There is no longer any illusion of control, so surrendering to the present is my only sane option
It’s not that I’m not concerned. I’m very concerned, and my heart goes out to all those who are suffering. But right now, in the midst of all of this chaos, I’m finding that I am more at peace then I have ever been in my life. It’s a strange sensation, but also a very solid one for me.
I ask myself, “What’s going on here?”
I believe it’s because it is no longer possible to hold any illusion of control, so there is no other option but to surrender to the present. Ahhh…..
There is a strange but also very potent kind of stability that comes from embracing this. The only things left to control are a few things in the here and now that are in my immediate purview. Going through the practice of washing my hands often, deciding what to eat today, making the bed. I’m finding that I am enjoying keeping the house neat and tidy in a way that is above and beyond what I might do under more typical circumstances. I’m not a messy person, but I’m also not a neat-freak.
Right now, putting things away where they belong feels good. Not only does it keep our home tidy, and therefore more enjoyable to spend so much time in, but it’s one of the few places where I can create order and have actual control. My husband James seems to be doing this too. This morning he made biscuits and gravy for brunch and then cleaned up the kitchen while I helped my mom, who just moved in with us, to get back to her room for a nap.
My mom is about to turn 89 in a couple of days, and she is really slowing down. I just brought her from another state so that I could keep a better eye on her right and so that we could spend some quality time together. I see her health winding down, and although I think she’ll be with us for several more months, and maybe even longer, each day is a gift for us all. I’ve been trying to get her to move here for years, so perhaps this too is a part of the peacefulness, no longer having to worry about her from far away.
Her impending decline also fills me with the same kind of peace. I don’t want her to die, and I’ll grieve for her when she does, but it will happen at some point and I have no control over that either. It’s a reality that none of us will escape. But what I do have, especially now that she is here with me, is the chance to make the most of these final months together. We haven’t spent more than 5 consecutive days together since I was about 22 or 23. We are both grateful for the chance to do it now.
Modern neuroscience shows that expressing gratitude releases dopamine and serotonin, two neurotransmitters that help us feel good from the inside. This can help us to feel calmer in times of stress and bring us back into an equilibrium where we can respond rather than react.
“The effects of gratitude, when practiced daily can be almost the same as medications. It produces a feeling of long-lasting happiness and contentment, the physiological basis of which lies at the neurotransmitter level.” (1)
This will undoubtedly be a challenging year on a variety of fronts, but having the pace of life slowed down considerably gives me more room to notice what I’m grateful for and that helps me in so many ways. The first night here, my mom fell in the middle of the night trying to get back into bed after a trip to the bathroom. Fortunately, other than a bad scrape on her arm, she wasn’t hurt. I was most definitely grateful for that. In response, we decided to take the box spring out to lower the bed to a more manageable height and set up a baby monitor so that we can keep a better eye on her. The oxygen concentrator that she uses at night makes a steady hum which you can hear through the monitor, but if you’re tired enough, you just tune it out. I’m grateful that I have a way that she can let us know if she needs help.
We have another monitor set up for our young adult son, Hugh, because he has seizures. He hasn’t had one for some time, but that’s not a guarantee of anything. I guess that’s where I started to learn to truly internalize this concept of accepting things that I can’t control. Despite all the interventions that we are doing to try to mitigate Hugh’s seizures, he still has them sometimes. I cannot control that, no matter what I do, but in accepting that he may be someone who has seizures sometimes, I began to be less anxious about them.
Typically, in the aftermath, once Hugh was settled down and sleeping, I’d go have a stiff drink (or three) and a good cry. I just felt so powerless and out of control. Once I accepted that I was indeed not in control, it was easier. The last time he had a seizure I didn’t feel the need to drink or to cry. I was still rattled by it, but not in the same way. When I was no longer resisting the reality of things, I didn’t feel so assaulted by it. Simple, although not necessarily easy. Still, getting myself there was really just an exercise in no longer fighting with the brick wall of what was true. Now my outlook is that I will do everything in my power to bring about desired outcomes, and then I will deal with whatever hand I’m dealt with as much groundedness as I can muster.
The other day, when I was bringing my mom back to live with me, we were getting ready to leave for the airport and I realized that I couldn’t find my driver’s license. I don’t know if it’s just misplaced or if I lost in the airport on the trip out. I could feel the panic starting to rise in my chest as I hunted for it to no avail, and then I decided that I wasn’t going to let fear rule me. There was no time to do anything but show up and see what would happen. If they wouldn’t let us fly that day, we’d deal with that if and when it transpired, and so off we went.
When I approached security and told them what had happened, I was asked if I had any other ID with a picture.
“I don’t think so,” I said.
“How about a Costco card,” the TSA agent inquired?
“Oh yes, I do have one of those,” I said and handed it to him for review. A few minutes later, we were headed to our gate and ready to respond to anything else that needed our attention.
As for the pandemic, we have plenty of food and a safe place to live, and we are fairly sure that this will continue. I realize that not everyone is so sure about their own situation and that when survival is threatened, it’s a lot harder to stay calm. We’re trying to stay in as much as possible and being cautious when we do go out, but even that is not a guarantee of anything really.
All we can do is our best with the circumstances that are right in front of us and try to manage the stories that we are letting into our heads. I haven’t watched the news in 25 years and I’m sure as hell not going to start now. I read news stories online because I have a lot more say over what kinds of stories are coming into my headspace that way. Filling my head with chaos isn’t going to help me survive anything. I know what I need to know to be informed, and that’s it.
The goal — at least my goal — is to be mindful and aware of how I’m spending my time and energy and to notice if I’m focusing too much of it on something that is not adding much to my life. If it’s draining me, or making me upset, is there an actual reason to stick around and keep at it? Sometimes the answer is yes, but a lot of times the answer is no. If it’s just driving fear, and not actually informing me about things that help me to navigate my life, then chances are, I’m not letting it in. And if I do, I’m going to question the thoughts that subsequently arise and see if they really serve me or not. If not, I’m going to interface with more empowering thoughts. This is my field strategy.
Several years ago when I worked for a non-profit that gave pro-bono life-coaching to women coming out of challenging circumstances, I had a client who was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. It was her biggest fear but when we started looking at the realities of that, she realized that although it was not preferable, it also wasn’t the worst thing in the world. She wasn’t going to die from it, and so when she did finally decide to declare bankruptcy, it came as a relief and an opportunity to start over again.
Some people who do get sick today are going to die, and that is a scary thing, it’s true. But living in dread of it isn’t going to improve my chances of survival or my family’s. In fact, it probably will decrease them. Prolonged states of elevated levels of cortisol and other stress hormones negatively impact your immune system.
In short spurts, cortisol can boost your immunity by limiting inflammation. But over time, your body can get used to having too much cortisol in your blood. And this opens the door for more inflammation, Dr. Calabrese says.
In addition, stress decreases the body’s lymphocytes — the white blood cells that help fight off infection. The lower your lymphocyte level, the more at risk you are for viruses, including the common cold and cold sores.
I do what I can to take precautions and make smart choices, and then I go on with my life, such as it is in this modified state. There’s actually a lot I like about having a reduced schedule and not being so on the go. I’ve talked with a couple of friends in the past few days who agree. They are facing real things such as a lack of income right now, but they are also feeling a lot of vitality from letting go of so much of the “business-as-usual world”. Both of them are in similar states of acceptance and the space that makes for joy in the right now — baking bread, painting pictures, spending time with family. When death is all around, they are realizing that they want to truly live, and not just exist. They are wondering what kinds of new beginnings will arise from the ashes of the old. This is a great survival strategy!
I don’t want people to lose their loved ones or to suffer. I don’t want people to wonder where their next meal is coming from, but those things take place every day anyhow. I have sorrow and compassion for it, but that won’t change anything— especially not now. I am profoundly aware that I am not in control, except for the few immediate places that I can make choices or decisions that impact my life. Understanding that in a whole new way has opened me up to the greatest feelings of peace and solidity that I have ever known. And for that, I can’t help but be grateful.