In 1981 the author Hazel Henderson said: “If we can recognize that change and uncertainty are basic principles, we can greet the future and the transformation we are undergoing with the understanding that we do not know enough to be pessimistic.”
This has become my mantra in the past week. We’re all feeling nervous with this COVID-19 pandemic. I don’t need to review the reasons why; that’s not my purpose here. Instead, I want to share some thoughts that might be psychologically useful for my friends, my coworkers, and my students.
Henderson urges us to resist despair, and uses the uncertainty of the future to avoid pessimism. Her quote makes sense, when you consider how quickly things have changed. True, things have mostly changed in the English-speaking world in a negative way. But we can’t extrapolate the future from the recent past. I’m not encouraging anyone to be naive or foolishly optimistic. But pessimism — especially masquerading, as it often does, as “realism” — is similarly unwise.
It’s easy to feel pessimistic when we are afraid, and right now the fear is real. I will admit right up front that I am feeling afraid. There’s so much uncertainty and worry sloshing about, it’s perfectly normal to be afraid. Those who are NOT worried, in fact, seem pathological to me. The people who pretend to have everything under control are usually masking a deep anxiety about their ability to determine their fate. (If you know 30 Rock, remember Liz Lemon fighting with a bag in a tree.)
Most people reading these words are like me — deeply empathetic. As a result, we worry a lot. (If I don’t care about anybody else, and my own situation is good, then why should I worry? Alfred E. Neuman is a poster child for this mindset.) When other people are suffering, we try to put ourselves in their shoes. This means we tend to feel a lesser version of the pain that others face. In small doses this is a good thing, and it can benefit our communities, if we demand better conditions for others.
But it can backfire on us, especially at a time like this. There’s a fine line between empathy and pity; an aboriginal activist group in Queensland, Australia in the 1970s said: “If you have come here to help us, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with ours, then let us work together.” A conscious form of empathy, then, avoids mere sadness at the suffering of others, or some patronizing sense of charity. Instead, it strives for freedom and dignity for all people, because we know that we cannot otherwise enjoy these things for ourselves.
So we should take conscious action to help those most affected by this crisis, but we have to take care of ourselves along the way. That’s the main thing I want to focus on here.
Real quick, for those who don’t know: I’m not an expert in mental health. I have not been trained in behavioral therapy or psychology. I’m just a high school English teacher and a writer who has helped some folks deal with stuff, through my classes and my books.
Be Here Now
There has never been a better time to be mindful. If your mind is like mine, it’s constantly racing ahead to where we might be in a month. Or it’s wandering around the planet, wondering about people in Italy or China. But for the next few moments, please stop doing that. Just be here. Now.
Think about where you are, physically, in this instant. I assume you’re sitting in a chair. I assume you’re not too hot or too cold. I assume you’re not hungry or in pain. (If you are, pause here and eat something or take some medicine.)
Take a deep breath. Slowly. Don’t drag it out, but don’t rush it either. Just for this moment, there’s nowhere you need to go, and nothing you need to do. If you can spend a few minutes in this state, excellent. If not, find some time later to do so. Sometimes the only thing we can control is how we spend our time. And with social distancing requirements, most of us now have more control over our time, ironically. So use it.
We also have more control — and more responsibility, without the physical presence of bosses or teachers or coaches — over our thoughts. We’ll get to that.
As many of you know, I’ve written two books about mindfulness, and they’re available for free at my website ( just-text.org ). Those might be useful if you’re new to this mindfulness stuff. But you don’t need a book, or guided meditation recordings, or bells, or anything else. All you need is the desire — and self-control — to pull yourself back to this moment, here. (If, later on, you’d like some lovely guided meditations, check out the free app Insight Timer.)
It’s natural to wonder what the future might hold. But when being mindful, leave those thoughts to the side. Just as you should not fixate on mistakes you’ve made in the past, don’t fixate on what bad things might lie ahead. (Don’t fixate on the good things ahead, either.) Don’t fixate on final exams, students. Don’t fixate on the November election, citizens. Don’t fixate on how you’ll spend your summer, people.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t think about those things. We Americans need to create a plan for our upcoming elections. We need to plan for economic turmoil. We need to plan for the future. But planning is different from worrying. Planning is intentional and focused on specific actions. Worrying is automatic and focused on speculation. If you are mindful now, the plans you make later will be more effective — and you will worry less.
Close your eyes right now and take three deep breaths. Don’t rush to the next paragraph. Spend a moment pampering your mind.
Think About This
We have more control over our minds than we realize. Learning how to exercise that control is one of the most important things we can do, especially in a time of crisis. (David Foster Wallace’s “This is Water” commencement speech from 2005 is an excellent analysis of why mental control is valuable.)
People have accused me at times of “thinking too much”. I don’t think that’s possible, and I certainly don’t think it’s a problem. (Most people don’t think enough!) Rather, the problem comes when we think too much about the wrong things, or when we think too quickly.
So what are the right things to think about? Ay, there’s the rub. It depends on the situation. If you’re trapped in the trunk of a car, you should think of ways to escape. If you’re chatting with a friend you haven’t seen in a while, you should NOT think of ways to escape. The point is that you have a choice. You get to decide what to focus on. Not all the time; the mind works in mysterious ways, like when a song gets stuck in our heads. But we can bring ourselves back to this moment, focus on the breath, close our eyes for a second.
The other problem is thinking too quickly; I do this a lot. In a way, it makes sense. If X is usually Y, and Y is often Z, then it’s logical when encountering X to think of Z. 90% of the time, you’ll be right, and it makes sense to skip ahead to Z. But 10% of the time, you’re wrong. It’s tempting to think that you’re right 100% of the time, and never bother with asking: “Is X actually Y here? Is Y in fact Z?” It’s so easy to become certain about what you know.
Certainty and assumptions are tricks of the ego. The conscious mind learns from its mistakes. It’s honest about its own gaps and shortcomings. As Chinua Achebe said: “Whatever you are is never enough; you must find a way to accept something, however small, from the other to make you whole and to save you from the mortal sin of righteousness and extremism.” Slowing down in order to think carefully is a smart move. As Joseph Asagai says in A Raisin in the Sun: “Never be afraid to sit awhile and think.”
Along these same lines, consider the parallels of thinking quickly and acting quickly. Resist the temptation to stop what you’re doing and take care of something else “real quick”. I do this a LOT. I’ll be grading papers, and suddenly have an idea for a clever tweet, so I pull up Twitter to post it, but before I can do so, I have to respond to this person who commented on my last tweet, and then I notice she also tagged one of my favorite writers, but I didn’t even know he was ON Twitter, so of course I have to follow him real quick, and then I learn that he has a new book out so I need to see what it’s about and wasn’t I supposed to be grading papers?
I tell this story only to prove that I know how hard it is to stay focused. (I use a lot of parenthetical asides when I write, for the same reason.) Let’s all work on it together, shall we?
In times of crisis, mindset can be our best weapon against panic and fear. The longer the crisis, the more vigilant we have to be. Let’s examine a few ways to find healthy mindsets.
1.Solidarity: We’re not self-isolating just to keep ourselves healthy. We’re trying to flatten the curve. This is solidarity in its purest form. We’re showing solidarity with medical professionals, so they’re not overwhelmed with lots of cases at once. We’re showing solidarity with our friends who have existing medical conditions, especially related to immune systems. We’ve always been in this struggle of life together, and we’re being tested like never before.
2. Learning from History: It’s common for people to use the phrase “learn from history” to mean “give up hope because of all the terrible things that have happened in the past”. But that’s a child’s view. Human history has always been a mix of good and bad things. Right now, the most important things we can learn from the past are about how communities have overcome great difficulty, especially related to illness.
Professor Ian Goodfellow, Deputy Head of Virology at the University of Cambridge, recently told Vice News: “It wasn’t vaccines that stopped ebola; it was getting locals to understand the disease and how it spreads.” Given all the misinformation and rumors on social media right now, it’s never been more important to focus on medical professionals like the CDC and WHO.
We can give thanks — do it now, by taking a few deep breaths — for all the remarkable advances our civilization has made in medical science over the last 100 years. We’re in a tough spot, no doubt. But just imagine how much tougher this would have been in 1920. (You probably wouldn’t have access to these amazing words, for example.)
3. Compassion: The people around us need our support. Not just homeless folks and workers whose jobs are uncertain. (We should, of course, donate to those causes when we can.) I mean your family members, neighbors, and friends. Do small things to show kindness. Reach out to those you haven’t contacted in a while. Make a tiny gift and give it to a neighbor. Fellas, wash the damn dishes and change those diapers.
Talk This Way
Another important part of mindset in the weeks ahead will be how we communicate. What are your words focused on? How do you want your reader or listener to feel? Consider this piece I’m writing: I intentionally left the words “coronavirus” and “COVID” out of the title, because I don’t want to focus on the virus or the disease.
Humor right now is especially tricky. We live in a time of rampant gallows humor, and many people crack awkward or painful jokes as a way to relieve tension. Just remember that with so many people on edge, the context in which we’re joking is shifting. We cannot afford to lose our senses of humor, but it’s a lazy comedian who only ever tells one kind of joke.
If you’re like me, you use a lot of irony and sarcasm in your speech. That can be fun and funny, a way to inject some much-needed humor into your interactions. The problem is that irony requires decoding. The listener has to know the speaker well enough to understand that the expressed meaning is not just different from the intended meaning, but its opposite. (This is why irony and sarcasm are difficult to convey online. The best way to make an ironic joke unfunny is by pointing out the irony.)
When people are worried and stressed, making your listeners do extra work isn’t wise. Even if the other person knows you’re joking, they may not want to do that decoding work. Find some other way to be humorous. (This is tough for me, but I’m giving it a shot.) Now is a time to say what we mean and be kind with our words.
Remember, too, that sarcasm and irony — like all jokes, really — are ways to feed our own egos. So maybe you can put your ego trips to the side for a while and communicate in a way that is less focused on you. (Of course I’m living in a glass house here. As George Orwell said, the number one reason I write is to feed my ego. “It’s humbug,” he said, “to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one.”)
Working from home also means adjusting our usual patterns of communication. We’re working in new environments, with coworkers we’re not used to. That means setting boundaries for ourselves and respecting the needs of others — with compassion and patience. It’s a period of transition, and we should be open about how we feel. (Guys, I know this is tough for you especially. Get over yourselves.)
What to Watch: News and Views
If you’re like me, you like to stay informed. I’ve got news alerts popping up all day. But that steady stream of information can do harm, too. Just as we have the freedom to choose how we spend our time, so too can we choose where to put our attention.
Do you really need to know exactly where the Dow Jones Industrial Average is right now? Do you really need to know what hospitals in Italy are dealing with right now? Do you really need to know what every politician in the US is doing right now? Can’t you read a summary of the news at the end of the day? Or check the news three times a day?
Again, I’m not encouraging ignorance about world events, only moderation for those who might be unbalanced. As Beverly Slither said: “Our minds cannot thrive in an atmosphere of constant bombardment.” We need breaks from all the data.
Remember that media outlets want eyeballs. The easiest way to grab our attention is with fear and excitement. This doesn’t mean journalists are lying, or intentionally whipping up panic. (Some are, of course, and you should avoid them.) But it does mean that for-profit institutions have a motive to use techniques that aren’t always good for your mental well-being.
This goes double for social media. Facebook and TikTok and Instagram have teams of really smart people working hard to increase engagement. The number one thing they want to do is increase engagement, all the time. They want you coming back, checking in, tapping, liking, favoriting, sharing constantly. If you’re sharing positive conscious stuff, or horrible retrograde stuff, it doesn’t matter — what matters is that your eyeballs are available to the advertisers.
Consider turning off some of your notifications. Give yourself the gift of fewer interruptions. Our minds don’t work well when our phones are constantly beeping and vibrating at us, demanding that we look at things.
Remember that you really can turn your phone off. Like, actually power it off. I spent the first 40 years of my life without a cellphone. I was fine.
Social media and news updates come together in a strange way for some of us. Getting egoboo online means having the freshest, most humorous take on everything. If you don’t know what Ms. Politician just said, you won’t understand that tweet that’s already got 10 million likes. If you haven’t seen Mr. Celebrity’s latest 20-second video, you won’t understand the meme that everyone’s sharing. And you certainly can’t get egoboo for posting your own hot take.
Right now we’ve all got more time and access to social media, so there’s extra pressure on. But it’s all ego, and it’s all fleeting. Of course it feels good, but it also feels good to step away from the whole carnival of distraction. Run some warm water and wash your hands slowly — that feels good too, right?
And yes, let me be honest and confess that I’m hoping for lots of likes and shares of this piece right here. I’m hoping my students will tell me how much they enjoyed this piece, and I’m counting on more than a few emails from coworkers telling me how much they appreciate my erudition. But .. well, there really is no “but” here. It’s a part of my mindset. I’m fighting my ego. So it goes.
Solidarity Matters and Beautiful Things
Communities do better in a crisis than fractured clusters of fearful loners. London didn’t survive the Blitz by stockpiling guns to shoot looters. East Timor didn’t survive the Indonesian occupation by demonizing those with different political views online. Rwanda hasn’t healed from its genocide by seeking revenge and clinging to resentment.
Beautiful things are happening all around us. Vice News reports that some retired doctors are volunteering to help treat the sick. Italian opera singers are filling the streets with music. Patton Oswalt did stand-up comedy on the balcony of his home. People are buying gift cards to help keep their favorite local restaurants afloat.
When Mr. Rogers told children to “look for the helpers” in a time of disaster, he was speaking to children. We should not oversimplify that good advice, but it is good advice. What it means to help, and how we can best help others — these are not easy questions. But as always: You can be part of the solution, or part of the problem. It’s up to you.
But of course the work you do from home and the ways you help others are only part of the puzzle. You’ll also have lots of time to do other stuff. Again, mental control will be important here.
Be aware of how your leisure activities are affecting your mental state. Are those horror movies making you more tense, perhaps? Are those video games making you angry at times? (I’m speaking to myself here.) If you pride yourself on having a comprehensive understanding of the world, are you getting irritated with people who don’t “get it”?
Now is a great time to try new things. Check out a movie you’ve always wanted to watch. Listen to a type of music you don’t normally pursue. Try cooking a meal you’ve never made.
If you’re a creative person (and I think we all are, in some way), start a project. Write a story. Compose a song. Learn how to cross-stitch. Draw a picture of your favorite place. Make a weird collage with old magazines. Write a few thoughts in a journal — future generations might be interested to know what you were doing and thinking during the Covid Lockdown of 2020.
And if new things don’t work for you, that’s fine. Go back to your favorite funny movie and laugh despite the chaos of our time. Read a book you loved as a child. Listen to your favorite album while lying on your bed with your eyes closed. Put yourself back in 1990 or whenever it came out. (Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet came out in 1990, as did Ministry’s In Case You Didn’t Feel Like Showing Up and TMBG’s Flood.)
I enjoy doing crosswords and sudoku puzzles in the morning. Like video games, they give me something to focus on, and a small sense of accomplishment when I finish. Just be mindful of how the challenge is making you feel, and don’t be afraid to step away from a puzzle or game if it’s making you miserable.
Holler If You Hear Me
This will not be an easy few months. We’re going to be tested as a community, as a nation, as a civilization. There’s a chance you could lose someone you love. I don’t want that for any of you, but we have to be honest about the possibility. (As Henry David Thoreau said: “Rather than money, than love, than fame, give me truth.”)
But such loss is a possibility at every moment of every day. It was last year, and it will be when this whole COVID-19 thing is behind us. The question is: How will you appreciate the good things while they’re here? How will you allow the bad things to pass? How will you focus your mind so that you can be healthy and enjoy this moment right now?
I thank you for spending a few moments with my words. Tell me what you think.