It is tempting to say, “We live in unprecedented times.” The reality is, humanity has been through this before, just not in our living memory. It is new for us, and what is mind blowing is how the pandemic exploded on the scene and changed everything from how we view ourselves as individuals, as a society, and as a world. I cannot look in the mirror or at people I know or even strangers I meet the same way anymore.
In his brilliant book, “The Trauma of Everyday Life”, Mark Epstein, MD may not have been writing for a pandemic, but what he says about trauma applies to our experience as well. We are at once experiencing it on an individual level, even as we experience it on communal, societal and global levels. He writes:
“Trauma robs its victims of the ‘absolutisms’ of daily life: the myths we live by that allow us to go to sleep at night trusting we will still be there in the morning.”
He goes on to say:
“We all need these absolutisms to survive, and yet they are inevitably challenged by the realities of life over which we have little control. Trauma lurks behind every corner.”
“Such absolutisms are the basis for a kind of naive realism and optimism that allows one to function in the world, experienced as stable and predictable. It is the essence of emotional trauma that it shatters these absolutisms, a catastrophic loss of innocence that permanently alters one’s sense of being-in-the-world.”
I think he’s spot on. This is what happens whether the trauma is a car accident, war, childhood abuse, a divorce, repeated losses followed by grief, or a pandemic. The illusion is shattered. The ground is upheaved from under us. We are up ended. Life is stood on its head. When I think back to last Christmas… few thought it possible we would be where we are today.
The veil is lifted and what is revealed is that life is transient, chaotic, impersonal, fluid, contingent and uncertain. It confirms what we always knew, but few acknowledge, there are no guarantees.
And the natural question that comes to mind is: “Now what?”
We talk about looking for the new normal. We assume things will eventually settle again, but into a new arrangement of reality. That is a reasonable assumption. But what will it look like?
The better question to my mind is, “What do we want it to look like?”
I ascribe to the perspective described as “realistic optimism.” I acknowledge and seek to embrace the good, the bad, the ugly and the beautiful as best I can. What Jon Kabat-Zinn refers to (quoting Zorba the Greek) as “the full catastrophe.”
Perhaps we are being asked to give up our dualistic way of seeing life and reality. Perhaps we are being asked to embrace both sides of the equation.
Ajahn Chah taught his students to look at reality this way. He held up a glass and said,
“See this glass? I love this glass. It holds the water admirably. When the sun shines on it, it reflects the light beautifully. When I tap it, it has a lovely ring. Yet for me, this glass is already broken. When the wind knocks it over or my elbow knocks it off the shelf and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, “of course.” But when I understand that this glass is already broken, every minute with it is precious.”
If this is true of the glass, it is also true of the lilies of the field, the sparrows, of you, me and our loved ones, unmet people, and true of every living being on this planet.
According to the venerable Abraham Maslow, among our vital needs are stability, security and safety. Human beings, particularly children, need these conditions met in a good enough way for survival and thrival, just as plants need NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium). So, we do our best to meet the needs as conditioned by current realities by making the world as comprehensible, predictable, safe and secure as we can.
Letting go of dualism, we are letting go of an “either/or” mentality.
We embrace the paradox presented and both sides of the equation equally. This is part of the practice of Equanimity. Perhaps this also needs to be part of a more realistic view of life, the universe and everything. It can also help guide us into how we live in the face of this new reality. And maybe, just maybe, we can find a new ground, a new green zone, a new sense of balance and centeredness. Go well.
He received his undergraduate degree at the University of Detroit, an MDiv at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. and an MSW from Grand Valley State University.
As a therapist, David is trained in cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy, narrative therapy, motivational interviewing, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy, and mindfulness based cognitive therapy.