Finding the Resilience to Deal With Change
Dealing with life's existential givens.
Posted Oct 16, 2020
A new wave of COVID in the United States and Europe is forcing us to deal with an ongoing crisis with as much grace and resilience as possible. Mounting death tolls and hospitalizations are creating much grief and anxiety.
Change is always difficult, whatever its source. We are creatures of habit, easily unsettled when small changes roil our routine, not to mention tsunami-like ones. Is there a way to deal with change a little more gracefully?
Philosophers have long reminded us that change is the only constant in life. As Heraclitus put it 2500 years ago, “You cannot step into the same river twice, for other waters are continually flowing on.” Buddhist psychology similarly teaches that suffering happens when we cling to how we want things to be rather than accept things as they are. Easier said than done.
It’s much easier to recognize truths in our head than embody them in our lives. But how might we take a small step toward dealing with change without being debilitated by it?
Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl points out in his classic book, Man’s Search for Meaning, that events are often beyond our control. But we have some control over our attitude toward what happens. As Frankl put it:
“The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity — even under the most difficult circumstances — to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish.”
How might we find meaning and courageous dignity during this pandemic?
We live in a culture that values achievement and having control over our lives. Our society tends to deny the shadow side of life: death, grief, illness, and not having answers to complex questions. Many political leaders downplayed the epidemic when it began (and many still do!), perhaps because it brings up uncomfortable feelings for them, or because they didn’t want to upset people with unpleasant truths, or because they didn’t want to be blamed and have it affect their political ambitions (or maybe all three!). Such denial of the shadow side of life has made the problem worse. As the saying goes, “What we resist will persist!”
Psychotherapists James Bugental, Irvin Yalom, and others have written about life’s existential givens — issues that we all experience, but which can be distasteful, such as illness, death, and isolation. Yet courageously facing these existential issues can connect us more deeply to ourselves and each other, and help us live a more meaningful in life.
We become collectively stronger as we face adversity and support each other through it. We become a more compassionate society as sadness and sorrow open our hearts to each other. Realizing that we all experience moments of fear and powerlessness can remind us that we’re all part of the human condition. Recognizing our interconnectedness helps us feel less isolated and relieves us of the burden of shame we might carry around feeling vulnerable during difficult times.
It takes strength to allow for vulnerability. It takes courage to do our best to find our way through challenges. Although we’re physically distancing, we don’t need to socially isolate. Unlike past pandemics, we now have the technology to stay in touch with friends and community. Sharing our feelings and concerns with people who care about us can help carry us through a difficult time.
The first step toward finding our balance is to be gentle with our feelings around change—and all that it brings up for us. As we regain some emotional balance — as we self-regulate with the help of friends and community — there’s an opportunity to move forward, which will look different for each person.
Perhaps we can take time to do things we’ve always wanted to do, but didn’t have time for, such as gardening, home improvement, or meditation. Perhaps we can reimagine ourselves in a new career. Or maybe we can make some creative adjustment in the work we’ve been doing, such as reaching out to clients or customers in a more creative way, adding new twists to what we do, going back to school, or being more collaborative.
I don’t want to minimize the anguish that many are facing, such as losing a loved one, one’s job, or one’s health — or by being largely confined to our homes. I’m not suggesting that we use positive thinking to cover up the shadow side of life.
Although it may sound cliche, sometimes positive things come out of adversity. There are times when letting go of the old makes way for the new. May we all find ways to allow for new and creative possibilities to open up for us.
© John Amodeo