The “Washington Post” today has a wonderful article about a man named Abraham Walker, who is a real estate agent in Alexandria Virginia. Walker asked people on Facebook what if any good has come out of the pandemic for them. He said he is not denying the losses, but wanted to help people see it is not only losses. The article ends with this quotation: “Look at the afterward,” he says. “History tells us there is always an afterward.”

We know that, but we forget it. We speculate about negative outcomes, everything only ever getting worse. We have seen too many disaster movies. We worry. Worry feels like problem solving. Worrying makes us feel like we will be prepared for the worst. We speculate as if there is some way to nail down the future. Our minds turn the possibilities over and over. There seem to be an infinite number of possibilities to worry about. The worst case scenarios seem ever more probable.

The thing is, we have been thrown an enormously surprising wrench in the works of our everyday lives. Many parts of our lives that we took for granted are no longer possible in the same ways. Some things have stopped completely. Some have morphed into something else. Some people have had devastating losses and other people are treading water waiting for some kind of stability in the global situation.

The thing is, we have been forced into a global reset. We have had to rethink what matters to us and we have had to decide what to build in the space that has been made. We have a chance to reimagine what our world and our social systems should be like. The importance of different community needs has shifted, and we see more clearly the imbalances in our local and larger worlds.

Human beings are infinitely innovative, flexible, and adaptive. And the core intentions of human nature, wired in, are to care for ourselves and each other. This is not a hypothesis. It has been proven over and over. We do not like unfairness. We do not like to know that other people are suffering. We feel that too. We do not like a feeling of being unsafe. We do not like a feeling of stagnation or a lack of meaning in our lives. There are fundamentals that underlie the quality of our lives.

We have a chance to envision a better world–a cleaner, kinder, wiser way to organize ourselves and our communities. The templates for this vision are lying around, being used in small ways and proving successful. We can hold this vision for each other; we can trust the larger picture. We don’t need to hold the world together with our bare hands, and we don’t need to be afraid of each other. We can stick to a picture of the possible and share that picture with each other. We can remember all of the history of people overcoming challenging times and creating something better. Afterward.

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Compassion Is Required

Because uncertainty is so incredibly nerve-wracking, we would like to know the right answers to our questions. We want a definitive right or wrong proven fact or opinion so that we do not have to deal with worrying about the unknown. In the current state of the world, we are even more anxious to know something, and we try to understand how to think about everything that is going on. We are in the midst of global trauma including a life-threatening pandemic, economic contraction, and world-wide racial unrest. Not to mention other local traumas such as a heat wave in the United States that makes it hard to go outside.

We are all impacted, and the depths of the traumas demand a determined sort of compassion–for ourselves and everyone else. We are dissociated, forgetting things, feeling confused, bumping into things or going the wrong direction. We are rattled, unnerved, and disorganized. We are consumed by grief for the ways of life we have lost and angry at someone, we are not quite sure who. We turn to each other, but everyone is in the same boat. We work at sustaining each other, encouraging each other, and trying our best to hold our own in the situation.

All we can do is inch forward, feeling our way toward a better world, envisioning what is possible, connecting with each other in the dark. And we are frightened. And we are worried that we are lost. And we rage at the unknown. We try things. Some of them help. We observe our own vulnerabilities and faults. We are discouraged by our own imperfections. And we come back to compassion.

Right now there are no answers, only questions because the future is not determined, it is created. We don’t know what is going to happen because we have not designed and built it yet. But perhaps we do know that whatever we build will be impacted by the perspective from which we build it. And compassion is a good place to start.

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The News Is a Mental Health Hazard

In the process of reading Rutger Bregman’s new book Humankind, I came across his statement that the news is a mental health hazard. He says he always thought being up to date on the news was necessary for a free democracy: the people need to be informed in order to be good citizens and make informed decisions.

The problem is, according to Bregman, that only the sensational and unusual make the news because we are hard-wired to pay attention to negative information. In ancient human groups, we had to pay attention to problems in order to survive. So we pay attention to the negative, and getting our attention sells newspapers and draws advertising dollars. So it is a kind of self perpetuating system.

But watching or reading the news gives us an extremely distorted picture of human nature and of our own natures. Because we have ready to hand stories of human bad behavior, we believe most people are fundamentally self-serving. In spite of the fact that we have mountains of evidence that this is not true, from carefully designed studies, we still believe that civilized behavior is a thin veneer and close to the surface is our “true” human nature: a dog-eat-dog approach to the world and other people.

Many years ago I took a philosophy class in which the professor said, if you believe people are basically selfish, you can redefine any action in terms of its self-serving function. So this is a belief that people can adhere to regardless of the actual evidence you present to them. And then, of course, it becomes self-fulfilling because you approach the world with a defensive and suspicious attitude. Every kindness feels like a trick. Every behavior can be defined by how it serves the person doing it.

Research shows that the more news we consume, the more negative we are about human nature and other people. Even though the world is getting better all the time and most people are decent, caring people, we are inundated with stories of the unusual and the extreme. Bregman proposes a new realism. While most people say “be realistic,” when they are talking about negative views of human nature, Bregman says to be truly realistic we would have to really know that people are fundamentally trustworthy, decent, and caring. Even with the outliers who misbehave, we would recognize they are the exceptions, not the rule.

And then what would it be like to go through our lives caring about other people and knowing they care about us? Acknowledging our own fears and disappointments but remembering that fundamentally, as has been proven over and over, our superpowers as a species are caring,, cooperation, involvement, and inspiration.

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A very long time ago, I was in a dog training class. A dog training class is really more about training the owners than the dogs, but that is another story. One of the commands we learned to train our dogs to do is “Stand.” When you say “stand” the dog is supposed to stand up straight. This may have been the most interesting one I learned. At least it stuck with me.

In order to teach a dog to stand, you press gently but firmly down on the space on the dog’s back (on the spine actually) between where the front legs meet the body. In other words, you press down when you want the dog to stand up. What the trainer told us is that when you press down on a dog’s back, the dog’s instinct is to push up, against the pressure. It’s a completely instinctive reaction, and we use it to teach the command. By repeating that pressure while you say “stand,” the dog associates pushing up with the command.

I have often thought about that instinct to push back when we are pushed. We resist the attempt to control us. Things go to one extreme and we push back toward the other. There is a sort of reflex to move against external pressure. Right now, following the news and thinking about all the changes our country and our world are undergoing, it’s hard to see which direction will prevail on any issue. It is a little like watching a jello mold wobbling in one direction and then the other, not knowing which side it will fall on.

We may alternate between hope and despair mainly. Will things get better or are we doomed? There is pressure going one way and reaction going the other way. And the reaction becomes a pressure that is then countered with another reaction. We see distressing stories in the news and inspiring stories. We worry and we think.

Fundamentally, our own beliefs about human nature inform our assumptions both about what is happening and about what might happen next. Our human lives are shaped by our circumstances, by our needs and desires, and by our species-specific traits and instincts. As primates, the basis of our social and personal success is our capacity for cooperation. So somehow, we will end up finding our way through our current global quagmire so that we can rebuild. But perhaps the important thing is that we will create what we expect.

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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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