It may feel like it will never end, but there are ways to find peace and come out stronger.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, so does our anxiety. What will the fall and winter semesters look like for school this year? What will the economic outlook be? How healthy will we, as individuals and communities, remain?
It’s understandable that we find ourselves feeling tired and weary of all that has come our way. So many of us, if we’re honest, will admit that life was already hard before the pandemic set in. Yet now we are asked to alter what we do on an hourly basis, as we look across the room at our masked brothers and sisters with eyes of fear and uncertainty and ponder what will come next.
In the midst of our trials, however, there is a hidden opportunity.
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 just like when the Roaring Twenties led to the Great Depression, we realize that maybe we aren’t as invincible as we thought. And with that awareness comes a choice, whether we like it or not: We can allow fear to dictate and rule our days, or we can intentionally choose a different course, even if anxiety resurfaces again and again.
The question isn’t so much of where this all will lead, or where we want to go, but rather, what kind of people do you and I want to be?
I find myself asking this more than ever these days, and sometimes the question alone exhausts me. But it doesn’t change my answer. In reality, nothing else matters than being who you and I are called to be.
So, even with 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 is free and available to all, whether you are 3 or 103. Three primary tools exist, and all have spiritual and scientific support throughout the ages.
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 lives, and that this goodness lies outside of ourselves. And so we give thanks.
The gift of empathy
Empathy isn’t about feeling sorry for someone, but rather really trying to understand what it must be 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 1800s, 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.
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 who 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 it is like for me.
The discipline of challenge versus despair
As the famous “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 planAnd I can do ‘most anything if I only think I can”
There is nothing wrong with praying that the pandemic will be over soon. But what if it’s not? It’s here that we must fill our psychological space with a “challenge mindset.” We can either look at it as an opportunity to climb higher — as we might with any particular sport or endeavor — or we can despair that it will ever 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.”
You may be asking, What if I embrace all these tools? What is my guarantee? Life? Nope. Freedom from hardship? Nope. Financial security? Nope. Approval from others? Nope.
So what does all this effort guarantee then?
The answer is simple: There is peace of mind knowing that your life and mine will not be dictated by fear. Rather, we will be open to the beauty and the love and contentedness that is available to us every day no matter what is occurring around and inside of us. 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.