Holding Yourself Together When the World Seems to be Coming Apart

keeping yourself together in the midst of storms of life
Cami Dobrin via Vecteezy

What is this world coming to?! Quarantining inside for months when I would just love to go out and see all my friends together. Not being allowed to visit my mother who is dying in a nursing home alone because of the threat of coronavirus. Being given some health information one day only to be told just the opposite the next. Having the leader of our country appeal to patriotism and then find out later he may have paid little to no taxes for years. Having a major political party preach its idealistic principle one day and then later act in just the opposite manner, as if nothing is wrong. Being told that the pandemic we are living through is no big deal and the next day finding out that a huge number of White House Staff and the President has coronavirus. Experiencing massive unemployment and food insecurity among families in our ultra-wealthy country. Going through a barrage of name-calling and disparagement by the leader of our country nearly every day directed at people who disagree with him. Experiencing mammoth wildfires, numerous hurricanes and excessive temperatures nearly every year and being told that global warming is not real. Having major political parties remain silent about mismanagement and abuse of power by the President for fear of his retaliation. Going through one incident after another of police violence towards people of color. Being told that the solution is to get rid of all police and not treat police like human beings.

Is all of this any reason to worry or doubt the viability of our future or the well-being of our children going forward in our culture? Is it any wonder that many of us are depressed, anxious and suicidal in record numbers? Indeed I find myself on the edge of cracking. Am I the only person who is falling apart in this culture?

If you find yourself in the same boat as I am, join the crowd. We are all in this together. We feel massive uncertainty, profound helplessness and traumatic anxiety about what is going on in our beloved culture.

We may question our own basic sanity and the viability of our social connections going through this quasi end-of-the world experience. We may have become remote from others due to COVID-19. Most of these experiences are totally new to us and they are no easy answers on how to make things better. It’s easy for us to give up hope, feel helpless, distrust each other and medicate our pain with addictions. If you’re having any of these experiences let me tell you—you are completely sane. Also let me tell you that this horror-story life is no reason for despair.

You cannot use this chaos as an excuse to not continue in your own personal growth! There is a lot you can do to help yourself if you make a sincere effort. You can choose to not allow the insanity around you to be your insanity. You probably already know what to do to help yourself. Yet, just in case, let me give you some recommendations on what I think may help:

1. Keep some perspective

Throughout history many people have gone through unbearable periods. Great Britain was massively damaged by Nazi V-8 rockets and Germany itself was nearly leveled by Allied bombings. An enormous number of people were killed in these war efforts, including many Jewish people in the Holocaust and victims of our atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Millions of people died during the early part of the twentieth century from the Spanish Flu. We are still trying to heal these wounds. Yet somehow we have come through these horrors. The point is that we can and are healing these wounds when we all work together. Humans are basically good and have the ability, with the grace of God, to withstand horrible atrocities and move beyond them. This pandemic period will also pass with the help of our Higher Power. As Aescheylus (a Greek playwright, 525-456 BC) said, “And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.”

2. Recognize your small place in the universe

You can choose to not allow the insanity around you to be your insanity.Most of us crave having control over what is happening in the small world we live in. Although this is not all bad, it is woefully unrealistic. We don’t have much control over the larger universe, nor should we. We work for political parties, we march and protest, we insist on social justice, we vote for political candidates, and we lose sleep endlessly obsessing about our world. It’s as if the universe revolves around our views of how things should be run. And of course, we feel endlessly responsible for the success of the universe. We get depressed when things don’t go well. Well guess what? You and I are mere specks, if that much, in the bigger universe. We may be hugely important to our loved ones but in the bigger scheme of things we don’t really count for that much. If you’ve ever taken an astronomy course or watched a NOVA PBS series on TV you will discover that the earth itself is essentially invisible in the Milky Way Galaxy and even more so across all recorded time. God is not waiting around for us to decide how the world should be run. What this means is that we ought to make our best effort to live a sane life but the ultimate sanity of our life will be decided by whether or not we can accept the things we cannot change. Let us have enough faith in the divinity inside ourselves and within all human relationships as that will take care of everything.

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3. Spend some time in nature developing your curiosity and awe

You know a good portion of the natural world goes on quite well without any awareness of humankind.

For example, flora and fauna couldn’t care less about what we, as humans, are up to. They are way too busy with their own business of mating, raising their young and living off each other in a more balanced way than humans do. The meadowlarks do not fret who we are electing to be our President. They just look for grubs, sing fabulous songs and cuddle with their young. Life is simple for them. Our animals and pets are far more informed as to what is really going on—who will thrive, who will struggle and who will pass away—long before any of us perceive such things. We are way too busy thinking about things—checking our iPhones and iPads—and we miss what is really going on around us and within us. Some of us live as if we don’t really have bodies. We live just inside of our heads and we feel superior. If you want to understand the folly of human life spend some time in the woods. Learn from the trees, the woodland creatures and the beautiful wild grasses. These are our brothers and sisters. There is a whole world out there that is willing to be our teachers and healers if we let them. Get to know some Native Americans as they truly know how to make America great again. Read God Is Red by Vine Deloria Jr. (Putnam Books, 2003) for guidance and utilize 60 Hikes Within 69 Miles of Minneapolis and St. Paul by Tom Watson (Menasha Ridge Press, 2012).

4. Don’t use the chaos and wretchedness of our culture to avoid attending to the suffering inside yourself

There is nothing wrong with being socially active. However if it consumes you, hurts your relationships and depresses your mood, it is time to focus on yourself. It’s best to limit your use of social media, television commentary and the latest news even if you are missing out on the latest crisis. This move is especially important just before your bedtime. Getting a good night’s sleep is the best single act you can do for yourself. Perhaps you can get your political news from the newspapers, at best in small doses. Realize you cannot give to others what you lack inside yourself. The world will get along quite well without you. Consult the MN Society of Clinical Social Work and Alanon for resources.

5. Ask yourself: “what is the single best thing I can do to substantially improve my mood for an extended period of time?

Answer: Call someone you care about who is alone and possibly in need of emotional support. Ask how they are doing and how this challenging time has been for them. You may want to introduce yourself by saying that you were just thinking about them and wanted to know how they are doing. This risk-taking may feel awkward and make you anxious but do it anyway. It will be good for you. Do this repeatedly. At worst the person you call may say he is she is doing just fine and say thanks for caring. Ask for details on how things are going so well for them as you could use some hope in your own life. If you hit it off with that person you may want to continue checking in with that person as needed. You may find yourself making a new friend or at least feel good about making the effort in itself. Obviously you cannot impose yourself on a person who wants no contact. There are many lonely people in this world. Offering your care will let them know that they count. Paradoxically you will feel that your life counts as well and that you have something to offer. If you offer compassion to another you are rewarded by your efforts alone and your mood will perk up for quite a long time. You won’t believe how much it helps your mood! It’s vital for each of us to know that we mean something to somebody else. You can even store this experience in your memory and recall it when you are feeling blue. The point is that you do matter and you do have something to offer, if you only try.

6. Attend to the grief that is in your life

This is a time that many beloved family members are passing away from COVID-19 and other illnesses (over 220,000 deaths at the time of writing). We as a nation have collective mourning to go through similar to bereavement over war dead. All of us are affected even if the lost ones are not part of our immediate family. I had an unusual experience of loss recently. Tom, a dear older friend of mine who lived on his own, disappeared into thin air out of the blue. I blamed myself for a lapse in calling him and was disoriented not knowing if he was still alive or not. I tried many ways to contact him, all to no avail. I noticed a heavy cloud of uncertainty, sadness and depression descending over me. Finally I decided to do some detective work on my computer to find missing persons. After many false leads, I finally found Tom’s oldest son and he told me his often loner dad had recently passed away in his kitchen of a heart attack. I was sad and relieved to hear the news. His son was pleased to hear that my wife and I had spent several years connecting with Tom and including him in our family life. He was moved when I told him that his dad, a man of few words, expressed to me how proud he was of his son and how much he missed not connecting with him. His son and I now continue to stay in touch as he said to me, “I am way more talkative than my dad.” My heavy cloud of grief dissolved into much brighter days.

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7. Find hope and joy by doing some good for others

For the next week, do one act of kindness each day for somebody else. You may offer to shovel a neighbor’s walkway, greet people on the street and wish them a good day or tell someone in your life how thankful you are for them. Recently I went up to a police cruiser with my wife. The officer warily rolled down his window as we thanked him for his service and the bravery it takes to do his job in such troubled times. He said, “This is not the usual response I get when I roll down my window.” We said, “We’re sorry for what you have to endure just to do your job and protect the public.” He said, “Most of us are really good guys who care about social justice.” We said we believed him and that we have had many very positive experiences with police in our area. I said, “God bless you,” and he said, “Have a good walk and talk to your City Council.” What we did was only a drop in the bucket but it felt like a flood of good feeling for all of us.

8. Keep working on your relationships by expressing tenderness to others, even when there is some estrangement between you and another

Spend less time on changing others and more time on welcoming the gifts that other people offer you. A client of mine said this best when he told me his life was a bucket of dirty water. His solution was to add a teaspoon of clean water to the bucket each day. For a long time his bucket was muddy but eventually with adding the clean water his bucket became as pure as mountain water. Some people ought to be kept outside of our life but having positive experiences with many of them can open us to the possibility of gifts they have to offer us that we never knew existed. Be a little forgiving and more humble to everyone you meet. You will never feel alone and keep yourself whole no matter what comes your way.

9. Develop some spiritual practice that is shared with others

Due to the pandemic, one of the worst aspects of these times is that it’s nearly impossible to attend a group gathering of people who express faith in a power higher than ourselves. We are such a materialistic, technology-worshipping and legalistic culture that we barely have any awareness of our existence in another world. Yet how do we explain a child who decides to spend his life attending to world hunger, a community that donates large amounts to help their police force, the GoFundMe page that provides support for people we don’t even know, the organ donation to strangers, our falling in love with the dream of our lifetime, our children silently adopting many of our values while simultaneously disclaiming who we are as parents, and our own intuition about what others are thinking, feeling and doing in the absence of concrete evidence. There is a whole other world out there beyond what we can see, feel, and witness. People in twelve-step groups routinely experience this hidden world. They see the miracles that occur there. We all need to live in that world beyond what we know. It connects us to all humankind and to the universe beyond our own lifetimes. So, attend church, do some spiritual reading, say some prayers and spend some time with others who are doing the same. I like books by people who have had near death experiences, such as Proof of Heaven by Eben Alexander, M.D. (Simon and Schuster, 2012). All of us need a Higher Power to be with us forever.

John H. Driggs, LICSW, is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St. Paul and co-author of Intimacy Between Men (Penguin Books, 1990). He can be reached at 651-699-4573.

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Last Updated on December 10, 2020

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