A Healthy New Normal

stacking rocks on a cairn

I was out for a walk last week and spotted two homes that displayed handmade signs that read “we’re all in this together.” I love that in this circumstance, our better natures can shine and be on display for all passersby. But, it’s kinda too bad that we don’t always feel this way. What could be possible if this unity toward a common cause were sustained? We’re always in this together, regardless of which epidemic you decide to band together and struggle through.

As tumultuous as this season is, it has highlighted just how important the basics of human well-being are. Perhaps we never really knew just how important our social bonds were until we had to break them and remake them. Many of our daily tasks that used to be on auto pilot, like going to the store or how we spend our money, have suddenly come to the forefront of our consciousnesses. But this can be a huge gift; awareness is a fundamental prerequisite for positive change. In the words of author and social philosopher Charles Eisentein, “COVID-19 is like a rehab intervention that breaks the addictive hold of normality.”

So what are some of those things that we need to be made aware of right now? I’ve seen a growing sentiment across the internet chatter about this or that silent epidemic going on, so why aren’t we doing anything about those? They cite the worrying statistics about the number of deaths attributable to things like suicide, drug overdoses, obesity and so on. Why aren’t we banding together to tackle those like we have been with our current pandemic? Perhaps if we see that we can collectively leverage the resources to tackle this, that could change. Maybe we don’t want to go back to the normal that was a silencing of bigger problems. Chicken pox can teach children that they have the ability to overcome something that seems like a huge problem, but is in their power to conquer. It can serve to give their adaptive immune systems a kickstart and their psyche’s a healthy dose of “you got this!” Maybe COVID can be our chicken pox.

But to our other growing epidemics, the solutions to those things are just not as straightforward. We can put a finger on hand washing, physical distancing, and antibody testing, but answers to, say, suicide, as our Mission seeks to find, involve so many other aspects than killing germs. One of the competencies of Army leadership is to “Prepare Self.” We can prepare ourselves to fight a virus with all the guidance you’ve already received, but here below, let’s see if we can’t understand how to prepare yourself emotionally to yet another month of quarantine or our reemergence to an altered society.

Awareness of the Stages

In a crisis, there are stages of emotional processing that are important to be aware of. The five stages of grief, though not hard and fast rules of how we’re wired to process a bad event, do give us some clarity about the how’s and why’s of our thought processes. Here, I’d like to offer three that are similar but with a slightly different perspective. We will all have to reckon with some amount of response to uncertainty, and being able to map out how that works can make the difference between living in a fog or a sunny day.

  1. Shock. When we’re first hit with the news of job loss, bereavement, or that the entire societal status quo has just shifted, we must come to terms with reality. Shock can lead to denial if not handled well. To live in denial of what happened is to make decisions based on something other than reality. True courage and leadership are marked by making tough decisions while accepting the fact of a crappy situation. Learning to accept things as they are, to lean into equanimous love, or cheerfulness and steadiness in all life situations, is an extremely healthy first step in recovering from shock. But it requires us to have a certain level of emotional awareness.

  2. Sorrow. After we accept and understand that our paychecks are no longer assured, that we have to adjust to a new normal, processing that grief instead of numbing it is one of the most human things you can do. We have tear ducts and mirror neurons for a reason. In other words, we were designed to carry and walk through periods of sadness while sharing that with others. Some of the most powerful and encouraging stories in this season have come when people who didn’t even know each other shared in each other’s griefs and struggles. We keep sorrow from overwhelming us into the dark place of despair but sharing and naming our emotions through storytelling and working together toward a shared purpose.

  3. Struggle. As a good friend once said, the struggle is real and if it’s not a struggle, it’s not real. After we process our sorrow, the magnitude and duration of the ensuing struggle will depend on where our foundations lie, on how well we are able to interpret our own emotions and flow through them in a productive way. The beauty of the struggle is that’s where we grow. By working through healthy struggle, we can parse out those things that we can and cannot control. We begin to sort those things we still may be in low key denial about and can allow more space to make healthy decisions about our futures.

    If we do not learn to struggle well, we may find ourselves in a space called “learned helplessness.” It is essentially a place where we feel we have absolutely no control of anything at all. We’ve been beat up so much that we give up. We tend to lean toward coping mechanisms that do more harm than good, by numbing instead of naming. It’s where we cannot draw clear lines between those things we do have control over and those we do not.

    If you find yourself stuck in a cycle of worry and you feel helpless, try this practice:

    • Write out all of the aspects of your life that you have no control over.

    • Set a timer for 10-15 minutes. Let out all your frustrations and worries and anxieties, just let ‘em fly, whether verbally or silently.

    • Once you begin to settle into the realities of things you can’t do anything about, reroute those anxieties toward trust. Trust that being “in this together” means that together, we make it through, because that’s always been our story.

Making use of Disappointment

Instead of being blown and tossed by forces outside our control, learning to build out our emotional and relational centers adds tremendously to our resilience. The structure of our mental space is not unlike how a house is built. Building that house well can be our antidotes to this season’s shock, sorrow, and struggle.

  1. The Foundation. Our foundations lie in our sense of connectedness to others, our relationships. The rest of the house will collapse if we lose connection. Take an extra five minutes today to text a friend you haven’t spoken to in a while. Check out Meet Up, an app designed to connect like-minded individuals over coffee or Zoom. This could be a chance to learn about a whole new community just down the road. Join the Mission 22 team and meet a group of people who have lived under the “we’re in this together” banner long before any viral pandemic broke out.

  2. The Framing. We establish ourselves as participants in a family then use our unique talents and aims to build on that. The framing of the house renders itself in our routines and purposes. We need a target to shoot for and routines to help us get there. For example, if our aim is to be a good spouse, perhaps we make dinner once in a while. To make dinner, we must step into a routine of chopping vegetables and turning the stove on. Those high resolution tasks paired with a higher calling comprise the structure of the house. These tasks need not take the form of a formal job with benefits. While it certainly can be a part of it, your calling is not the same thing as your compensation. Without knowing what our calling is, then negative emotions resulting from shock throws off restraint. We lose self-control when we aren’t anchored to a bigger vision.

  3. The Furniture. At this stage of homebuilding, the basic functions of habitation are in place, but now we come to making it beautiful, making it unique, giving color and vivation to our attributes. This comes through living in trust and self-control. This is a product of struggling well as we discussed above. Trust means surrendering our own delusions of control over those things you made on your list. Self-control means pressing into those aspects of your life that contribute to your calling: being that shoulder to cry on; standing firm in uncertainty, showing your family that example; doing your best in the face of the world doing its worst.

Now, practice writing down just one or two things you can do today. Write down some of those high definition actions you can take to prepare yourself and make a difference in the world. “Put the things you can control in order. Repair what is in disorder, and make what is already good better,” in the words of clinical psychologist, Jordan Peterson. This virus has given us a chance to put names to our aims, then to translate those aims into smaller tasks that, collectively, can change the direction of a multitude of epidemics. We’re all in this together.

Marcus Farris is the Veteran Wellness Coordinator at Mission 22. He’s a Certified Health Coach and Level 1 Crossfit Trainer.

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