Existential optimism in the times of coronavirus. Take # 1.
Updated: Mar 14, 2020
In Norway, we have now been asked to stay home until further notice, in order to minimize the spreading of the coronavirus. As a psychologist, it touched my heart to read some posts in social media about the realities of many for whom “home” is not a Home. Yes, even in Norway, a country which in many ways is a safe and luxurious country to live in, there are people who don´t feel home at the place where they currently live in. For some, staying in the place where they currently live is an unsafe choice, given situations that make them vulnerable, such as violence and (or) loneliness.
Raising awareness upon this, is to me a reminder about the fact that mental health and well-being are community endeavours. In these challenging times we need to find ways to shape the realities of those who are feeling and will feel vulnerable, crafting a sense of belonging which -at least temporarily- cannot be found at public venues such as cafés, libraries, training centers, or even in nature.
As a human being, I have been diving deep into anxiety during the past weeks myself. In a nutshell: as a foreigner who is currently in transition between jobs, including the relocation from Trondheim to Bergen, this pandemic has been taking its tolls on me. I have several worries and questions regarding my economic situation, since I am now shifting from being an employee at a public university in Norway, to being an "independent" worker as a clinical psychologist and researcher with a collaboration agreement at a private institute of psychology. In addition to the uncertainty of when and how will I be able to actually relocate, I have had some minor issues with my health as well, which makes me feel vulnerable. What, if not being vulnerable could connect us with our human condition? What, if not vulnerability could craft reciprocity, a sense of self-exploration, otherness and togetherness? (Lehmann & Brinkmann, 2019).
These are the insights which I have had after having a long conversation with my anxiety (yep, I use my dialogical resources in order to tune into a more authentic way of being), and which might be useful for us all, psychologists or not.
1. We can be a safe place for our feelings and emotions. If we dare to, if we learn to, if we unlearn the barriers that we have built around them, then we can become a safe place for our feelings and emotions. Explore what words could describe your experiences, and where in the body might these feelings or emotions be located. Whether you come up with specific categories such as fear or anger, or more abstract emotional categories such as overwhelm or stress, the mere act of asking yourself how you feel about uncertainty, is a step forward into being present with what is. Then, proceed with the gentle inquiry. Instead of getting stuck in the “why is this happening to me” or “I should not be feeling this”, “These people should not panic”, it might be useful to ask oneself: what are these emotions trying to tell me? How can I craft solutions based on this? For instance, after allowing myself to feel fear about my health and my plans of relocation (and after procrastinating several hours reading thousands of posts in social media about coronavirus, as well as buying a couple of extra rolls of toilet paper), I asked my anxiety what did she want to teach me. I soon realized that of course I am diving deep into the awareness of uncertainty all alone. We all are, at all times facing existential givens such as uncertainty, and what boundary situations such as this pandemic do, is that they make our existential givens more palpable (Yalom, 1980).
Anxiety can be seen as an invitation to movement, a dance toward authenticity and flourishing, although the quest toward such virtues can feel so daunting, that we can respond by feeling frozen and still (Heiddeger, 1927/1962). After spending several hours sitting in my sofa, and longer hours in my bed, I noticed, once again, that I don´t fear authenticity, I fear imperfection. How human am I, ah? When anxiety reminds me to embrace life the human way, which is far from perfect, creativity blossoms within. In these challenging times, we need creativity in order to re-organize our ways of living and nourish our communities as best as we can.
Of course, we also need to wash our hands, clean more than what we are used to, and STAY HOME as much as possible, in an effort to flatten the pandemic´s curve, which beyond being an act of self-care, is an act of solidarity with health care professionals and with other people who are in risk groups.
2. Let us honor the plurality and the complexity of our realities. While some are wondering what to do with so much spare time, or how to adapt to the new routines of working at home with kids or partners around, some others are experiencing unbearable loneliness, or the fear of being hurt by the persons who they are stuck with. Many others are seeing their economies crumble by the waves of cancelations of events. Others are in the frontline risking their own health in order to take care of others. Those who HAVE to go to work might be struggling with how to handle the logistics with their families, and might appreciate receiving a hand with that (Don't shake their hands though, give a hand as helping them somehow, of course). Others might appreciate that someone could babysit their pets. There are others who have already received a diagnosis of the coronavirus, and are landing into whatever this represents to them and their future. There are caregivers with restrictions to be close to their loved ones, and many others who are even more restricted from receiving the attention and love which they deserve. Some more will not even be able to attend to the funeral of those who unfortunately die in these days, be it for the coronavirus or another reason. If you feel stuck in worries or boredom, I invite you then to ask yourself: How can I be of support? What can I do for others? What kind of support do I need? Who could possibly help me, at least partially? In any case, it is worth asking yourself further: Who is in a situation which is similar to me (e.g. worried, bored, tired)? How could we optimise resources and move from a problem space to a solution space (as we use to say in the Design Thinking world?)
3. Solidarity crafts belonging. If mental health and well-being are a community endeavor, which virtues can we cultivate? Which virtues do you want to be remembered for? Solidarity crafts a sense of togetherness and belonging. Be it that you share some of your spare rolls of toilet paper. Be it keeping in mind that balance is key when buying the essentials at the supermarkets. Be it that you check in around your neighborhood for whom might need someone who can buy groceries on their behalf. Be it that you call someone who is feeling lonely and remind them that we are in this together; that we are not alone. Be it that you schedule an online pijama party, or a community (online) session of meditation, reading or dance. Be it that you don´t ask for a ticket refund to that cultural activity which has been cancelled. Be it that you write kind letters to strangers and send them around. Be it that you share some beauty or some knowledge online and offline in order to nuance the bombardment of news around the coronavirus. Remember: solidarity crafts belonging. Belonging crafts care. Care strives for solutions. Solution-based approaches lead to innovation. Disruption of the status quo of our realities, such as what we are experiencing now, requires creativity and innovation for us to thrive.
4. Find your creative language and let it become a community endeavour. Sharing is caring. What else, if not vulnerability can be a source for human connection? Remember, mental health and well-being are community endeavours. Poetry is one of my creative languages, and the one who vanished my worries particularly today. This is what I sketched:
We have been asked
What about those
for whom “home” is not a place,
but a still unknown destination?
A dark forest they have not yet walked across?
What about those for whom “home”
is a foreign word?
What about those who cannot say
What about those
who feel home at a café,
at working place,
or at a land far away?
We have been asked to stay,
Where is home?
What is home?
We have been asked
to stay home,
not to stay still.
We are now asked
to feel home.
Feeling into fear,
Feeling into uncertainty,
I dared to ask my anxiety:
where is home?
what is home?
what do you want from me?
Move within and give,
There´s no treasure to hunt
frozen, under the blankets
reading the latest media releases,
for the hundredth time.
Move within and share,
a homeness on the making
for others to come in. She said.
Craft a sense of home. She said.
Welcome, find yourself at home,
I am furnishing this virtual space
with intentions of togetherness.
I am not alone. We are not alone.
We can feel home, also here.
Where I am involved and could possibly be of support:
If feeling like you, as an individual, as a partner in a couple, or as a family need some psychological support, we at IPR are now open on an online basis www.ipr.no and you can reach me, or another psychologist there.
ROS has free counselling services for people who have concerns about their relationship to their bodies, and to food: www.nettros.no
For more resources about design thinking and innovation, check www.pracademy.co
Heidegger, Martin, 1962 , Being and Time, J. Macquarrie & E. Robinson (trans.), New York: Harper & Row.
Lehmann, O.V., & Brinkmann, S. (2019). I´m the one who has written this”: Reciprocity and existential meaning-making in writing courses for older adults in Norway. International Journal of Qualitative Studies on Health and Well-being, 14. 10.1080/17482631.2019.1650586
Yalom, I. (1980). Existential psychotherapy. New York, NY: Basic Books.
The contents of this post are copyrighted. Feel free to share, acknowledging authorship.