As the COVID-19 pandemic roles on, and anxiety increases about what the fall semester will look like for school, what the economic outlook will be, and just how healthy we as individuals and a community will remain, it is understandable that we find ourselves feeling tired and weary of all that has come our way. So many of us, if we are honest, have lamented that life was already too hard before the pandemic set in. Yet now we are asked to alter what we do on an hourly basis, and look across the table at our masked brothers and sisters with eyes of fear and uncertainty as we all ponder what will come next.
Yet in the midst of our trial, there is a hidden opportunity in store. Simply put, instead of giving into our anxiety and our fears, we can use them to get stronger. The reality is that when times are good, we think little of growth, but rather in just sustaining what seems good. But suddenly, the Roaring Twenties lead to the Great Depression, and we realize that maybe we aren’t as invincible as we perceived ourselves to be. With this sudden awareness comes an option, whether we like it or not. Simply put, the option is to allow fear to dictate a response in which anxiety and exasperation rule our days, or we intentionally choose to take a different course, even if anxiety resurfaces again and again.
Given this, the question isn’t so much of where will all this lead or where do we want to go, but rather just what kind of person do I want to be? I find myself asking this more than ever these days, and sometimes even the question alone exhausts me. But it doesn’t change the answer. And for you, who do you want to be, and just what kind of person do you want your kids and others to see in you? In reality, nothing else matters than being who you are called to be.
So, even in the fear of death and despair, if we accept this belief, then we must arm ourselves with tools for our minds, bodies, and souls to pursue this journey. Each tool is incompatible with anxiety, in that when we immerse ourselves in the experience they provide, fear is not possible in those moments. Each are free and available to all, whether you are 3 years old or a 100. Three primary tools exist, and all have spiritual and scientific support throughout the ages. The first is the virtue of gratitude. Decades of scientific research, and specific methods of being thankful, have repeatedly shown that this practice leads to greater happiness, less anxiety, and even improved physical markers, such as decreased blood pressure and improved immune functioning. Simply put, a thought or act of gratitude recognizes that no matter how difficult things are, there is “goodness” in our life, and that this goodness lies outside of ourselves. And so we give thanks.
The second tool is the gift of empathy. Simply put, empathy isn’t just feeling sorry for someone, but rather really trying to understand what it must have been like “to be in their shoes.” During this pandemic, I have wondered countless times what it must have been like to be a Native American or settler on the Great Plains in the 1800’s, and to have no clear way to prevent the scourge of diseases, such as dysentery, malaria, cholera, smallpox, polio, and the like. Today, we may find ourselves worrying about contracting COVID-19, but just a century or so ago, people everywhere lived in constant fear of being afflicted with a life-threatening or disabling illness at any time for which they had no recourse, but rest, hope, and prayer. When harnessing the gift of empathy, it does not change the reality we live in. But it transfers the anxiety to another place and time, to people I might know well or have never even seen, but are much like me. No longer do I wallow in fear, but when I consider others, I care more about what it must be like for them than what is for me.
The third tool is the discipline of challenge versus despair. As the famous lines from the “little engine that could” once exclaimed as he climbed a mountain after first lamenting “I can’t go on…I’m weary as can be”,
“I think I can, I
think I can, I think I have a plan
And I can do ‘most anything if I only think I can”
But, where do we find ourselves these days with the situation we are in. There is nothing wrong with praying that the pandemic will be over soon. But what if it is not? It is here that we must fill our psychological space with a “challenge mindset.” But I don’t want this challenge, you might say! To which our world replies, “Well, you have it anyway.” And if we have it anyway, then we either look at it as an opportunity to climb higher, like we might with any particular sport or endeavor, or we despair that it will never end. Whether we like it or not, each of us has this choice. We may not be able to control our feelings or the outcomes, but we can control our attitude toward this suffering. As Viktor Frankl once famously said (after surviving the Holocaust that claimed most of his family members), “The last of the human freedoms is to choose one’s own attitude in any given set of circumstances.”
So, you may ask, what if I embrace all these tools? What is my guarantee?
Life? Nope. Freedom from hardship? Nope. Financial security? Nope. Approval from others? Nope.
Well, you might say, this is starting to sound like a raw deal. So, what does all this effort guarantee? The answer is simple: It is peace of mind in knowing that your life and my life will not be dictated by fear. Rather, we will be open to the beauty and the love and contentedness that is available to me every day no matter what is occurring around and inside of me. Sure, fear will resurface and anxieties will take hold at times, and we may feel tired and uncertain wondering what the next day will hold. But we will no longer be a slave to fear. We will be free.