A Mindful Survivor's Guide to Pandemics and Other Disasters
By Dr. Robert Leichtman
Part I: Where to Begin
It is natural to be very concerned about our welfare and future in the current frenzy of news about the coronavirus pandemic. Anyone who thinks they are too calm need only to listen to the national news for a few minutes to be relieved of any trace of lethargy or tranquility.
The bad news is, the bad news will be with us a while. The good news is that we are neither helpless nor ignorant about the many things we can do to cope with what we must confront.
The news and papers are full of ideas about hand washing, disinfectant wipes, social distancing, face masks, and so on. The helpful hints that are not being widely circulated are those that would address our anxieties. I will address this issue in these brief reports here.
Anxiety comes in three basic types. The first is the legitimate concerns about finances, working conditions, and the morbidity of the disease itself. The second is the natural irritation of having so much of our daily routines upset, whether it is shopping, our usual means of entertainment, or the shortage of our favorite purchases. The third type of anxiety is the irrational fear of the worst-case-scenario that may befall us and our whole community. Managing these three types calls for somewhat different coping skills.
But first, the most effective way to deal with all types of anxiety is to focus on our already existing strengths and resources. We need to begin any worthwhile task or project mindful of all our strengths, skills, and resources—not our fears and doubts. This does not mean we engage in wishful thinking. Instead, it means we remember how we have dealt with various challenges in our past and survived. It includes the fact that we have used our creative thinking and resilience to cope with many minor crises. We need to recall that we can be tough and forceful when we need to be. Now is the time to gather these resources and apply them every hour of our waking day.
As an incentive, you may not know that recent research has indicated that people who live the longest and are least likely to succumb to Alzheimer’s are those who are stubborn and a bit nasty. This is not an indication for all of us to become more stubborn and nasty, but it does reveal the value of being tough-minded and persistent about surviving every threat and every challenge.
There is an old saying that God helps those who help themselves. And no- this is not to say that the genuinely helpless are not still loved and supported by the Divine -they are. But our capacity to contribute to our welfare is a force multiplier for the support that can come from Higher Power. Choosing to face our day with all our devotion, confidence, and mindfulness of our strengths will prepare us to receive the fullness of support from the Divine and our friends.
Part II – When We Neglect Common Sense
There are some who forget the first rule of coping with a crisis of any kind. It is neither our friends, the government, or God that are the first line of protection and support. It is ourself! Yes, it is ourself, with all of our basic knowledge and experience that will be the first person to respond to our individual needs.
Divine support is always available, even for those of us who neither believe nor have a high opinion of the Creator. All individuals will find a connection with their God-given potentials through a sincere concern for their duty to care for their obligations, their loved ones, and themselves.
Other types of individuals may rely too much on elaborate affirmations, visualizations, and mantra to connect them to Higher Power. While they are spinning their chakras, imagining being surrounded by “the Light” and breathing in the peace of God, it is possible to neglect common sense factors and methods. Exotic techniques for summoning the presence of Higher power can sometimes eclipse the practical steps that actually work. But then, practical spirituality can be dull and devoid of the spectacular.
We must never allow words, rituals, or the standard dogma to interfere with our capacity to work with our divine potentials. The most basic method of connecting with our divine possibilities involves our clear thinking. Yes, thinking! It is the capacity to appreciate that—impossible as it may seem—we are designed, surrounded, and supported by Higher Power. The same Vitality and Intelligence that obviously supports and nurtures the flowers, the birds, and trees also supports us. This happens with or without our religious beliefs and spiritual practices, although these resources can be of immense assistance.
The basic concept we need to fully grasp is that the Divine is already in us as part of our original design and purpose. It is not remote or outside of ourself. It is part of our original content when we were born, just like wheels come with a car we might purchase. While there are many who would try to convince us that we are basically Godless or unworthy, the fact is, we have always been “one of the branches of the divine vine” as Jesus referred to our spiritual connections. It is our birthright as being fully human, regardless of any religious affiliation.
This effort of accepting that the Divine is already in us is, essential for practical spirituality and our commonsense effort to cope with the current pandemic. This source of guidance and support works automatically from within us to help us at our point of need.
This concept may seem trivial to many, however, it can lead to significant improvements in those of us who often pray and meditate. The possibilities of connecting to a Divine essence within us instead of “out there” greatly improves the quality and intensity of our attunement to our divine possibilities.
Part III – The Ways We Practice Self-Sabotage
One of the first rules for coping with a crisis of any kind is that we must believe that we deserve to be successful and that we have the abilities and strengths to achieve it. Perhaps we will need the assistance of others, but our contribution to this goal must made. Self-doubt about our ability to do this can be as much of an obstacle to our success as the complexities of our external situation.
It is common to find people who are talented, strong, and hard-working yet fail to achieve the success they seek. This may be a sign that they do not truly believe in their worth. Limiting beliefs of this type are frequent barriers to our health and well-being.
The most common but ignored types of self-doubt usually takes the form of one or all of these four categories:
- doubts about the opportunities available to us
- distrust that our strengths and skills are good enough
- hesitation in how we apply ourself to our tasks
- uncertainty about whether we are worthy of being successful and healthy.
Unfortunately, many seem to automatically accept the judgment that they are genuinely inadequate in key areas. And worse, they may interpret this status as due to their general lack of worth. These assumptions cripple their efforts to overcome these limitations, whether they genuine or imagined.
Thus, the core problem in many of these individuals is not their lack of strengths, talents, or knowledge. Nor it is their background or inadequate education, although these external situations are often blamed for their distress. Their real problem is their beliefs that limit the full expression of their strengths, talents, and enthusiasm. Behind these beliefs is a basic inability to respect and honor their innate potentials and opportunities. Their pessimistic assumptions hold them back from doing all they can to achieve what they want.
There are many occasions when ignorant and nasty people encourage us to believe we are stupid, clumsy, and unworthy. Sometimes we accept these judgments when we are feeling defeated or humiliated. Some become obsessed with their private failures and come to regard them as evidence of permanent limitations for the rest of their life. Other times our inner critic serves as “the nasty person” who insists we are inadequate and unworthy of a successful life.
In these current times of many overt challenges, any sense of unworthiness will serve to:
- magnify the strength of all our obstacles and problems
- undermine our efforts in nearly everything we attempt.
No matter what we have done or failed to do that seems so awful, we can still claim our right to reasonable success, health, and happiness. Persuading ourself of this fact, however, can be difficult for some. Perhaps these suggestions can help to convince some that we can upgrade our opinion of our worth.
First, feeling guilty about what we have done or failed to do only establishes that we now recognize the need for a higher standard of conduct and a better quality of behavior. As long as we have learned something from our difficulties and now seek to apply what we have acquired in a better quality of living, we have little for which we should be ashamed.
Second, we may have made the mistake of presuming our inadequacy in some specific area proves we are a hopeless in most areas. This is rarely true. Human character is always a very specialized creation in which we may be very talented in special areas, ordinary in many, and inept in a few. It we judge ourself only by our weaknesses and the greater talents of others (the talents we lack), then we will give ourself a failing grade that we do not deserve. It is better to judge ourself on the basis of how well we apply the skills and strengths we have.
Third, we need to recognize that we may do all we can and yet the final result may be poor. This is because full success in many endeavors will depend on the contribution of others. This is especially important when we are trying to help situations and people who are too disorganized or feeble to support the total effort that is needed. We are responsible only for doing our part of this collective work, and we should have a clear conscience about this, regardless of final result.
Fourth, those who suffer from religious guilt and a strong sense of being unworthy need to consider the fact that God does not create junk! We may not be doing very well, but our inner design, purpose, and God-given strengths are there for us to liberate ourself. We just need more skillful effort and time to make progress.
Fifth, we must realize that a few mistakes do not make us a failure. Wise people often make mistakes. What separates them from ignorant people is that they learn from their mistakes and apply themselves in more effective and efficient behavior thereafter. This is a major principle for personal growth, and it is the basis for redemption. These developments justify a new and stronger sense of our worth. Self-loathing and self-pity about our past blunders have no part in this process.
We need to realize that we may have been tricked into excessive doubt about ourself and our abilities.
This may have occurred because of old rejections, defeats, harsh criticism, or even the hounding of our inner critic. These are interpretations and beliefs we can now correct. This will enable us to generate a greater respect for who we are and what we can accomplish.
Overcoming our feelings of being unworthy opens a new door to allow our innate strengths to pour through us to help us sustain, heal, and promote our well-being.
Part IV – Developing Resilience, Patience, And Hope
One of the most irritating aspects of any crisis or persistent problem is how it interferes with our usual routines. Most of us prefer to have an orderly day so we can manage our usual tasks with familiar strategies and degrees of effort. New stress often arises because our standard activities are interrupted and we must compromise our plans. Our reaction to the unexpected events can be a wave of irritation and anxiety that will be more disrupting than the new situations cause.
It is very easy for our annoyance about any new problem or concern to magnify all our distress about real problems we must take on. Those who tend to be conscientious about responsibilities and demand excellence commonly overreact to the challenges they now must confront.
There is nothing wrong with being conscientious and expecting our best, but every virtue can become a vice when it is applied with excessive intensity and frequency. This can be a problem in certain people who have high expectations but a low capacity for resilience, patience, and hope. These are three major virtues which are poorly regarded but are just as essential in times of crisis as courage, self-control, and persistence. As such, they merit attention and our full comprehension.
The value of resilience lies in its ability to buffer our annoyance about any disruptions in usual daily routines. Our frustration about these can consume our peace of mind and confidence while adding nothing to our efforts to cope with new obligations or restrictions.
Certain individuals who insist on perfect plans and faultless results become very nervous when they must change. Rigid thinking and narrow expectations can become significant barriers to problem solving. A common result is that the perfect interferes with the practical, blocking achievement. Collectively, these errors cause unnecessary amounts of distress and probably are responsible for more failure than stupidity and laziness.
Resilience is the ability to be flexible and quickly adapt to new conditions and limitations. It enables us to waste less time lamenting the changes and griping about the need to find new methods for coping with the unexpected and unwanted. In this manner, resilience acts as a mental lubricant that enables us to quickly turn on our creative mind to search for effective answers and solutions and then implement them. Without resilience, we can still be effective and successful, but we will add several layers of self-created stress to all our efforts. Not a smart thing to do.
Patience is another virtue we need to cope with most difficulties. Because we tend to have a lingering annoyance about any new concern or duties, we will often become agitated about these new obligations. Unless we manage this impatience, we can produce endless amounts of stress and tension. It is important to fully understand that outer conditions and demands are not the total cause of our distress. We are! The real cause lies in our automatic reaction to what we dislike—especially those events that trigger outrage. If we don’t want this irritation, we need to look to ourself to curtail it and stop blaming outer events. Consider the issue as similar to someone who becomes anxious about spiders. The spiders are completely innocent; we cause our anxiety by our faulty response to seeing a spider.
Patience is an aspect of self-control and common sense. Our self-control puts a brake on our overreaction so we do not upset ourself unduly. Our common sense can lead us to a more mature approach to managing problems and working out the solutions. Think of the process as similar to being stuck in heavy, slow traffic. Impatience can only make our experience worse; it will do nothing to change anything except increase our discomfort and interfere with our peace of mind and effectiveness.
Hope is the third quality we need for coping effectively with new or old annoying situations. Without hope we are likely to assume that there is little we can do to improve matters, and thus these difficulties will be endless.
Sometimes the despair that we develop occurs because we make the mistake of viewing only the literal and physical dimensions of a problem. There are new situations that may not be possible to change, such as a permanent loss of physical items, abilities, or position. However, the changes that can occur include a new perspective and attitude that can greatly alter our response to distressful conditions. Or there is always the possibility that we can find some compensatory development that ameliorates the initial problem. Think for instance of soldiers that lose one or both legs but learn to walk effectively on artificial legs.
Hope does not always work its magic for us, but it can supply the vision that we are not without our resources to develop new possibilities that will partly relieve our distress.
Finally, hope sometimes opens the door to find redeeming significance in tragic events. A severe loss can cause us to be more grateful for the friends, resources, and assets we still have. Hardship and major challenges of any kind can help us discover new strengths in ourself—including the presence and support of our higher self.
Collectively, the applications of resilience, patience, and hope can drastically reduce the distress caused by new threats and problems. They are qualities that only we can develop. They do not come in pill form that we can swallow. They are acquired only as we as we apply what we have of these virtues to our duties and challenges.
Part V – When We Frighten & Depress Ourselves
Worry and discouragement are frequent visitors in our lives, and they often add themselves to the substance of our struggles. Many legitimate concerns that merit our full attention are already sufficiently difficult. When we add our anxiety and discouragement to the mix, our troubles will increase.
Unfortunately, there are many who assume that worry and pessimism are natural, inevitable, and perhaps healthy responses to crises. The anxiety, allegedly, will increase our energy, and the discouragement will stimulate our search for better solutions.
Yes, and pigs will fly and the unicorns will bring money and comfort. Stressful times are best managed by being calm, clear-headed, and confident. Nothing so quickly undermines these states as anxiety and discouragement. We should stop rationalizing the value of neurotic reactions and focus on being a problem-solver instead of a problem-agonizer!
The prevention and cure for unnecessary discouragement and worry is found in the cultivation of proactive beliefs, intentions, and behaviors. These can repel fear of failure and keep us in a state of confidence. Like most worthwhile achievements, they require some fundamental changes in our mindset to address the deeper problem behind the problems of recurring fear and discouragement.
What is this problem behind these problems? They are issues such as:
- a weak or wounded self-concept
- being a life-long pessimist and contrarian
- a habit of obsessing on what we do not like or want
- a tendency to catastrophize and think in fatalistic terms
Let’s examine each of these issues briefly and review what we can do about them. The first issue is a low opinion of our abilities and worth. A weak self-image is not easily repaired, however we can start by recognizing our self-doubt generates an automatic bias for expecting difficulty in everything we consider. What we can do is compensate with reason and common sense to counteract this automatic assumption that we are unworthy of success and will not be able to achieve it.
The key is to allow, not suppress, the self-doubts to arise and then begin to test the validity of these presumptions. The doubts will be largely emotional, but our distrust in these automatic misgivings will introduce our mind and reason to make a better assessment of our possibilities.
Later, the definitive work of building a robust self-image will be necessary. As this is a complex set of activities, this effort will need be performed separately from these short-term techniques.
The second factor that can cause to us frighten and discourage ourself is the tendency to be a life-long pessimist and contrarian. Pessimists specialize in concentrating on problems, resistance, loss, and failure. Contrarians look first, second, and third for why any solutions will not work, will be too difficult, or take too long to be useful. These habits will seem supremely rational and logical to their owners, and so they will operate automatically without hindrance. Many who are victims of chronic pessimism have been this way so long that they are shocked to be accused of being pessimistic. They usually defend themselves as merely being “realistic”.
The short-term management of pessimism is to recognize this bias for what it is: a big, corrupting prejudice that terribly distorts our view of our situation and what we can do about it. Again, we need to accept the fact of this distorted assessment of how bad the situation may be, and then challenge this conclusion. It is important to consider the pessimistic result to be only one of many possibilities instead of being the only one. Then we can proceed to explore more optimistic options and how we might be able to contribute to their development.
The idea is to recognize how pessimism generates a mental myopia in which our only clear focus about difficulty is the probable failure, loss, and disaster. If we fully appreciate this frequent contamination of our perspective, we can then make a deliberate effort to search for more constructive alternatives.
The third factor is the habit of obsessing on what we do not like or want. This is a cousin of pessimism, however, its management is a bit different. Again, only the short-term management of this habit can be given here. The long-term cure is much more complex.
The general habit of obsessing on anything must begin after we have already begun to obsess. In times of crisis and other problems, the obsession would be to concentrate on the details and potential damage caused by the unhindered disaster. It probably will be impossible to avoid focusing on the most dramatic version of such potential disasters, so expect this to continue. The management of these tendencies begins after we have finished fleshing out the full details of the disaster and the secondary and tertiary tragedies that follow.
At this point we merely need to add on to this obsessive flow of thinking by also considering what can be done to prevent the full disaster from happening. The principle here is to harness the habit of obsessing and just redirect it to begin obsessing on the possibilities of avoiding or diminishing the destruction. The habit of obsessing will not stop, but we can redirect it to a focus that can be constructive.
The fourth issue is the tendency to catastrophize and think in fatalistic terms. This habit works by automatically selecting the poorest of all possible outcomes of any activity or choice. All reasonable results are rejected in order to concentrate on the worst possible outcome. Fatalists automatically find fault with every possible solution as unsatisfactory or nearly impossible to do. The destined conclusion is to expect doom.
The short-term management of the habits of catastrophizing and fatalism is to immediately note these possibilities and then search for the alternatives. This means forcefully considering the constructive options, no matter how unlikely they may be. The objective is to define and consider more positive results and then work backward from theses goals to investigate how they can be achieved. The intent is to break the barrier of total negativity and perceive what is revealed once we take down the wall of gloom and doom that prevents more constructive views and creative thinking.
This calls for a deliberate effort to protect our capacity for proactive thinking from our department of doom. This protection requires us to challenge negative thinking by demanding our department of doom to justify why progress is impossible. And beyond this, demand why everything we consider is automatically regarded as impossible. The idea is to dethrone our department of fatalism from presuming total control of our capacity for evaluation and decision.
The long-term management of the habit of catastrophizing requires the discovery of the ways we can reduce the intensity of this habit plus learning how to add more patience and creativity to the mix of our thinking.
The long-term management of fatalism and all the other factors that contribute to depressing and frightening ourselves is much more complex. This will require new values and beliefs and many months of conscientious mental house cleaning.
In the meantime, these short-term techniques can provide substantial progress in supporting our calm and confident mindset for coping with current problems and crises.
Part VI – A Very Strange Easter
Those of us who expect the traditional celebration of this Holy Week are finding this time to be very odd in an already strange time. Many of us will miss the drama, music, and the collective worship of the Divine Presence and our Lord.
While the Life and Presence of Jesus is the overt face of these celebrations, they have a direct message for us beyond the traditional meaning. Our remembrance of the historical events of the first Easter are also designed to help us recognize the role of the struggles and sacrifices that all of us are called to make from time to time. Just as the suffering and sacrifices of Jesus led to a glorious resurrection, our worthy struggles and sacrifices can also lead to our personal growth and redemption.
Many of us tend to greet our difficulties and struggles with irritation and discouragement, if not greater annoyance. This can blunt our joy in living and distort or sense of purpose in life. A few even decide that they are being punished by having so many burdens and handicaps. Some of these assume that there is virtue suffering and choose to see themselves as a “fellow victim” along with Jesus.
If Jesus were to return for a moment to comment on such conclusions and beliefs, I firmly believe that He would want to correct this concept. He would declare that there is little merit in suffering. While suffering is common to our life experiences, the great value of suffering is to impel us to overcome it and then overcome it! The popular version of this idea is that suffering pushes us out of our comfort zone and gets us moving in new ways and directions.
It is the effort to grow out of our suffering and limitations that is the great virtue and achievement. How much we achieve depends on many factors, but the one sure requirement is our personal effort to find better answers and solutions and apply them. As ever, we need faith plus the deeds that implement our faith in real time and real action.
Today, we are required to celebrate Easter without the usual trappings. However, there is an alternate celebration of God’s loving Presence being demonstrated in the abundant goodwill and acts of kindness and charity we see everywhere. There are many who are sacrificing much to care for the sick and elderly. Others are being called to teach and support children who would usually be attending school. Many are working directly and behind the scenes to help those who are suddenly out of work and income.
The annual celebration of the Great Resurrection includes these prevalent demonstrations of human to human kindness and charity. While most of these acts are ordinary and material, they need to be recognized as the abundance of Divine Love and Light being made manifest in a time of crisis.
Far too many people expect the signs of God’s presence to be vivid and dramatic in ways that are stunning and visible. But most are actually found in small acts of kindness and support. This can be a word of encouragement or friendliness. Or it can be the extra measure of interest we have in the well-being of others. In many, it can be in a renewed sense of responsibility to look after one another minus our usual reluctance and prejudice.
While these acts are tiny in comparison to the heroic miracles of Jesus, we must remember what this means. First, many small changes collected together become a very large and significant occurrence. Second, we were told to love one another, and these many small acts of personal sacrifice and kindness is one major way to love one another. It is these deeds, not the pious words of the chattering class, that brings new Life to earth and ground it in these activities.
The glorious resurrection of Jesus is meant to signal that the Divine is always seeking to lift up each of us to respond to the call to act with greater kindness, gentleness, and respect for one another. Let us celebrate the time of Easter this year by honoring those who are experiencing a renaissance of love in their hearts, minds, and behavior.
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