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5 Steps for Survival and Strengthening in the Current Turmoil

The apocryphal curse, “May you live in interesting times,” suggests that “interesting” can also mean “trying,” or “disruptive,” and definitely hard to handle.

It’s possible that every generation feels like it lives in times that are too interesting, but right now, things really do feel more desperate to me. There’s the rapidly spreading coronavirus, the process and aftermath of presidential impeachment, Australia on fire, a 67 percent jump in hate crimes here in New York City, more poisons than ever in our air and water, you name it.

A dear colleague wrote to me recently asking how we can deal with our anger and grief in times like these. I wrote back with five suggestions:

(1) Practice strengthening and self-care. My great-grandmother always said everyone needs “a cushion.” She meant some extra money, time, even a little extra flesh on your bones: padding to provide a softer landing when the bad times come. This saying is at least three generations old, so either bad times come around with some frequency — or at least, we fret that they’re coming.

We can get so used to running on empty, or “giving our all,” that we don’t have enough to fall back on when the going gets really tough. When we’re feeling weak, we may overreact or act in ways that are unhelpful, both to ourselves and others.  Crucial self-care can include everything from getting enough sleep and exercise to spending time with trusted friends. Without it, we can end up eventually harming ourselves (if not flossing regularly now means pain, time, money, and disruption caused by dental problems later) or externalizing our stress to others (kicking the proverbial cat, or being short with loved ones or colleagues).

(2) Protect yourself. Constant worry puts us at risk of overload or breakdown, so consider limiting your intake of news, at least temporarily, to prevent repetitive, negative thoughts from running through your mind when there’s not much you can do in the moment. It’s important to stay informed, but rethink your news sources. For instance, it’s calmer reading a newspaper than it is watching TV news or monitoring Twitter. To reduce agitation, get a news digest or see less of the friends and relatives who insist we’re going to hell in a hand-basket or who think the sky is falling and want you to sweep it up when it lands.

Self-protection also requires compartmentalization, like focusing on work, hobbies, or other productive activities to create little peaceful, productive oases for yourself. It also may mean setting aside “worry time.” Try an experiment: Designate a time, like Thursdays from 8:00 to 9:00PM, for what cognitive psychologists call “awfulizing” — catastrophizing and really feeling bad — but during the rest of the week, when those feelings come up, tell them you have a special slot for them on Thursdays and they need to be patient till then.

(3) Be compassionate. Work to develop intentions of fellowship and good will toward everyone you come in contact with, as well as for yourself. Compassion builds stronger bonds between people and strengthens us at the same time. When times are tough, it can be hard to remember that most people we interact with during the day don’t wish us ill. Very few people are actually evil. Purposefully thinking about other people’s underlying humanity and goodness can prevent our feeling that those who hold different beliefs from ours are our enemies. Helping those who are hurt or in need — and that’s almost everyone, in some way or another — can also raise your spirits, whether it’s through community service, philanthropy, or even the simple gift of a smile between strangers.

(4) Express gratitude. Despite whatever terrible things are going on, much of your life is probably decent. It might even be thrilling compared to the experiences of the millions of people who lived generations ago, or for those living now in other, more dangerous places. Put a little energy into acknowledging the good you experience every day, starting with just being alive. It is a blessing to remind ourselves we’re not dead yet, and to remember that, as Cicero said, “Where there’s life, there’s hope.” We’ve had the benefit of so many good things, despite whatever bad things we see now. Savoring and reinforcing the positives contributes to a stronger psychological/emotional cushion.

(5) Undertake civic action. Look for ways to participate, not to withdraw. This TED talk by Eric Liu, cofounder and CEO of Citizen University and director of the Aspen Institute’s Citizenship and American Identity Program, provides reassuring examples. We are part of a larger society. Sharing our talents, determination, and hopes for the future can only help to make it better. Through our actions, we can simultaneously make a difference and feel better, knowing that we are contributing to progress in some small way. Maybe our efforts will help inspire others (let’s give a nod to Greta Thunberg). And according to a Talmudic principle I love dearly, “You are not obligated to complete the task; neither are you free to desist from it.” Having a better world requires working toward one, whenever and however we can.

Yes, we live in interesting times. There have been many interesting periods in the past, and some of us have even lived through them. If we stay open-minded and resolute, and take care to strengthen ourselves and others, we can survive the current turmoil too. Let me know what you’re doing to navigate the current challenges.

Onward and upward —


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