LIVING ON THE COMPOST PILE

(Quarantine Essay #18)

I needed to write today. It’s one way I’m coping with this confinement. And my mental health is essential to me. Especially now. “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs,” Kipling wrote. So I’m trying to keep my head.

We all have our ways of pushing through this time. Our mental health is public health. Apart from the virus shaking the structures of our world, disabling the lives we were living, we are all experiencing the psychological aspects of this confinement. It’s a unique experience in our life.

On April 2, the New York Times columnist David Brooks asked his readers to write to him about their own psychological experience. The questions he asked them were:

“Is the combination of isolation and existential stress making you feel more depressed and anxious? Or is the family togetherness and the pause from normal life giving you a greater sense of belonging and equilibrium? How would you describe your psychological state? What are you doing to cope? If you’re a mental health worker, what are you seeing out there?”

He wasn’t sure what to expect. In his April 9 column, Brooks reported that over 5000 of his readers had responded. That’s an impressive result.

I concede that his readers are a select group of citizens: highly educated, probably affluent, mostly white, NYTimes readers, and in particular a reader of his conservative commentary. Honestly, I don’t read Brooks often and wouldn’t have noticed this article if someone hadn’t sent it to me. I’m glad I did.

Brooks reprinted comments from three major segments of society: college students, senior citizens, and people with already existing mental health issues (self-defined).

The comments from students were about being “gripped by a deep depression.” There were feelings of hopelessness about the future”. “This pandemic has robbed me of my sense of control” is a common theme among all groups. “I am angry at a force I cannot see.”

Seniors mentioned the “wrenching loneliness” and their separation from siblings, grandchildren, friends. Several mentioned crying alone. One wrote that she will “cry a lot, which is my new norm.” Another wrote, “I cannot get through the day without tears.” “All the things I love to do, I’m now afraid to do,” wrote another.

People with existing mental health issues, esp. anxiety disorders, are having an especially difficult time. A reader writes of being “hogtied to your unhappiness,”; a “pervasive, ever-shifting, hard-to-define anxiety.”

Brooks observes much heroism in this vulnerability and notes a pulsing spiritual growth through so many letters. He encourages “aggressive friendship” and reaching out to those who are lonely or troubled. He offers the hope that we will see deeper into ourselves,  learning what our “pain is teaching”, and “become wiser and softer as a result.”

Some will write dissertations about this time, and these expressions of our mental health will, of course, be a resource. Increasing the sample size and diversifying it will be essential. For example, domestic abuse is growing around the world. The situations among those unemployed, uninsured, homeless, incarcerated, undocumented will all have to be heard from and considered. No one brief survey at this early stage can comprehend the difficulties of this time.

The experiences Brooks doesn’t record here from people who don’t read the New York Times will be full of anger, fear, and immense helplessness.

We can hope for a substantial enlivening of communal feelings, practices of care, empathy, and support. There is some evidence that below the sightline, much is happening to hold things together.

Feelings of being out of control are not entirely imaginary. We are out of control of substantial portions of our lives, and a considerable challenge for everyone is coming to terms with that loss. Most of the feelings noted in these articles are legitimate responses to the situation. They are not neurotic. We are alone, uncertain of our futures, sad, and out of control. 

“What do you do with the mad that you feel?” Mr. Rogers used to ask, or what do we do with our loneliness, sadness, isolation, despair, anger? These are not “problems” that can be solved. There is not a twelve-step program, three-step remedy, or a daily axiom that will resolve them. They are a pervasive atmosphere that no face mask (or soul mask) can prevent. They are as contagious as the virus itself.

The question in such situations is often, “well, what are you going to do about it?” That is a valuable question in its place. Some problems require action.  If there is a thin line between the intensity of what we are feeling and some extreme response (self-harm, violence toward another, suicide, etc.), there is a need for immediate action. But if it is a thick line, and if we are merely frustrated to feel these feelings, that is something different.

In the initial days of “sheltering in place,” we were fooled into thinking there might be some advantages to this. If we weren’t on the frontlines, we were slowing our lives down, making space for some neglected projects, catching up with family, experimenting with new rhythms. But after three weeks and staring down the calendar at several more, we are beginning to feel the suffocating pressure.

This is hard. It’s probably going to get harder. Our dismal feelings are an appropriate response to the situation. It would be neurotic to feel right about this.

I’ve always been a believer in what I call reality-based emotions. I used to tell my children it’s alright to feel sad in sad situations. Painful things hurt. Staying connected and sensitive to our reality is crucial. 

“Life is hard” was the bracing first line of Scott Peck’s 1978 best-seller The Road Less Traveled and Beyond. I recalled this book when I spent several weeks in the hospital last year. I didn’t want to be there, but it was the place I needed to be. I kept singing to myself (in my head not with my voice!), “You can do hard things,” the lovely song by Carrie Newcomer.

Life is hard. We don’t want to be here. We need to be here for the sake of public health. It’s alright to be uncomfortable, sad, frustrated, even depressed. Keep in touch with both the reality of the situation and the reality of your emotions. There are hard emotions connected with this time. Brooks hopes that we might learn “what our pain is teaching.” I agree there is wisdom in this. But pain is still painful.

What we do with kitchen scraps is make compost. Compost becomes fertile ground for new things to grow. But compost also stinks, rots, and decomposes before it becomes useful for anything. All of us are living on the compost pile right now. It’s hard, but we can’t move on just yet.

— Ric Hudgens

April 11, 2020

#QuarantineEssay #18

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