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.


We live in a universe containing really big things, and really little things. I find it mind-bendingly fascinating to think about galaxy clusters, and sub-atomic particles, and to try and contemplate the difference in scale between them. The mind can’t hold such vastness! But it tries, and we call that feeling awe.

Right now, we are experiencing threat from the microbial level. We tend to hyper-focus on perceived sources of danger. When this happens, parts of the brain seen as expendable shut down in order to prioritize safety. The parts we lose are the expansive, reflective, creative parts. Under these conditions, the mind can become a very narrow place.

Thank goodness we have this mode, which kicks in automatically to protect us. But as we necessarily concern ourselves with the unseeable, washing our hands and sanitizing our groceries and keeping our microbes away from each other, we can get into a threatened nervous system state, hyper-focus on the tiny, and lose sight of bigger things.

When I need, and can afford, a break from that narrow self-protective state, I seek experiences of awe. During this strange time of pandemic, I have found myself gazing upward more often, towards the moon and stars. On a whim, I downloaded the NASA app and have been watching the live stream from the International Space Station: a view of earth from miles above. It really puts things in perspective. With that expansiveness, I am restored to a calm, spacious nervous system state. I feel grounded in awe.

Here's one of my favorite quick sources of awe: Powers of Ten. See what you think! What grounds you in awe?

Updated: Apr 11, 2020

Here I go again. I want to talk about posttraumatic growth.

We have the common phrase “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Which is, by and large, crap. But the kernel of truth is that there is such a thing as growth that springs forth from adversity.

Posttraumatic growth describes the increased insight, knowledge, wisdom, that some experience following trauma. It speaks to the learning sometimes available through coping with and surviving through an immense challenge. Since under capitalism we think everything has to be productive, including trauma, we describe it through the lens of gains in functioning. I prefer to think of it in terms of healing.

Surviving trauma calls upon our strengths, our gifts, our ingenuity, our resilience, whatever we have to bring to bear. We feel we cannot make it through, and yet minute by minute, we are still here. Slowly (or quickly) the experience changes, shifts, lifts, and we find that in addition to whatever wounds now need tending, whatever needs need meeting, we have developed some capacity — or come to trust that which was already there, which carried us through.

Surviving traumatic experience can inspire art; deepen relationships; lead to greater empathy for others’ suffering and call us to help. Sometimes the wounds and the gifts can be of a piece. For example, trauma can make one vigilant towards — and therefore imbue keen radar for — anything resembling that experience in the future. These abilities can be profound, as well as profoundly burdensome.

Sometimes, the paradigm shift of posttraumatic growth even lends itself towards healing older or long forgotten pains, both stirring things up terribly and then, providing a place for them to finally land that feels more settled and affords more freedom than before.

In my (not that humble) opinion, the mistake so often made in our toxically positive culture is locating the growth in the trauma, and not in the person. The trauma did not help. The trauma did not gift those learnings. The survival did. The coping did. The person themselves, and their community of care, did. Trauma itself does not contain the capacity for growth and healing: we do!

We are going through an immense challenge right now. A trauma. Simultaneously we see heartwarming stories of the environment recovering, of people coming together in mutual aid, of systemic shifts towards caring for our own and lending support the world over. Of art and comedy and tragic comedy and music and messages of comfort and solidarity. We see so, so many bringing forth what they have to offer.

Let us be careful: the pandemic itself will never have been good. No growth can make up for the immense suffering caused by what we are going through now. What is gained never replaces what is lost, never lessens the grief. We need not be grateful towards the pandemic for a single fucking thing. The pandemic did not bring us these gains.

These beautiful gifts come from us. Our survival, our coping, our will to live and to be in community with each other. We are, and will be, living in a traumatized world. But also, in a resilient world. Pandemics don't come factory-made with silver linings: we create them. If we hold that these incredible capacities are in us, in humanity, we can trust ourselves and what we learn through this time — what we see we are capable of — and heal so much more than what is breaking now.

There's a lot of talk these days about daily routines and coping techniques. Tons and tons of lists floating around about how to cope with all this, "forty-two things to implement to survive the pandemic" and the like. All well-intentioned, and many with useful suggestions to offer.

In this uncertain new reality, we grasp for normalcy, consistency, and relief. I think routines and strategies can be incredibly valuable, and for some, essential to maintaining wellbeing.

But let us not think so much about schedules and strategies that we forget to have grace with ourselves. Let us not fall prey to perfectionism, and forget what is and isn't possible during this time.

In truth, there is no perfect set of skills that, when implemented, will make this experience feel normal or okay. If only coping through collective trauma were that simple. By all means, try things out, if you feel like. Some of the items on these lists may help you. We all need tools, and resources, and every little bit of support matters.

But if it doesn't stick, it doesn't stick. If nothing makes you feel normal or functional, that is not your fault. It's not because you read the wrong list, chose the wrong strategy, or messed up your routine. It's because this is really, truly, hard.

Please, please, don't add to your burden by bullying yourself into striving for perfect self-care. If you weren't one for following a strict daily routine before the pandemic, you're unlikely to benefit from trying to force yourself into it now. You are still you, and there is no "right" way to get through this.

Go ahead and take "cope perfectly with global crisis" off your to-do list.


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