I used to joke that my family’s northern European heritage meant that we greeted each other with a crisp salute at family gatherings. If we got really carried away, we would click our heels as we saluted, just as was depicted in those World War II movies about the German army. If only things had been that benign.
My parents were both profoundly mentally ill and addicted. The truth is that they couldn’t tolerate emotional content that wasn’t rage. Even then, my mother’s rage was the one that had free reign while my father cowered in the corner like the spineless wonder he was. The children weren’t allowed to have feelings. Physical illness was fine, but emotionally “fine” was the only acceptable answer. Of course, if anyone had taken the time to look they would have seen that we were far from time. In the days before air conditioning (yes kids, the olden days of lore), anyone with ears could have heard the problem on a nightly basis. I realize I am not alone in this.
Many if not most of us who were raised in last half of the twentieth century were raised by people who just couldn’t keep up with the rapid changes in the world that they and their parents inhabited. The short version is they saw and felt things for which they weren’t prepared, and so they repressed these things. What had worked on the farm didn’t work in the industrial age, but they didn’t have another answer. Some intrepid social pioneers found ways to grow into and through the process, but for most drinking their problems away was easier. That strategy was most definitely not easier for the children.
Into adulthood we sprinted, disengaged from our feelings on a more or less permanent basis. As we learned in Urban Cowboy, we were looking for love in all the wrong places – mostly because we had no idea what the right places looked like. Even if we had found the right place, we wouldn’t have known how to act once we arrived. We said, “I love you,” but what we meant was “rescue me from this hell devoid of feeling.” In effect, we were asking Helen Keller for driving lessons and wondering why we kept crashing. Sociologists tried to understand the divorce rate, but they too had received driving lessons from Helen Keller. Everything from promiscuity to women’s liberation was blamed, but the truth proved elusive. Perhaps it was too obvious to be seen.
People who can’t feel cannot love, and people who try to love without feeling have a series of short, unfulfilling relationships. Those who get married are soon divorced. Those who try to learn to feel find it to be a messy, long term, difficult business that has great rewards that require comfort with delayed gratification to achieve. Like the gardener who pulls carrots from the ground every day to see if they have grown yet, most can’t stay the course without help. The good news is that help is available. Don’t be ashamed to access it.
…with all that toilet paper? This is a serious question. For weeks now, you have been buying every last roll of toilet paper you can get your hands on. I am trying to decide what you are doing that you continue to need more. Mind you, I have plenty. I bought two nine packs about five weeks ago and we are likely good for at least another month. This brings me back to my question – what are you doing?
Is it that you are now forced to cook at home and are so horrendously bad at it that you have constant diarrhea? If that was the case you would have become critically dehydrated and died by now. Does it make you drunk with power to look at the massive collection of toilet paper you have accumulated? Do you sit at home just gazing at a shit paper pyramid with glee while slowly diddling yourself? Is this what you have been reduced to during these stressful times? If that’s the case then I feel compelled to tell you as a public service that you have lost your damn mind.
I understand that you are anxious, really I do. The problem is that the solution you have arrived at to assuage your anxiety has nothing to do with the cause of your anxiety. You feel out of control and that is an uncomfortable feeling. I understand. There is nothing about stockpiling anything that is going to really cause you to regain control. You won’t feel you are in control until things have returned to normal. In all likelihood that is months away, long after safer at home orders have been lifted. By then you won’t be able to leave your house because you will have trapped yourself behind a pyramid of ass wipe and struggle to get to the door.
Get some help. Now.
In each of us there is an essence that is real. The rest is just an accumulation of life over time that has been caked on top of the real, what some have called the true self. All religious traditions have found their own way of saying that life is about returning to that essence that is real. The challenge is that the job in front of us is neither obvious nor easy.
The job becomes even more difficult in times of crisis. We want to jump into action, solve the problem, and get on with life. When the problem is invisible to the naked eye and the solution elusive, we become afraid. When we become afraid, we tend to move toward anger pretty quickly. It’s natural, you might even say it’s an instinctive preparation for a fight – and there can be little doubt that right now the world is in a fight.
One of the problems with fighting is that we tend to put on armor in preparation for that fight. Some of that armor is physical, but a lot of it is psychological. As we gird our loins, literally and metaphorically, we move away from our true selves more and more. When it is done, we may not even recognize ourselves. When this is true, we become a casualty of the fight, no matter who won.
During these times of crisis, it is important to be intentional about remaining connected with our true self. If possible, spend some time each day outside – even if it’s just on your porch. Listen to the wind, feel it on your face, and if you’re lucky enough to live in a place where it’s warm enough take your shoes off and feel the ground under your feet. No matter where you live, you can sit in a chair with your feet on the floor and your arms in a comfortable position and take three deep breaths. Repeat as needed. Your true self is what endures. All the rest will pass away.
COVID 19, aka the corona virus, seems to have brought the world to its knees – with some notably stupid exceptions. In the United States, we have seen increasingly restrictive measures taken by state and local governments as they try to control the spread of a virus that we still aren’t completely sure of its method of transmission. Some of the measures taken seem sensible, others seem profoundly silly if not outright stupid. Among those is the elbow bump, which we are told is preferable to the handshake for limiting transmission of the virus despite the fact that two people need to stand significantly closer – twice as close, in fact – to bump elbows than they do to shake hands. Given that transmissions seems to be droplet transmission, moving in closer to the potential business end of an unexpected sneeze doesn’t seem advisable.
Meanwhile, as government officials are finding new and better ways to look foolish, Americans have been panic buying and hoarding any number of products from toilet paper to hand sanitizer. Oddly enough for a flu virus, kleenex doesn’t seem to be the object of hoarding, which is only one of any number of things about this virus and our government’s response to it that makes very little sense. Public gatherings were restricted first in a general sort of way, then to groups smaller than fifty, then to groups smaller than ten. Tomorrow I would expect the restriction will be groups no larger than three people and a goat. Meanwhile the twenty-four hour news cycle rolls on, and people are becoming increasingly overwhelmed by seemingly endless and endlessly changing information.
If you are feeling overwhelmed, I have some suggestions. The first would be to limit your news intake to thirty minutes a day. You can break that up however you like, but once you hit your thirty minutes you are done with any news source until the next day. The second thing is to decide what you can control. You cannot control the spread of the virus, but you can control your own activity and behavior. If you really don’t want to contract the virus, stay in your house and don’t have guests over. Between Amazon, services like Door Dash, and other delivery services, we can now have everything delivered. Choose “no contact” deliveries so you don’t have to expose yourself to the delivery person. The virus can’t get in your house unless it is riding in someone who has it. Finally, distract yourself. Read a book, watch a TV show or a movie on Netflix, go for a walk, bake a cake, take up origami, perfect the paper airplane. This will not last forever, and some perspective mixed with distraction will make the time pass much more comfortably.
I suspect there are more of us out there than we might expect who grew up with parents who had one level or another of preoccupation with what the neighbors might think. There are any number of reasons that happens. None of them are legitimate. Whatever the real reason for neighborly preoccupation was – narcissism, competitiveness, or a convenient way to control the kids – I can assure you that the neighbors really had no healthy reason to be concerned with what you and your family were up to. You didn’t know that, however, and despite the fact that you know that now you still probably have lingering corners of your mind where that message hides.
The key to the freedom we all deserve as adults is to stop caring what other people think. Part of getting to that point may be realizing that nobody is watching, anyway. As kids it was reasonable to think that others were watching us, even if it was only the crabby old guy down the street waiting for us to step on his lawn so he could jump out and start yelling at us. We are adults now, and the old guy is long dead. Nobody is going to scream at us about stepping on their lawn, and even if they do we can handle it. Unless we are sacrificing virgins in the backyard or sword fighting naked with the boys from the golf club, nobody cares.
If you catch yourself with that old feeling of disapproval, I have found the best practice is to refuse to yield to it. If you want to practice your tuba in the front yard but hesitate because you worry about what people think, blow anyway. If you want to go jogging with your shirt off but worry that your belly looks like claymation animation singing the alphabet song, jog anyway. If you want to tell your beads on the front porch but worry someone might think you are a member of the religious secret police, pray anyway. Each time you do it anyway, it will get easier. I promise.
My wife laughed when she saw the title of this post. She knows that my number one pet peeve is when a store rearranges its shelves. I’ve reflected on this, and determined that there are two reasons it irritates me. The first is that it takes me longer to find what I came to buy. I don’t want to wander around your store endlessly searching for things that, just one day earlier, I could find in my sleep. That’s the second reason I despise store resets – I know they are manipulating me, hoping that in wandering around searching for the things I want I will find other things that I will buy. What they don’t know is that on principle I never buy any extra items after they shuffle things around. Take that, you retail bastards!
We all resist change to one degree or another. It upsets our routines, or our understanding of our world, or our sense of safety, and so we push back. Consider the Buddhist teaching that says everything changes all the time. Some of those changes are so insignificant we don’t even notice them. Consider that dust settles constantly in whatever room you are sitting in reading this post, and you aren’t even aware of it. Other change we welcome. If you are sick right now, you would welcome the change of recovery. None of us get too upset that new mail comes to our mailbox regularly, unless it contains a jury duty notification. Then there are the bigger changes that we despise. Someone close to us loses a job, or is getting divorced, or receives a bad diagnosis at the doctor. Our world is turned upside down, and we cry out against change. How could this be? How could this happen to him/her/us/me?
It helps to work with change before a big change comes along and knocks us onto our heels. We can take a few moments at the end of our day to reflect on what changed today. Did we fill up our gas tank? Stop at the store? Get a day older? If every night we make a list of five to ten things that changed today, we will gradually come to see that change is constant. Of course, when we receive devastating news we will still be upset – but we won’t be asking ourselves “how could this happen?” We will understand that everything changes all the time, and that knowledge will free us energetically to respond to the demands of our new situation.
There are things that are clearly out of the ordinary, beyond the pale, tragedies of great scale and scope that can set is back financially to a profound extent. I have no problem with people turning to social media for support both emotional and financial in such situations. If your home is destroyed and you lack the resources to rebuild, by all means ask for help! At any time if you need to vent about something, I believe social media can be a great platform on which to do so. If you vent constantly I may unfollow you for my own sanity, but I will still support your right to vent.
The other day I saw an actress with a net worth of two million dollars begging for money on Social media because her child had been the victim of a crime. The reason she needed the money? To catch the criminal. Apparently she feels that law enforcement can’t do the job and she can’t liquidate enough of her assets to hire a private investigator? Are we serious?
Then there are the average people who seem to think the world should contribute for their normal, daily expenses. I struggle to understand why anyone would ask for help paying for their Kleenex when they contract a cold, or for cremation expenses for a beloved pet, or to pay for home remodeling, or any of a number of other routine expenses that are simply a part of daily life. Are we really that entitled?
Life brings with it a fair amount of adversity. Working through that adversity is how we grow and mature. At times it may feel as if you are the only one who has ever struggled with a certain kind of adversity, but I can assure you that you are not alone. Trying to make a quick profit off of daily life isn’t only unattractive, it stunts your growth.
Asking for emotional support or that a neighbor bring a casserole on a difficult day builds community. You won’t find that kind of community in the Internet. You can find it outside your front door, but you would do well to say hello to your neighbors today rather than wait for the crisis to arrive. Can we think of other, more healthy ways to seek support in our lives?
As someone who lives with chronic pain, I can tell you from my experience that it can be a tremendous spiritual teacher. It can also make you want to eat a bullet. Most of the time, I find I sit somewhere in the middle of those two extremes. You might say that if we constructed a scale in which eating a bullet was a zero and experiencing great spiritual insights was a ten, I live my life drifting between two and nine, with rare peaks at ten. In truth, you only get a brief stop at zero, and I don’t think I will ever be there. At the same time I believe it is important to acknowledge the possibility of zero.
I have read a lot of spiritual teaching from the eastern traditions that suggest we can reduce our experience of pain by not allowing ourselves to be attached to it or to resist it. If I am honest, I must admit that I never really understood what either of those things meant until I came up with my own words to describe what I believe they are trying to get at. In my experience, I struggle more with my pain if I believe that I am not supposed to be in pain. In the past I used to believe that I was too young to have this kind of problem, or that it shouldn’t happen to people like me (whatever that means), or some other similar nonsense. I call it nonsense because such beliefs fly in the face of what is. If I am in pain then there is a reason or reasons I am in pain. Therefore, to say that I shouldn’t be in pain flies in the face of reality! I may wish things were other than they are, but that doesn’t change that reality is what it is. If I can drop the idea that things should be different then I can begin the much more important work of dealing with what actually is! In this way, I free myself from the possibility of feeling persecuted or of having been treated unfairly and am freed to live in the present moment. If there is one thing we know, it’s that the present moment in the only moment we can impact.
I would suggest we can apply this reasoning to many life situations we struggle to grasp. If we feel we shouldn’t be pregnant, or bald, or working where we do, the first step to dealing with whatever underlies the issue is accepting that it is, in fact, the truth. If our issue isn’t the truth we can rejoice, because no action is necessary, but if we are bothered by something it is probably true and it is probably exactly how it is supposed to be. Now we can start asking ourselves if it is possible to make a change that will impact our situation.
Believing that things aren’t supposed to be as they are is a kind of denial that our mind creates to help us deal with the unpleasantness surrounding our condition. While denial can help us if we aren’t quite ready to deal with whatever is going on in its fullness, it also can stop us from moving forward if we don’t release it. That is a realization that can help us in many areas of life, if only we will embrace it!
The truth is that healthy spirituality cannot exist outside psychological health. If our worldview is distorted and our coping mechanisms inadequate, our spirituality will become nothing more than another attempt to escape reality rather than a means to enter it fully.