Can’t Stand Another Minute of This Reality?
Slip into a different one.
I have a problem with reality these days.
Not the terribleness of being immersed in this particular timeline, though there is that too.
No, my problem is more staying in this reality for any length of time.
In these alarming times, I observe my colleagues sharing their expertise in an effort to extend help to anyone who might need it. My psychologist friends offer wisdom from their laboratories. Fellow faculty developers craft guides and essays to help instructors new to online teaching or to thinking carefully about pedagogy.
I feel the pull to do similarly, to write and share and help….but then I slip into a boat piloted by the stars to a reclusive hotel made all of glass, where I sip cocktails from a faceted tumbler served by a mysterious willowy bartender.
I am of course keeping up with my teaching responsibilities, and I love seeing my students through video chats and on our discussion boards. But while academia requires working with one eye always to the future, I can’t seem to think beyond the next day, or even the very next hour.
I crack open calendars and to-do lists and try to get something future-oriented done.
But then my niece invites me to run a dungeon with her and my daughter in World of Warcraft. I worry about these girls of mine, how hard it is to be teenager deprived of all face-to-face peer contact for such an extended period, and so I jump on my glowing EverWyrm Mount and fly to them.
With a series of whirling dragon kicks and tiger punches, I help them defeat the concrete, giant-snake-shaped challenges before us, clear foes that can be battled with our extensive resources. It is resoundingly satisfying.
Afterward we drink too much mead — yes, even though they’re underage — and dance.
I complain about my inability to produce any writing on Twitter. Someone I greatly admire suggests I write about how we’ll need to develop new ways to say goodbye and to grieve during this crisis, as so many of us may be deprived of physical presence during these terrible transitions. I start collecting words and memories. I line up my previous losses and consider their whispered deathbed vows and moments sharing raspberries still warm from my garden. The sheer force of combined recollected and anticipated grief immobilizes me.
From the next room my daughter calls out, “Mom, a Jacey scene!” and I am pulled away from the shadow of looming loss. She is binging Dawson’s Creek during her remote schooling breaks and she knows I have a soft spot for Joey and Pacey. I join her warm, safe spot on the couch and revisit a time in my youth when my biggest concern was whether the romantic fates of television characters would align with what I saw as the correct and just pairings.
Friends invite me to virtual happy hours and dinner parties. I sorely miss real-life restaurant and bar gatherings. The clink of silverware, the soft lighting, the natural buzz swirling around a small table of people who love each other, each table contributing its own warm mist that builds into a generalized excitement and tension and a blurring of the strict confines of the self.
Trying to recreate this effect on Zoom does nothing for me but draw a sharp outline around what we’re missing.
The one exception is on Saturday nights when I join with a merry band of adventurers on Roll 20 to slash some zombies and hunt for treasure in Dungeons and Dragons. With our group attention focused on the map and the riveting story my Dungeon Master brother spins in his rich baritone, the poor lighting and the flatness of the screen don’t really register. I am able to relax and laugh.
Being constantly pulled out of this reality means that not only am I not producing any scholarly work, but these fantastical realms of screen and page and storytelling begin to swirl and combine in ways that make me worry a bit about my brain — for instance, I wake in the night fretting that my monk in World of Warcraft is fighting barefoot when I’ve so recently been reminded of the hazards of doing so on family movie night.
But perhaps I have some expertise to share after all.
When Emotions Are Intense, Distraction is a Great Strategy
First, there is a large and growing body of scientific literature supporting the idea that there is no one emotion regulation strategy that works best, that instead flexibly switching between various strategies based on the circumstances might be the healthiest approach.
One such line of work suggests that when intensity of emotions are high, strategies related to attention and distraction may be the most effective. When things cool down, it is probably smart to stop distracting yourself and start really digging into the meaning of the situation, how you might reframe and rework your whole approach to stressors.
But in case you haven’t noticed, things are pretty intense. It is probably ok to lean hard on distraction right now.
The Power of Fiction
What all works of fiction do for us, whether they’re written on a page or acted on a stage or flickering on a glowing rectangle, is to transport us into the lived experiences of another human being. We shed the thoughts and concerns of our daily lives and pick up the mantle of another’s, experiencing things we would have no access to otherwise — we can travel to past eras, conduct espionage, or be wooed by billionaires with helicopters and hidden red rooms.
In a time when we’re all trapped in our homes, running little mental simulations where we eat at restaurants and flirt with strangers and wander Paris at night may be a small way of recapturing the days we long to enter again.
“Locked inside the black vault of our skulls, stuck forever in the solitude of our own hallucinated universe,” author Will Storr writes, “story is a portal, a hallucination within the hallucination, the closest we’ll ever really come to escape.”
But it isn’t just escape. Stories also are more meaningful, more full of satisfying narrative arcs and resolutions of tensions, than is capricious reality. Traveling well-crafted story arcs can reassure.
Not only are these arcs reassuring, but arousing stories in particular may bind our tension and allow for its exploration and then release. Susceptibility to this form of fictional satisfaction may explain the surprising contradiction of why some people enjoy being scared out of their wits. As childhood author Maurice Sendak reportedly once told an interviewer, “it is through fantasy that children achieve catharsis. It is the best means they have for taming wild things.”
Facing invisible threats and an entirely uncertain future, binding arousal to harmless packets of imaginative arcs and experiencing release and resolution may be a healthy way to manage negative emotions.
The Importance of Self-Compassion
So perhaps for reasons of distraction and biblio(andscreenio?)therapy, what looks at first blush like avoidance and laziness may be actually healthy ways of regulating my uncertainty and worry and creeping despair.
But even if that interpretation is nothing but pure rationalization, a lot of evidence suggests that I should forgive myself anyway.
And in one of the very best things I’ve read since this whole thing began, political scholar Aisha Ahmad details her experiences of living through stress and even trauma and concludes that we should ignore all of the you should be inventing calculus or writing a novel under quarantine productivity pressure. She writes of a series of mental shifts that need to occur before one can expect great things from oneself in times of anxiety and disruption. She promises that “[o]n the other side of this shift, your wonderful, creative, resilient brain will be waiting for you.”
And indeed, in recent days I find myself emerging from my story-shaped cocoon — able to Write a Thing about not being able to write a thing.
Whatever your own shift looks like, practice patience and self-forgiveness.
I’ll see you on the other side.