By Catherine Stevenson, MD
Six months into the isolation of the coronavirus, resilience is wearing thin. It has turned out that many people had roughly three months of resilience stored up. At various moments this past March, offices and schools sent their workers and students home. Food and toilet paper were amassed, and the world hunkered down. April, May and June went surprisingly well. And then in July the wheels started falling off the carts. The threads of resilience began to fray, and depression, anxiety, psychosis and substance abuse all began to skyrocket. The uncertainty and isolation had just gone on too long. Resilience began to fail all around us.
All resilience starts on the internal horizon. How we regard ourselves in relation to the outer world profoundly influences our ability to hold together when the world appears to be crumbling. If we are lucky, we have some internalized version of resilient parental figures to draw on, but many parents were never satisfied, and no amount of achievement could pacify them. It is difficult to believe that you are enough if you never got the sense that your parents believed it.
Our culture gives us many messages that we are not enough, and it is currently telling us we should be using the quarantine to write a novel, learn Tibetan, paint a masterpiece or other wonderous doings. But this is the time to appreciate the wonder of being, to know that we are enough, and to know that we are loved unconditionally. We believe in a God who is calling us to love and connection, not one whose regard is based on making an A, getting a promotion or losing the last 10 pounds. We must firmly push back against the idea that we need to always be doing, doing it more, doing it better. There is enormous grace in simply being.
We are easily poisoned by the prosperity gospel idea that if bad things happen to us it must be because we are bad. But this mercantile spirituality is not from God. Bad things happen and bad things are happening. It does not mean we failed or that God failed us. It is not random that our Scriptures begin with the story of the expulsion from paradise. This story tells us that the world is now broken, that perfection is no longer possible, and that all life will experience suffering. While Instagram tells us that if we just do it right we will go from star moment to star moment, our faith tradition lets us know that life will be more of a series of crises to be negotiated. Resilience hinges on a solid sense that we are enough.
Once we have softened the harsh internal critic, who pops up so easily on the internal horizon, we can focus on the external horizon — the praxis of resilience. There are two crucial skills of resilience: the capacity to soothe oneself and the capacity to entertain oneself. Anyone who has ever waited in an interminable TSA line will have observed how many fellow travellers have little of either of these.
The activities that form the bedrock of resilience are sleeping, eating, and connecting with others. Insomnia is rampant. The circadian rhythms that govern sleep are largely shot as expected daily routines disappear. Try to go to sleep and get up at the same time every day. This will help reduce the sense of the world spinning out of control and increase the chance of getting rest. It is good to take naps and go to bed early. The work of going on being in the midst of chaos is in itself exhausting. Meditation is your friend. Spend some minutes just breathing in and breathing out, but don’t get caught up in worries around technique and posture. It is all good. Pray your rosary or mala — beads are amazingly calming.
Do not go on a diet. Adding an activity of conspicuous deprivation is likely to go very poorly. Instead try to eat more good food. Add more vegetables, and add some treats. That caviar you have been saving? This is the moment for it. If you can eat at regular times, this also helps with stabilizing the day. When you can do so safely, eat with other people. Reach out a lot. Though we may feel alone, we are not. We exist in the infinite cosmic web of creation, and the knowledge that everything is interconnected. Embrace that interconnectedness by reaching out to the world via phone, email, Zoom and snail mail.
Take advantage of movement’s ability to reduce stress and to help the body calm down. This probably is not the time to train for a marathon, but do go for a quiet walk or plant some winter lettuce. This is also a great time to learn to knit or do other hand work. Gentle repetitive movements calm and soothe. And give yourself permission to read all the escapist fiction you like. Know that substances are dubious allies right now. Alcohol disrupts sleep, exacerbates anxiety, and has depressing effects. It will prove a false friend when turned to for insomnia, anxiety, and depression.
Even as you embrace these techniques, know that the going is incredibly difficult right now. It may be a very good thing to reach out for some spiritual direction, some therapy or even medication. (And this goes for the spiritual directors, therapists, and doctors, too.)
You must remember that to take care of anyone else, you must take care of yourself. Every airplane flight starts with that tiresome truism about putting on your own oxygen mask first, but tiresome or not, this is real. There is a curious pleasure in running ourselves ragged in the care of others — it just feels so virtuous. Parents, clergy, and medical teams all get drawn into this. A special note to parents: it is actually a good thing not to pay attention to your children all the time. The well-being of children rests in the stability and wellness of their parents, not in being gratified in every possible moment. Offer love and comfort, but please help them to learn to soothe themselves and to entertain themselves, too. Ground them now. When the next crisis comes, they will be the ones leading us through it.
Image: Archangel Gabriel 2014 (chosen because he is the messenger of hope), icon written by Catherine Stevenson, MD - Student of Faye Drobnic, St. Elizabeth Icon Studio in Lafayette, Louisiana.
Suggestion for musical reflection: ’Tribulationes Civitum Adivimus’ Musica Secreta & Celestial Sirens, directed by Laurie Stras & Deborah Roberts
Catherine Stevenson, MD is a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst in Houston, Texas. She is in clinical practice and teaches and supervises at Baylor College of Medicine, and the Center for Psychoanalytic Studies. While living at The Lay Centre in the 90s, Catherine completed her STL in spirituality at the Angelicum. Her writing focuses on the relationship between spirituality and mental health, and she explores her longstanding interest in art and spirituality through writing both words and icons.