves. Unfortunately, that’s often what’s being referred to with the term “self-care.” We signal to the outside that we need to work less, rejuvenate more, have better access to supports and resources, live more sustainable lives, and the response we get is “Do yoga, then get back to work.”

Nothing against yoga! But we need (and may be in the midst of) large-scale transformation of the equation we’re dealing with. Less exploitation, more support. A system actually designed to promote wellbeing for humans, not bottom lines. Let’s hope we’re headed that direction, and let’s do what we can to make it so.

In the meantime, though, what do we do with our needs?

We do our best with what we’ve got. Under these conditions, self-care is, actually, essential. It does actually help to find ways to do what nourishes you. It does actually help to tend to yourself as much as possible.

But even better is to collaborate in the caretaking of you and others. There’s a big difference between the “I’m taking care of myself alone” brain and the “we’re taking care of each other” brain. We are not wired to be exclusively fending for ourselves for long stretches of time (despite capitalism’s insistence otherwise). It’s necessary to go it alone sometimes, but even in moments of solitude, we tend to do better when we feel we have backup.

Social distancing is cramping our communal style. But, there are still things we can do. In friendships, couples, families, neighborhoods, workplaces, communities of all kinds, we can make our care more collective. Some ideas:

1. Talk about it. Have conversations with people close to you about a need you have, your plan to address it, and if there’s a role for them to play. A role could be as simple as them remembering. Even knowing the other is aware of your need is a shift from holding it all inside, to holding it in mind together. But, the role could be as involved as you agree upon! Perhaps the other could help you come up with the plan, check in with how your plan is going, or be part of implementation.

2. Make it mutual. Not all care can be, or ought to be, reciprocal. But, it can help to find ways to spend time together that support both/all’s needs. Maybe both/all take a walk while talking on the phone. Or, maybe both/all do a craft project and share the results with each other. Netflix Party (which lets you watch Netflix together with far-away friends) is a solid example.

3. Open-source it. If you’re the type to create a document or calendar with your self-care ideas or routines, share it! Use technology to make it something both/all of you can benefit from. Or, let loved ones access your plan so they can know and ask how it’s going. We do this type of thing for work documents all the time, in order to share information and collaborate more easily. Why should we have to be any less connected and intentional when it comes to our wellbeing?

4. Invite support. Sure, you could probably do the thing alone. You might not “need” help. We’re taught we need to justify reaching out, that only if we fail alone do we ask for assistance. But you don’t have to wait until you’re struggling before involving others. Wanting to feel supported is a good enough reason to invite someone in. Is there something someone can do to support you, even if you are also capable of that thing on your own? And vice versa!

5. Get connected. We are experiencing a surge in mutual aid and community connection. Now is as good a time as any to find a collective, or to tap into the ones you already belong to. Whether they’re neighborhood groups, religious organizations, activity-based communities, or something else, chances are you can both offer and receive by being connected there.

How are you collaborating in the caretaking of yourself and others during this time?


What should I write about?

Thanks for submitting!