Discovering Ourselves in the Time of Pandemic
When you live with a chronic illness that keeps you bedridden for days at a time you learn to live life in your mind. You either learn to be comfortable with yourself or you don’t. If you don’t you make yourself and everyone around you miserable.
When the orders came to self-isolate, I thought, “Oh, I’ve got this. No problem.”
But this was different from a flare-up of pain, fatigue and fever forcing me to rest. This was living not only alone, but apart. The familiar backups a housekeeper, a dog groomer, a physical therapist, an editor/friend spending time in person to discuss the next project were no longer there. No one was coming into my home and breaking up the day with their appreciated presence. There were no times when a friend stopped by on a whim or brought in lunch or dinner and stayed for company and conversation. Texting and phone calls and Zoom are useful, but cannot replicate being present with each other, the connections we all crave.
Since this isolation started friends have been calling seeking my advice. Surely, as a person with chronic illness, as a psychologist, I knew how to live this way “Why do I feel like I’m waiting. Waiting all the time for something I can’t find a word for?” Or “I’m so unfocused.” Or I can’t stay with any books I’ve tried to read.” For some there is a sense of paralysis at times. Suspended animation. While others turn to massive denial mocking anyone who isn’t able to detach and avoid the reality of the pandemic.
One day this week I realized that I too, was “away from myself” in a sense I had never felt before. Who I knew myself to be was, for some reason, not standing in the kitchen with me washing my hands for the 5th time that morning. My hands. Of course, as I looked at them, they were my hands, but then, again, not. Something didn’t connect. Wasn’t reaching all the way to the inside me.
Suddenly I realized I wasn’t wearing my rings. The rings I have worn everyday for my adult life. With all the hand washing and cleaning and gloves on and off I had removed them and not put them back on for these weeks.
I realized that the simple, almost automatic ritual of putting my rings on each morning and removing them each night was missing. Along with it was a way of reminding myself who I was and what my life was about. That simple ritual was surprisingly critical to my identity. Those rings were infused with story, with lives, the narratives of years and memories, celebrations and losses. All these were there in the rings and they were mine to know and mine alone.
Do you have some simple act, a ritual you need to honor now? Something that reminds you of who you are and brings some normalcy to your days?
When I put the rings back on, I felt that sense of knowing who I was return. It was like surfacing from deep beneath the water and beginning to see my surroundings and breathe. I was on an unfamiliar path in otherwise uncharted territory and the destination was not clear at all, but what was clear was who I was on this journey.
There will be times when we experience more uncertainty and anxiety. Times of waiting and being unfocused. We must learn to respect those times in ourselves and others. To be gentle with ourselves and offer compassion and support to others as we can. There will be times of revelation and discovering new things about ourselves and our purpose here.
We will begin to fill the hollow spaces, the empty space as we would pour an energizing brew into the empty space of a cup or fill the hollow space of a bowl with nourishment. We are learning more everyday that we can do this. We can fill empty moments with discovering so much more about ourselves. Finding out that as fallible and fragile as we are a tensile strength resides within us and hope redefines itself on a daily basis.
Perhaps we will learn more than we ever imagined. Here is what Dorothy Gilman wrote about the experience of discovering herself.
What did I learn? I learned to fashion a day out of nothing at all and to give it shape and balance. I learned how to make a blueberry pie, to be very quiet and watch birds circling and tomatoes ripening. I learned how to work hard physically, to sickle grass, haul earth, dig holes and trenches, fight slugs, and cultivate a garden. I made new friends, and one of them was myself…I learned this, too: that we are each, inside of us, a country with our own mountains and plateaus and chasms and storms and seas of tranquility but like a Third World country we remain largely unexplored, and sometimes even impoverished, for want of a little investment.”
Here is an opportunity to invest this time with discovery and turn our anxiety into excitement. Time to sustain ourselves with a belief in our own resilience and with acceptance of ever-changing hopes. We may just find the returns on our investment leave us richer than we ever imagined we could be.