Progress Washed Away During Lockdown

Along with the threat of the disease itself, one of the great challenges of the COVID-19 crisis is how it has washed away people’s progress in different areas.

– Savings eroded or gone.
– Businesses run to the ground.
– Carefully planned projects that need to be abandoned, maybe never to be picked up again.
– People who have just started to become healthier in some way, physically or mentally, only to find themselves slipping (or crashing).

One person I know who has social anxiety made some efforts in recent months to get out of the house more. She started attending meetings of some local groups that share her hobbies. Since the lockdown, she has been struggling in isolation, and the gains she made regarding her anxiety feel largely illusory, as if they happened to someone else.

(Although there are video tools for connecting with people, and these tools may be better than nothing, they aren’t a substitute for in-person interaction. I’ve found this to be the case myself. Also, video calls can be mentally draining – the Harvard Business Review offers some advice on how to deal with “Zoom fatigue.”)

To the heartbreak, frustration, or despair that may result from the COVID-19 crisis – including its social and financial effects – there are obviously no simple answers. It can be stressful enough if your daily schedule has changed or you had to cancel certain plans. But I’m thinking right now about people whose hold on the world may be made more fragile because of the crisis. People cut adrift, with relationships severed, major opportunities lost, and progress seemingly reversed.

One thing that may help (at least a little) is to provide yourself with written reminders – in a journal, for example – about who you are, what you have done, what you hope for, and how you promise to give yourself time to get through this day by day. When there’s a massive amount of stress in your life, it’s easy to lose sight of many things, to disregard yourself, and to forget your capabilities and potential. Your current emotions may be so terrible and overwhelming that you can’t think of how they’ll ever end, even though they won’t last forever. You may not be able to see how your current situation could ever improve, but you don’t have all the answers (even though discouragement or despair may offer you answers that seem definitive).

Reminding yourself of who you are can also help you remember the ways in which you’ve been healing and the ways you have met particular goals in the past. Even if you’re feeling lost now, you aren’t starting from absolutely nothing. You may be struggling with the types of problems that have dragged you down before, but you bring with you more wisdom from your previous experiences and some evidence of how things can improve – if not immediately, then one day. You’ve managed to do it before. Will it be harder the second (or third) time around? What will restarting look like? Are you trapped? Write down your thoughts, and keep your thoughts flexible. The answers may change over time. You don’t know for sure.

If you’re keeping a journal, and you don’t think you can write anything about yourself at the moment, then maybe just write today’s date. Then tomorrow’s date. Maybe a short line with each entry. I’ve done that on days when I didn’t think I could write more, and sometimes that’s how you mark the day and step forward into the next one.

Keeping a journal doesn’t put food on the table. It doesn’t magically restore a lost job or shattered career. But if it helps in any way – helps you fight off bouts of despair or cope with the feeling that your life is horribly unreal – it could be worth a try. In ways you aren’t able to picture clearly or even conceive of at the moment, you may be able to regain at least some of what you’ve lost or discover or create something new.

(It’s also worth mentioning that you can rant on paper if you need to. Some people sit for 10-15 minutes and write down their anxieties, their rage, their grief, and then tear the paper up into tiny bits and throw it away. This exercise could become an outlet for releasing some of what’s in you, removing and destroying it so it possibly has less of a hold on your mind.)

Coping With a Pandemic When You (Think You) Have No One

The COVID-19 crisis is marked by turmoil, grief, and anxiety for many people. Having others to rely on during this time can mean a world of difference in how you’re coping. But what if you’re alone? (Or truly feel yourself to be alone?)

There’s no one-size-fits-all advice for dealing with social isolation and related problems. Your age, health, job, and living arrangement are among the factors affecting what will work for you and what won’t. But I’m going to offer some potentially useful links here. If you have some suggestions of your own, please share.

The following links apply to people in the U.S., where I live. If you’re outside of the U.S., you can use these for ideas when looking for analogous services in your country.

What Does It Mean to Be a Warrior of the Increments?

In recent years, I’ve been encouraging myself to get into the mindset and habits of a Warrior of the Increments. (Putting it in caps makes it sound like an official title that’s going to stick, and I hope it does.) But what do I mean?

– A Warrior of the Increments places secondary importance on grand gestures and primary importance on the small tasks and day-to-day efforts that may not seem like much when looked at separately but that do amount to something much more over time.

– These smaller efforts help change bad habits and sustain better ones. They help you work towards goals and create conditions in which well-being, understanding, and success are more likely to be the outcomes.

– Generally, the most difficult battles you have in life are with spiritual inertia, self-destructive habits, the sluggishness of the mind, and the frailty of the body. Working on changes, bit by bit, is crucial.

– A Warrior of the Increments doesn’t think only in terms of all-or-nothing battles. Sometimes you are fighting alongside something, not merely against it. Other times, you’re settling down for diplomatic talks and negotiating a workable peace.

– A warrior of this kind is very much a “one foot in front of the other” type.

Deliberately Choosing Life, Every Day (A Response to a Hoagland Essay)

I’m writing this post for a reading challenge, Deal Me In (hosted at this blog). Though it’s difficult to write it at the moment, because of what’s going on with the pandemic and the serious economic problems we’re facing, I find blogging helpful, so I’m keeping at it in between various obligations.

Edward Hoagland’s essay, “Heaven and Nature,” deals with a topic people tend not to want to think about: suicide. His meditation on suicide encompasses everyone, including people who don’t – at least outwardly – appear to be troubled by anything.

Our faces are not molded as if joy were a preponderant experience. (Nor is a caribou’s or a thrush’s.) Our faces in repose look stoic and battered, and people of the sunniest temperament sometimes die utterly unstrung, doubting everything they have ever believed in or have done.

The bleak discussion of human nature is tempered somewhat by Hoagland’s matter-of-fact tone. And in the bleakness of this essay, there are some kernels of light.

He discusses what it takes to negotiate the cracks and fissures of the self and of life. Sometimes it’s a matter of not dwelling too much on misery. Love and prayer are other answers. However, he doesn’t present them as a quick fix. Meaning to say, if you pray, you need to work out, over time, what prayer means to you, what you believe in, what you think can sustain you. This may not be the same from one year to another, or one decade of your life to another. Similarly, with love – habits of love are key to making love a powerful force. You need to stay open to “new and sudden insights” and/or engage in a “long practice” of love. And this can mean love in different forms, not limited to a romantic relationship.

He also talks about the urge to achieve a unity with something larger, to transcend the self, and for nature itself to be wedded to Heaven. However, this unity is also something to grapple with, to sustain or work towards actively. There are no guarantees of complete freedom from harrowing doubt.

Just to be perfectly clear, this is not a self-help essay. It’s not an easy read either, and Hoagland isn’t doling out solutions (and especially not one-size-fits-all sorts of solutions). Reading this essay can be a challenge, and may not be for everyone in every frame of mind.

I think what helps sustain me is the belief in the meaning of life and holiness of life. Not to regard people as sentient sacks of meat or bags of water, as organic trash. Seeing the moments of life, day to day, as holy and meaningful requires active practice and choice, habits that you develop and that hopefully don’t become merely rote. It also involves some flexibility and adjustment over time. To not let yourself dry up spiritually is a matter of deliberate, consistent effort. And if you do dry up spiritually, to not proclaim that you’ve reached your end. Instead, to keep walking through that desert, experiencing the desert and finding meaning in it (which is not the same thing as finding happiness). And staying open to the possibility that the landscape will change or that you will find things in that desert that are still meaningful, wondrous even.

I write this as someone who’s religious. Religion itself is a regular practice, a deep grappling. It isn’t a source of pat answers, though the practice of it may become stale and crumble into clichés. Regardless of what religion you practice – or whether you even consider yourself religious – you need to find what it is that sustains you and then sustain it through repeated choice, through practices that you may need to alter as the years pass. What are your relationships with others, with the world, with what transcends you? If you don’t know, keep thinking about it. Keep searching, and be patient. Keep choosing life.

It’s interesting how an essay that deals with a grim topic can bring out a response that affirms life, but it had that effect on me, even with an awareness of the doubting, the fear, the darkness.

YouTube Exercise Channel Recommendation: Koboko Fitness

I recently discovered Koboko Fitness, and while I haven’t tried every workout video, I like the ones I’ve used so far.

– There are a variety of exercises and routines.

– The routines vary in length. Some may be 5-10 minutes, while others are half an hour. I like that, because sometimes if I have a free 10 minutes or just want to take a break from work, I can fit a shorter routine into my schedule.

– For some of the exercises, you may want to have dumbbells, but they aren’t strictly required. A yoga mat or towel can be helpful for floor exercises, but you don’t need to go out and buy any equipment to participate.

– You sometimes get presented with low-impact and high-impact versions of the same exercise. Depending on your fitness level or how you’re feeling on a given day, you may want to go with one or the other. You can also introduce your own intensity level – for example, instead of doing a wall push-up, do a regular push-up on the floor if you can. Or if you don’t want to jump your feet out during a burpee, maybe walk them out and then back in.

– The instructor and creator of the channel is a positive, encouraging person who is dedicated without being a fanatic.

– Although the channel is geared towards women, there are many exercises (maybe even all of them?) that men could benefit from. So if you’re a guy who wants to try out some of the routines, go right ahead (during a workout, you might get called a “beautiful goddess,” but maybe you can cope with that).

Here’s one routine I did today:

Here’s another good one:

And if you’re wondering, no, I’m not affiliated with Koboko Fitness, and I haven’t been paid anything for this post.

A Book for Boomers (but Not Only Boomers)

I recently read 55, Underemployed, and Faking Normal by Elizabeth White, even though I’m a couple of decades younger than 55. Although the book might be most useful to Americans of the Boomer generation, the reader’s age isn’t so important, because people younger than that (and some in the 75+ crowd) might benefit from it as well.

55underemployed

What brought me to the book to begin with? I happened to see it at the library and read through its section on employment issues (fewer full-time jobs with benefits and pensions, more part-time/contractual/freelancing/gig work, and age discrimination in hiring practices), and then I checked it out.

I recommend it as a kind of ‘starter guide,’ as it addresses a number of important issues, including:

  • Social isolation, shame, and anxiety.
  • Options for more affordable housing, along with things that need to change, such zoning restrictions that don’t suit current needs.
  • What to do if you don’t have enough saved for retirement (most Americans don’t have nearly enough).
  • What to do, and how to cope, if you aren’t finding a good job or any job.
  • Finding the right mindset for making your life worth living and meeting the difficulties head on, even if your life isn’t turning out the way you expected it to.

Anyone can use this book to plan for future problems or find insights into current difficulties. One of the book’s strengths is the number of resources the author shares – a large number of organizations and their websites covering all kinds of areas, including assistance with work and housing.

I also liked the author’s tone. It’s compassionate, firm, and straightforward. She obviously supports taking responsibility for your life, but she also doesn’t ignore various issues that people don’t have control over (such as the recession of 2008). She’s a level-headed person, and she’s clear about the fact that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for each problem she discusses. You might read through this book and find little that helps you, but even if you get one or two ideas for what to do next, it could be worth it.

The book is also full of short, often moving contributions from other people. Sometimes, they share their struggles, and you can commiserate. Other times, they share solutions for what works for them.

It’s worth checking this book out.

Dealing With Regret: Insights From an Australian Novel

“There’s always a chance to start over” is a common message. It’s meant for encouragement, and plenty of times it’s accurate. People do often rebuild their lives after an abusive relationship or a job loss or an illness. Their life may not look exactly the same, but it can wind up being better in a number of ways.

Other times, there’s no fresh start, not in the way one hopes for. A missed chance is gone. An opportunity won’t return. There are limits to the ways in which we can start over.

Regret naturally follows. And regret can throw up a wall around you, keeping you locked up with your past, tormented by “what-ifs,” and unable to perceive present and future possibilities.

Insights From Tirra Lirra by the River

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Last year, I read Tirra Lirra by the River, a novel by Jessica Anderson. As a young woman, the main character, Nora, jumps at the chance to leave the backwaters Australian community where she grew up. As an old woman, she returns and wonders whether leaving had been the right decision after all.

Nora has a gift for art. In various ways, she draws on her artistic skills after leaving home, but towards the end of her life she also thinks that she would have grown more as an artist had she stayed.

Throughout her life, she suffers various heartbreaks, including a wretched marriage. After her marriage, she wonders if some paths are permanently closed to her:

I knew that like fruit affected by a hard drought, I was likely to be rotten before ripe. Sometimes I believed it was already too late, but at others I was seized by a desperate optimism that expressed itself in spates of chatter and laughter and hectic activity.

But it would be wrong to say that her life has been devoid of joy, interest, and friendship. And this is what brings me to the main point – What insights does the novel give us about dealing with regret?

Avoiding sentimentality and self-pity

Nora may feel angry, crushed, or terrified at various times in her life, but she doesn’t indulge much in self-pity. She also doesn’t try to sugar coat reality. Her retelling of her life has a clarity and straightforwardness that’s admirable. She can also take on a wry tone, finding absurdity in depressing circumstances.

She isn’t invulnerable to despair. But her general level-headedness is a way of dealing with regret and getting on. She doesn’t spend a lot of time railing against fate. She doesn’t lie to herself and pretend that everything is ok when it’s not. And – this is also important – she doesn’t pretend that something isn’t good enough when in fact it’s quite lovely and inspiring. Without being sentimental, Nora can appreciate what’s good.

Avoiding what-ifs

Nora has her “what if” moments during the book. But for the most part, she doesn’t dwell on alternate scenarios or choices left unchosen. She also doesn’t waste mental energy on “should haves” or “shouldn’t haves.” (“Things shouldn’t have turned out like this!”) Whether they should have or not isn’t really something we can fully understand or control. Things are as they are; hard work and powerful hopes don’t guarantee certain outcomes. Sometimes we do have the power to change things, but not always, or not to the extent we like. We face our circumstances, make various choices, and that’s it.

Seeking beauty

With her artist’s eye and her powerful determination, Nora does find beauty in all kinds of situations:

In whatever circumstances I have found myself, I have always managed to devise a little area, camp or covert, that was not too ugly. At times it was a whole room, but at others, it may have been only a corner with a handsome chair, or a table and a vase of flowers. Once, it was a bed, a window, and a lemon tree. But always, I have managed to devise it somehow, and no doubt I shall do it again.

This skill in seeing beauty has been with her all her life. For instance, when she was younger:

I was amazed and enthralled by the thickness and brilliance of the stars, by the rich darkness of the sky, and the ambiguous peacefulness of the blazing moon. In an aureole of turquoise the moon sailed across the sky, and as I watched, our block of land became a raft and began to move, sailing swiftly and smoothly in one direction while the moon and clouds went off in the other.

And when she’s an old woman:

… at the other end of the veranda, I can see the dark leaves climbing one behind the other, casting on the timber a shadow perforated by tear-shaped fragments of sunlight.

This ability to perceive beauty in various forms and make space for beauty even in the middle of pain or misery, is a potentially life-saving skill. And it can certainly help temper regret.

Notes from a New Year’s Day Fitness Fair

In what is a promising way to start 2020, I went to a fitness fair at a health club and community center. All of the classes at the fair were free, and it was a fun way to try some different activities. Here are my notes:

MELT method for improved neck and shoulder posture and pain relief

– I didn’t know what the MELT method was, and unlike in a regular class, the instructor didn’t have time to explain. She kept using certain terminology (like “shearing”), and she mentioned how this was about connective tissue.
– The particular exercises she used were supposed to help with the healthier position of the neck and shoulders and a release of tension in those areas, which is important for me, because when I write I have a tendency to get a tortoise neck (where my head pushes forward towards the laptop screen). So I thought maybe this could help.
– The exercises involved lying on a mat and using a cylindrical tube, a roller, made of foam that sometimes didn’t feel soft at all, like when it was digging into my spine.
– Some parts of me did feel genuinely more relaxed – not numbed, but truly more relaxed. But I also developed a pain in a part of my upper back. So, mixed results.
– Maybe it would have worked better with a smaller class where the instructor can stop next to each person and make sure their technique and roller positioning are good.

Nia Dance

– Ok, this was fun. So happy I signed up for this one.
– It was an hour-long workout combining dance, martial arts moves, and other types of movements (free-styling too). The warmup and cool down were effective, and the workout itself was energetic and called on the whole body.
– Also, the energy in the room was fantastic. A friendly vibe, people enjoying themselves. This was seriously a great activity.
– I felt happy, relaxed, and at peace with the world after.

A lecture on sleep

– Some of the stuff I learned kept me awake at night. (Just kidding, somewhat.) Anyway, sleep is a critical part of good health.
– It’s important to consider both quality and quantity of sleep.
– The lecturer talked about some things I’d like to look into further, like blue light from various screens and light fixtures (fine during the day, but could disturb ability to sleep when exposed to it at night before going to bed).
– Low-quality sleep can arise for multiple reasons, ranging from anxiety to problems in the physical environment. Also, the lecturer brought up a disturbing attitude towards sleep, where some people consider it unproductive or a waste of time.

Meditation

– Really low-key instructor. A relaxed, quiet guy. You could tell he meditates.
– The first meditation, which was just breath-focused, was pretty good, but I also felt impatient some times. The instructor talked about how to gently note the impatience and gently return attention to breathing whenever attention slips.
– The ticking of the clock sounded like a caterpillar munching on a leaf.
– The second meditation was more successful for me. It was focused on breathing and on a single word of your choice. I chose “mayim” (pronounced “mah-yim”), the Hebrew word for water. This also got me to imagine water flowing over me (including on the MELT-induced upper back ache), and to picture myself at one of the best beaches I’ve ever been to – the one at Halibut Point State Park near Rockport, MA. This is a photo I took when visiting there in the summer of 2017:

IMG_0136

– The third meditation involved focusing on a feeling of warmth and closeness. That one was good too, but for meditating on a regular basis I think I’ll do the second one most frequently.

Excessive Negative Thoughts: Coping Strategies

This video from Psych2Go starts out discussing the terrible effects too much negative thinking may have on your health. After that onslaught of negative thoughts, it lays out several coping strategies (starting around two and half minutes in).

One important point that comes up during the suggestion to use distractions: these strategies aren’t meant for avoidance. Even when you distract yourself with a book or a movie, the goal isn’t to keep trying to escape from a problem in your life. The goal is to help yourself become less stressed so that you’re able to deal with the problem more effectively after you’ve become more calm.

Good luck! (I can tell you that the tip about paying attention to body language caught me off guard. Jaw unclenched, for the time being…)

A Reminder About Humility in Judgment

A couple of days ago, I was thinking about something that often happens online (and offline too) – when you have a conversation with someone, and they aren’t really speaking to you; they’re speaking to their misconception of you.

In the conversation, you feel like an image has coalesced next to you. It vaguely resembles you, and it’s made up of the other person’s mistaken assumptions about your motives, beliefs, hobbies, etc.

To varying degrees, I think we all have a tendency to do this to other people. We fly to quick judgments about them based on stereotypes or based on our own fears or interactions with superficially similar people. Some people do this maliciously; they deliberately create cruel and damaging misconceptions that they try to force as truth during a conversation.

I remembered something I wrote a couple of years ago around this time of year – the Jewish High Holidays, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It was a piece on humility in judgment. Humility isn’t a fashionable characteristic, especially because it’s often confused with ‘humiliation’ or ‘abject lowliness.’ In truth, it’s an aid to clearer thinking and integrity.

From that piece:

Humility opens up space for self-awareness, thoughtfulness, and doubt. You make a judgment whenever necessary, while remaining conscious of the fact that you may have erred or acted on incomplete knowledge. You acknowledge the possibility that you’ll need to revise your judgment in the future.

Forming a judgment with humility isn’t the same thing as assuming a non-judgmental pose or deciding that you aren’t capable of judging at all. Rather than kill your ability to judge, humility refines it. You’re less apt to rely on snap judgments and more likely to assess a situation thoughtfully, with a better sense of your limitations.

This isn’t easy. Humility is an admission that you’re living with uncertainty. It reminds you of the limits of your knowledge and powers of thought.

Let’s keep aiming for genuine humility in judgment, in conversation, and in thought. You can still speak with conviction but without overestimating how much (or how well) you know or understand.