The past few weeks have felt long and slow. Even as the world around us rapidly changes, the days have felt arduous and painfully long.
As our external landscape has changed, restricting where we can go, what we can do, and who we can see, many have found themselves confronting a new internal landscape. One fraught with newfound fears about the future and longings for the past.
Week after week, I speak to people in therapy groups and one-to-one sessions, listening to accounts of how each person is grappling to cope. Some are dealing with financial stress from changing work situations, others with the groundlessness that comes from erasing any kind of a routine. Many are facing health scares or dealing with the aftermath of illness for themselves or loved ones. Still others are struggling with the guilt of wondering who to spend time with, how to keep themselves safe, and how to manage newfound isolation.
The resounding question uniting these individual stories: How long will this last and when can we expect relief?
We scour the internet for answers, looking to models and timelines that will give us some prediction of how long we will hang in this liminal space. We are halfway between here and any sense of normalcy, left with few concrete answers, and tasked with filling an uncomfortable amount of unstructured time. We can certainly speculate as to the facts, figures, and predicted outcomes. We can take educated guesses about the social and economic ramifications of bringing modern life to a screeching halt. We can attempt to shore ourselves against further damage through analysis and preparation. However, even the most well-informed experts cannot answer the questions being raised by the heart. We are being collectively forced to exist in slow time, to wait patiently with the void and sit with a great many unknowns.
For many of my clients, increasing stillness means the voices inside rage even harder. Suddenly there are fewer distractions to keep old ghosts at bay, and the voices of negativity, doubt, and fear begin to howl through the silence. The ability to distract, overschedule, or otherwise hide in the bustle of daily life has been replaced by mandates to spend more time at home, and for many that means more time in their heads. The silence can be deafening.
As we move through the stages of grief and attempt to make meaning from this time, it can be easy to feel swallowed by the vastness of this event. In my darker moments, I have asked myself if this period of time is nothing beyond a painful exercise in learning to manage misery. Swells of fear have a way of rocking even the hardiest of emotional boats. In periods of clarity, I have reflected on how the unknowns present an opportunity to change our relationship with suffering.
In her book When Things Fall Apart, renown Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron refers to the process of managing suffering as ‘the way of the warrior’. To learn the way of the warrior, Chodron says, is to learn how to sit with painful feelings and not immediately run, numb, blame, or shut down. The way of the warrior is the path of feeling without reacting.
Uncertainty is a form of suffering. It is an emotional battleground that forces us to recognize we might be a little less powerful, a little less prepared, and a little more vulnerable than we care to admit. Uncertain times force us to get more closely acquainted with our vulnerability. When we look into the dark mire of the future, we’d like some assurance that it’s going to turn out. We would like to know that everything will be okay. When uncertainty raises a question about the outcome of our futures, it can trigger deep —even primal — feelings of fear.
Admitting we are vulnerable requires immense courage. The second part of the warrior’s journey is to not only learn how to sit with difficult emotions, but also to learn how to respond to those emotions with deep compassion. This, says Chodron, is what tames our fear and gives us the power to move through pain. Compassion is a salve to the stingingly harsh realities that confront us. Compassion is what allows us to recognize how much bravery it takes to be a human being living in uncertain times. It gives us the vision to see our neighbors as human beings living with pain as well. Compassion is what links our fragile hearts together.
Uncertainty asks us to draw upon our deep intuitive powers, both to recognize our frailty and to be gentle with ourselves. To cope with uncertainty, we must have the willingness to allow unpleasant emotions to surface without believing we will collapse. When we feel that icy grip of fear starting to take over, we must learn to hold ourselves with tenderness the way we would hold a small child. It’s hard to be human at any age. We are at once fragile, tender things, who are also deeply resilient, resourceful, and stronger than we often give ourselves credit for.
Outside it’s snowing, covering spring flowers with unseasonable cold. The red tulip bulbs someone hopefully planted in the fall now shiver in the wind. All around the city, tender shoots rise through the harsh conditions with a perilous sense of optimism and wonder. They slowly unfurl their trembling petals in what feels like an act of defiance. Perhaps this is a clue as to how to move through this time. Each opening flower shares it’s sweet beauty despite the odds, reminding us that warriors take many shapes and sizes.