By Sandi Peters
As I was reflecting on the mental states I and many people are reporting as they deal with the changes brought on by the corona virus, the words helplessness, hopelessness and humility came to mind. The first 2 words seem to accurately describe what is causing quite a bit of psychic distress for many. I’m thinking of them as the 3 H’s. They remind me of what the geriatrician Bill Thomas calls the three plagues of life in a nursing home: loneliness, helplessness and boredom. It seems worthwhile to look at each and see if we can better understand their appearance in our inner world.
Helplessness is the feeling we get when we are confronted with a situation and are powerless to change it. There is often a physical sensation of sinking. The mind continues to generate potential solutions. After all, this is its job. But even as each possibility presents itself there is a knowing that it will not work. Some essential ingredient is not accessible. The situation is not amenable to our best efforts to control it. We feel as if we are a rat in a maze going over the same territory again and again. Futility sets in and with it comes hopelessness.
When hopelessness emerges, we are in what I think of as a bardo state. We are betwixt and between. This is the darkness we spend much of our waking time trying to avoid. There is little light in a hopeless state. We need to wait until our eyes adjust. Most of the time we don’t have the patience or courage for that. We just want to escape and so we desperately pull ourselves back up to helplessness. Like a tennis ball going back and forth over a net, we swing between helplessness and hopelessness in almost unbearable distress. Sartre’s play No Exit comes to mind although our waiting room does not even have the annoyance of other people.
This is where humility comes in. It is not that humility offers us a way out or a solution to our dis-ease. Rather it gives us a context to hold the feelings. It confirms our worst fear…. that, in fact, we are not in charge and we do not have control. Something about that confirmation paradoxically gives us a measure of courage. Perhaps, after all, we can bear the unbearable. Perhaps we can begin to look at ways that might help us live with this new insight into ‘the way things are’.
How ironic that many people who have never given thought to the experience of old people incarcerated in institutions now are sharing their experience, albeit unwillingly. Being sound of body and mind does not seem to preclude these very human, existential experiences. Take away our usual distractions, strip existence down to its essentials, and the underside of life -the side we keep in abeyance – now becomes its surface. We who have had the capacity to flee are now in a similar situation to those who have lost that capacity.
Is there a way to infuse some value into this time or is there only despair? Each person must answer this question for him/herself and the answer does not come without effort. It’s like giving birth. Out of darkness comes light. Out of death comes life. Out of suffering comes renewal. Birthing is not easy. There is the long gestation period, then, for many, there is the pain of delivery. This seems to be the formula for anything new.
What if we imagined that we are all in a gestation period right now? All that we have learned and have not learned are the tools we must use to forge some new relationship to life and to our self. There are very few guides and the terrain is barely marked. While others have certainly trod the interior world before us, and are even doing so right now…..this, after all, is the genesis of most religions…..the fact is that we must each find our particular path, our unique way of responding to whatever it is that life offers us. It is time for us as a people to take Emerson’s essay Self-reliance to heart. This is where we are now as a culture and as a world. Yes, we are all interconnected, and others can certainly encourage us by sharing their struggle, however, if we use their support as a soporific, we will not learn how to be with the difficult for me. We will not learn how to ‘dig right down to the bottom of our souls’ as the play A Chorus Line suggests and find what is really there.
The reader might question: Why does it matter? If I cannot make my distress go away by being with it, why bother? Herein lies the crux of spiritual and psychological development. It seems life itself calls us to ‘be all that we can be’ and that includes knowing the darkness inside and, if not befriending it, at least learning to tolerate it. The Swiss psychiatrist C. G. Jung called this process ‘individuation’.
The people we tend to admire throughout history the world over had the capacity to know the many varied states that make us human. These are the states that interconnect us. These are the states that are experienced beyond time and beyond geography. The irony is that, if we want to experience some measure of contentment and connection to others, ourselves and the world at large, the only way it seems to do that is by recognizing and being with existential discomfort.
So where does this leave those of us who are feeling helpless and hopeless during this spell of social isolation? It leaves us with the possibility that there is more to our discontent than is apparent at first glance. It leaves us with an ultimatum of sorts. Are we willing to probe our dis-ease and endure in the face of unknowing? Are we willing to listen interiorly and wait, even though we doubt an outcome we desire? There is a bit of a conundrum here. On the one hand is the support we receive from others who are also struggling to find light in their own darkness. Their authentic search can lend us the courage to face our unknown. On the other hand, they cannot face it for us. The choice remains ours. Are we going to reach out for whatever distraction is easily at hand and thus keep cycling through unwanted states until despair sets in? Unlike our institutionalized elders who often do not have the physical or mental stamina to undertake such an aspiration, we do have a choice. Which choice do you want to make?