The great equaliser

Learning lessons in resilience, as we search for meaning and purpose

By: Maria Beider

When the whole world as we know it and as our parents have known it is turned upside down, what happens to us psychologically and emotionally? When your living room becomes your kids’ classroom, your bedroom is turned into a yoga studio, people don masks and gloves in order to buy their groceries, and the price of crude oil is negative, there is pandemonium. Or is that an understatement?

In the last few weeks, as the Covid-19 pandemic crept closer to us, I observed the world around me undergoing a variety of different reactions: some were in denial, carrying on regardless, continuing to schedule face-to-face meetings or social engagements, whereas others went into panic or survival mode, feeling the need to stockpile everything available on the supermarket shelves.

For many there was untold anxiety, fear of contracting the dreaded virus or worry for vulnerable loved ones. Many have been tackling the issue of loss of control, since they had no idea where the solution would come from or how long this new world order would last. Some people have been dealing with anger or resentment which was turned into a pointless exercise in blame. Eventually, a deep global sadness settled like a mantle of snow across the world.

These varied responses were clearly all valid and normal reactions and ways of coping with shocking news. As with every kind of experience of grief, we may experience the different emotional stages of denial, anger, bargaining, sadness, and acceptance (which I must emphasise are not necessarily experienced in a linear fashion) as described by Kubler Ross. I knew in the back of my mind that we needed to go through these stages of grief before arriving at a place of acceptance. I knew we were inevitably heading to that calm acceptance, some putting up more of a fight than others, but as I pondered it from a therapeutic perspective, a nagging question remained in my mind. Acceptance may be the fifth and final stage of mourning officially, but it does not necessarily provide comfort or certainty.

Living in various stages of lockdown, with uncertainty about when it will end and how it will end, can be very daunting and stressful. Not being able to plan ahead, go out, or keep a normal routine can feel like we have reached an impasse.

Many people may experience the inevitable loss of stability with tremendous fear and furthermore a loss of control over their lives, which can make people anxious, depressed, or angry. Do we just passively surrender to lockdown or is there something more we can do beyond the final stage of acceptance? While I was pondering what we all needed to do amidst my own quiet, tearful acceptance of the situation and as I prepared my family for going into lockdown, a friend sent me an article which hit on this very theme, written by David Kessler, an expert in grief and mourning, who co-wrote the quintessential book “On Grief and Grieving” with Elizabeth Kubler Ross.

Kessler introduces an interesting notion in viewing the way we view this pandemic. He suggests we see this episode in our lives as a time of grief and loss in which we are mourning for a world that has changed irrevocably. He views it as an anticipatory type of grief. Kessler refreshingly adds a sixth stage in the process of grieving which he calls finding meaning in grief.

It is clearly important for each individual to make sense somehow of what is happening in the world at this time. Accepting the situation does not render us powerless completely. We are still able to choose what we do within our unique internal worlds and what meaning we choose to take from it.

Some say that we need to recognise that the earth is healing itself right now and we should show compassion and appreciation to our planet. They say pollution levels are down around the globe and that swans and fish have returned to the Venetian canals. That is just one of my favourite interpretations of the worldwide lockdown. One thing is certain, the outpouring of love and caring messages that are being circulated around the globe will make this world a better and more connected place in the future.

Whatever you believe is happening in this generation, it is definitely reassuring if you can pin some kind of meaning to it, as recommended by Kessler.

I personally would like to take this suggestion one stage further. Not only should we be making our own meaning, but we should also seek to actively find a purpose for ourselves within this chaos or even just to set small achievable goals. While we cannot control the uncontrollable, we can control the way we choose to react to it.

This realisation was a turning point for me. Human beings need to have a purpose or a goal to focus on. This is the key to resilience and the only way we are going to survive this experience with our sanity intact. Victor Frankel, an Auschwitz survivor, worked this out in the bleakest of human conditions. And so must we.

In fact, the Corona crisis is teaching us all a lesson in resilience, regardless of status, race, age, culture, or class. It is indeed a great equaliser.

What exactly does resilience mean and can one acquire it? Resilience means having the ability to bounce back, to grow through a tough experience, and to overcome stressful life events. It means being flexible and adaptive to new situations. Another aspect of resilience is emotional strength. If it is a test of strength then we can honestly admit that for many nations around the globe this is a weak muscle that has not been worked for a good many years. We may even emerge stronger and more resourceful from this experience.

We may argue that some people are born more resilient than others. However, we all have the ability to learn this skill. It is built into our DNA.

If we are going to practise resilience, we need to ensure that we have a sense of purpose. For some, it may be reflected in their behaviour or actions such as being productive, making lists, and working through them. For others, it means being creative or doing things that bring them joy. I am definitely a list-type person and I am thrilled to have finally found the time, after years of procrastinating, to make some photo albums. (The satisfaction I get from crossing things off my list is immense!)

For many, it just means simply knowing who we are and managing our internal world by navigating our thoughts and feelings.

Being mindful is another way of exercising resilience, especially if anxiety arises; just focusing on one day at a time. What can I do now? I can wash the dishes. I can sit still and listen to the birds singing in the trees outside. I am able to watch the rain as it gracefully falls from the sky, or, if I am feeling particularly dysregulated by the uncertainty and lack of order of things, I can engage in a twenty-minute meditation.

One way of not getting stuck in negative thought patterns is to focus on external projects such as giving to others or offering a service. I know of one altruistic grandmother who has offered to read stories to other people’s children.

Being resilient also means reaching out to others when you are not doing so well. There is strength in the ability to make oneself vulnerable. Connecting to other people and sharing your feelings can help to normalise them. However, if it is too hard to reach out to a friend, you can and should seek professional counselling help. We all need someone to listen to us, if not see us at this time.

After all, we are all climbing this hill and trying to persevere as we battle against the challenges that come with this unpredictable crisis. Sherri Mandell writes in her highly acclaimed book “The Road to Resilience”: when two friends climb a hill together, the hill seems less steep than when they climb it alone. Or alternatively, as many have tweeted or posted in recent days, “We will get through this together.”

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