Your Unique Answers

I am reading the book: Yes to Life In Spite of Everything, which is a translation of three lectures given by Viktor Frankl in 1946. What he says is that each person has to figure out how to answer the questions that life asks him or her. Like each cell of the body which contributes to the whole but has unique functions, each person responds to what is possible and what makes sense to him or her.

Frankl quotes the poet Rabindranath Tagore:

I slept and dreamt

that life was joy.

I awoke and saw

that life was duty.

I worked–and behold,

duty was joy.

Frankl argues that “the question can no longer be “What can I expect from life?” but can now only be “What does life expect of me?” What task in life is waiting for me?” Since we are each unique in our gifts and in our vulnerabilities, and since each moment and place is unique just now, we can only respond as Frankl analogizes, as a chess player choosing the right move at that moment for those circumstances, with that layout on the board. And, of course, it is ALL improv.

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Denial, Dissociation, Distraction

Sometimes we find ourselves face to face with a despair that threatens to overwhelm us. It is taking every bit of energy we have not to give in to it. We try different things; we talk to ourselves; we know it won’t last, but it doesn’t feel that way. People give us advice about exercising or keeping  a journal. They don’t get it. If we could do that we wouldn’t be struggling. We can’t get ourselves to do anything. We are trying. Really hard.

So here’s the thing. I was thinking about denial, dissociation and distraction. These ways of avoiding bleak feelings are often discounted as unhealthy or worse, destructive. But I was thinking about how our  brains created these tools for good reasons. Of course if we can do better, we should. But sometimes you just can’t do better. And at those times, maybe these tools can be helpful.

Denial is when you decide something just isn’t a problem. “I’m just not going to worry about it.” Or, “it’s not as bad as it seems.” For a bit at least, the oppressive pressure of the problem is somewhat lightened.

Dissociation is when we are so overwhelmed, we disconnect and we don’t think about anything. It’s those times when you are sitting on the sofa and three hours have passed and you didn’t notice. Dissociation is putting the whole merry-go-round of life on pause and not being aware. It is a short (or long) break from stress.

Distraction is when we are just so overwhelmed with what is on our minds that we have to focus our attention on something else–preferably something entertaining. Distraction is interrupting the relentless input of bad news and uncertainty by turning our attention to something lighter, funnier, or more positive.

As a psychotherapist, I try to help people face their problems and deal with them. But that takes energy. And sometimes you need to restore yourself, gather your forces, and recommit yourself to solving the problems of your life. You can’t avoid the challenges forever, but sometimes you just need a little break from the seriousness, the intensity, and the uncertainty of the challenges in your life. Sometimes you just have to pause for a bit before you re-engage.

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No One Knows

Mark Lilla has an oped piece in the New York Times this morning called “No One Knows What Is Going To Happen.” His point is that everyone wants to have some certainty, but we can’t predict the future because it is unformed. He makes the essential point that we create the future as we go and thus we are responsible for it.

We live in unprecedented times. The point is, we always live in unprecedented times. In hindsight we can draw parallels between different events or eras, but in truth there are as many differences as there are parallels. We cannot accurately foresee even the short term, and we are even wider of the mark the further we go out. Lilla says: “Human beings want to feel that they are on a power walk into the future, when in fact we are always just tapping our canes on the pavement in the fog.”

We have limited impact or control over the larger influences in our lives, but we still have to do the small things that we can do. And what we do matters. Most importantly, we can do what we can. We can develop ideas about the better world that is possible. We can generate kindness and appreciation for each other. We can become less wasteful. We can identify our deepest values and bring our lives closer to them. We can work at improving our relationships with the people closest to us. And we can vote for politicians who reflect our values.

It is not just that we ourselves do not know what is going to happen. No one knows. Expecting our experts, politicians, business leaders, journalists, or professors to tell us what is going to happen is an exercise in futility. They do not know either. That is why it is so very important to choose wise and principled people to help us create the future that we aspire to. Because it is all improv. We will have to make choices, build systems, and take care of each other based on the emerging realities. And we will be guided by our experience of the past and by what we think is the most important basis for those decisions.

As the poet Bonaro Overstreet put it:

You say the Little efforts that I make
will do no good: they never will prevail
to tip the hovering scale
where Justice hangs in balance.

I don’t think I ever thought they would.
But I am prejudiced beyond debate
in favor of my right to choose which side
shall feel the stubborn ounces of my weight.

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Human Nature

Why in the world is that awful book Lord of the Flies required reading in so many schools? Or even more so, why are any dystopian speculations considered entertaining? From them, we get an unrealistic idea about basic human nature, and we remember and believe these very fictional accounts. Which are false. In fact, we have so much evidence of the inherent prosocial basis of human nature.

An article in The Guardian is a wonderful counterpoint to the fantasy of what might happen if children were left to fend for themselves. In real life, they are cooperative, creative, and constructive. And that actually happened! Rutger Bregman, a professor in the Netherlands found and interviewed six boys who had been marooned for about 15 months back in 1977. They had organized themselves and made do with the few implements they had with them.

Now Bregman has a new book: Humankind. His point of view is that human beings are hard wired for kindness, cooperation, and trust in each other. He provides substantial data from studies showing the benevolent side of human nature and the flaws in an argument for self-interest as the core of people.

Why do we want to believe we are selfish and destructive? Why are we drawn to ideas that make us feel isolated and afraid? Maybe it’s because our most urgent and compelling instinct is survival, and the emotional systems related to that instinct are the most powerful and dominating. After all, if we don’t have survival we can’t do anything. Bruce Perry shows that the emotional systems underlying our bodily survival will dominate all of our thoughts and feelings if they are dysregulated (stirred up). So generating fear in people is a way of getting their attention and of directing their responses. It’s a great way to sell books, but not a very accurate story.

The problem is, cooperation is our superpower as a species. It has never been more clear that we rely on each other. The interdependence of people with each other has allowed us to build cities, schools, and hospitals–all of civilization actually. We have supported each other and promoted our collective well-being. All the while, we have been taught that people inherently act in their own self-interest and only do things that will benefit themselves. This is a persistent conviction, even though we have tons of evidence before us continually that it is not true.

We sustain this dysphoric fantasy by viewing other people as inherently different from ourselves. Our own group is good and caring people, and other groups are scary and self-serving, according to this picture. The problem is, this is just not true. When the governor of California, Gavin Newsom,  sent needed equipment to be used by states that were short on it, he was being human. When he asked the governors of those states to return the favor if California needed it, he was being human.

We have been shown over and over, in studies and in personal encounters, that human beings are primates; we are social animals; and we succeed by cooperating. We need each other now more than ever. We need to remind ourselves and each other of the bigger picture, of the truth about human interdependence, and of the vision of a more compassionate community that reflects the reality of who we really are.

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One of the useful perspectives in dealing with the onslaught of information we are experiencing is a commitment to distinguish facts from speculation. There are so many guesses about what is going to happen and what we should be doing, that it can become overwhelming and discouraging. Even though we want to be informed, and we don’t want to miss important pieces of information, much of the time it is difficult to distinguish between what comes from a credible source or is reliable and what is speculation and fear.

We don’t know what is going to happen in the future. That is always true, but now more true than ever. Not knowing leads to an undefined kind of fear. And we begin to feel helpless and hopeless. This is never useful. And when we drift into the future with apprehension and doubt, we feel we are subject to what happens to us, instead of feeling that we have any control over our lives at all.

What we can do is begin to build visions of what we can build, what we can control, and what we can do. We can rethink how we have been living and change what wasn’t working and commit ourselves to lives that reflect what matters to us. We don’t know what we will be able to do, but we don’t have to drift completely. We can imagine possibilities. We can create ideas and pictures and dreams. We can put our efforts and energies into the directions we want and doggedly pursue visions of a better world.

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Tricks for Managing Stress

According to Bruce Perry, trauma expert (Full Lecture here), you can deal with trauma using 3 steps, in this order:

  1. Regulate emotions:

–Create some structure and predictability: make routines, plan your day.

–Institute some kinds of movement, even for 5 minutes, several times a day. Use patterned, repetitive activity, like walking.

–Limit (dose) incoming information, and be sure the source is reliable.

–Pay attention to breathing: becoming aware, mindful.

–Allow your mind to rest: stop doing and trying, sit and do nothing for a bit (i.e., meditate).

–Journal or write about your experience.

2. Relate to someone, somehow:

–Contact someone you care about or who cares about you.

–Do movement with someone (this gives you TWO tools!).

–Do lovingkindness meditation.  Begin with yourself, and then move to each person in your life.

–Write a letter.

–Ask for help.

–Avoid dysregulating relationship experience; try not to give time or attention to people who generate negative emotion that impacts you badly.

3. Reason

–Distinguish what you can know from speculation or worry.

–Only accept credible sources of information.

–Acknowledge uncertainty and lack of control. Have compassion for the experience for yourself and other people.

–Recognize that many great minds are working on the problem.

–Remember other times you have managed difficult situations.

–Remind yourself that everything can be all right, even after a trauma.


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Embracing the Generations

I have heard that there is a saying somewhere in Africa that “when an elder dies, a library burns to the ground.” Contained in this brief saying is a fundamental valuing of the accumulation of life experience. Over the course of our current global trauma, we are experiencing the most extreme challenge to our sense of coherence, continuity, and capacity. It becomes clearer and clearer that we need the powerful value of the contributions of all people and of each person and the wisdom of different life stages.

We can watch in awe as our little children process and try to understand the changes in their world. We can appreciate the courage and energy of young people who jump into the middle of danger and confusion to deliver groceries or run a hospital ward. We can see the strong and centered presence of the middle agers who work at creating policy, directing larger group responses, analyzing problems,  and making decisions for the benefit of the vulnerable and the sick. And we can see the elders, more vulnerable, but often more calm. They have seen many challenges, and they understand the necessity of persistence, effort, and hope.

We come to understand that challenges are a normal part of life, and our flexibility and willingness to engage with those challenges directly impact our own well-being, both physical and psychological. We are reaching for salutogenesis: that Sense of Coherence (SOC):

“The sense of coherence is a global orientation that expresses the extent to which one has a pervasive, enduring though dynamic feeling of confidence that (a) the stimuli deriving from one’s internal and external environments in the course of living are structured, predictable and explicable; (b) the resources are available to her/him to meet the demands posed by these stimuli; and (c) these demands are challenges, worthy of investment and engagement.

“I have called these three components of the SOC, respectively, comprehensibility, manageability, and meaningfulness.”       —-Aaron Antonovsky

Our successful resolution of our present global trauma relies heavily on how well we engage and use the many, varied, and idiosyncratic gifts of each person and each generation. Suddenly, we all matter.


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And Then There Is Awe

We’ve settled in. We are here for the duration. How long will that be? Two months? Six months? Eighteen months? We don’t know. We notice we have lots of things that are useless and we don’t need, and we don’t have some things we do need. We realize how profoundly important our attachments are to the meaningful people in our lives. Sometimes those people are different from the people we would have thought we needed. We feel a deep sense of connection and gratitude.

We are experiencing the fundamental lack of control we have over nature, over other people, and over our own circumstances. And we understand that even without complete control, it will matter what we do. We see that it is about probabilities and not certainties. We watch our own internal careening from denial to hope to despair and back again. We alternate between self compassion and impatience with our own weakness. We feel, starkly, our vulnerability and our interdependence with other people and with the world.

And after all, there is the uncertainty. We just don’t know. And not knowing, we are scared and we are frustrated and we are disorganized. And we wake up in the morning and we see there is another day and we face that day. And still the trees are budding, the flowers are beginning to come up, and we share encouragement, resources, and information with the people we care for and who care for us. And we create routines for our unstructured lives, we remember the people we want to encourage, and we do what we are able to do. And at night, we get into bed, and we tell ourselves: we are enough. We are doing our best. And the most fundamental rule is that you cannot do better than your best.

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I’ve thought about it. I don’t think it is just my imagination. People are consciously kinder to each other. Of course there will always be that two percent of people who are unmoved. But overall, people are kinder. They are smiling at each other. Helping each other. There is a general sense that we are all in this together. There is a one world awareness that is even affecting our fantasy that we are somehow a super-power. There is a humbling, a joint sense of uncertainty, and an understanding that everyone is being affected in different ways and that some people are suffering in the extreme.

People are joining in agreement about the everyday problems and losses, nodding together over the toilet paper problem and the work at home challenges. I am out walking and people are keeping their six feet distance, but they are smiling warmly, waving, chuckling ruefully with a sense, “Well, here we are. We are all in this together.” We are beginning to get it: you can’t just take care of yourself.

We are watching the news, astounded by the impacts, awed by the medical people, frightened by the predictions. We are re-centering ourselves in where we can take action, even if it is only by staying in. We are trying to cooperate to protect our vulnerable people, and we are sharing our ideas, our news, and our experiences. We are learning to appreciate the small aspects of everyday life that we have had in the past: The chat with the car mechanic, shopping for food, sitting together with friends and family.

We will hang in and come out the other side. But nothing will ever be the same. This global trauma will define this generation just like World War II defined the young families of that generation. We are learning, and we are noticing, and we are practicing living in different ways. You can’t unknow what you know. We will remember, and we will be changed.

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Daily Routine Checklist

Here is a recommendation from Dr. Naomi Parrella, family doctor and lifestyle medicine physician at Rush University Medical Center. She suggests her patients make a daily checklist and try to get to all ten items every day if they can, in any order, at any time:

  1. Look outside and observe nature.
  2. Engage in a mindful moment.
  3. Make an anchoring statement and say it aloud every day.
  4. Breathe deeply, release your shoulders and smile to yourself.
  5. Hydrate and eat healthy.
  6. Learn something: read, practice a musical instrument, or learn a new word.
  7. Complete your list of tasks for the day–make it a reasonable list.
  8. Move your body.
  9. Hum, sing, or listen to music.
  10. Connect with and help others.
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