Kenneth E. Miller Ph.D.

The Refugee Experience

Finding Gratitude Even in Dark Times

Deepened connections to ourselves and others can emerge as the world pauses.

Posted Apr 25, 2020

hfng/Shutterstock
Source: hfng/Shutterstock

I recently posted a question on Facebook asking people to share any unexpected positive experiences resulting from the lockdowns and shelter-in-place laws now in place around the world.

I was a bit nervous, asking people to focus on good things happening during a terribly dark time, when millions have fallen ill from COVID-19 and close to 200,000 people have died from it as I write. I wondered if my question would seem callous, insensitive to the real and at times extreme suffering caused by the loss of jobs and income, the social isolation, and the numerous other stressors people are facing now. I have written about the many painful tradeoffs we are making in this grand social experiment aimed at stopping the spread of the virus. I know the pain is real. I have seen it here in Amsterdam, witnessed it far more intensely among the refugees my team works with in Lebanon, and also felt it in my own personal life. Online, I have watched videos about people unable to attend the funerals of loved ones, others who are not able to visit a parent dying alone in a hospital room.

And yet, I have noticed something surprising. People are writing about unexpected discoveries—newfound time with family and friends, less traffic on the streets, less pollution in the air, a grand sort of pause in the hustle and bustle of our busy lives. It’s as though something is trying to be born, a different way of being with ourselves and each other, and perhaps with the planet as well.

I have seen these changes in my own life. My connections to people are actually deepening. I now have weekly video calls with my family, thousands of miles away. I take frequent walks with friends in Amsterdam’s beautiful parks. I am cooking more, practicing the guitar, running in the park behind my home and doing yoga daily. My focus on work has deepened—I am fortunate to have a job that allows me to work from home. My research team, a remarkable group of people mostly in Lebanon, but also in the UK and Canada, have become friends, almost family, as we share work, personal stories, laughter, and heartache across the miles through WhatsApp, Zoom, and Skype. When Lebanon went into lockdown, we thought our study of a parent-support intervention for refugees there was dead, after two years of very intense work. We simply had no way to gather data from the families. But we quickly developed an entirely phone-based methodology (Chen et al., in press), and over seven long and intense days we interviewed nearly 240 parents, with the 18-person research team spread out over four countries on three continents, all working from their homes. It was exhausting, and exhilarating, and a remarkable shared experience. 

I don’t mean to say this has been an easy or cheerful time. It can be scary. Even expert advice can be confusing: wear a mask? Don’t wear a mask? Staying physically distant from people isn’t fun. The stress of possible contagion has made shopping in the market, once a pleasurable activity, something to be done as quickly as possible. There are the moments of loneliness: my partner and I split up a while ago, and so, living alone, I have had to contend with a deepened sense of isolation that my friends with partners and families do not share. I am learning to lean into it, to open up to it until the feelings pass as they always do, but there's no sugar-coating the reality that such moments are hard.

And yet, in the midst of these challenges, some unexpected and welcome changes have occurred.

Which brings me back to that Facebook post.

To my surprise and delight, people responded enthusiastically. For some, the answers came easily, while for others, the question itself invited a welcome and eye-opening inquiry. Here’s a partial list of positive discoveries people shared:

  • More time with partners and children
  • Newly gained time once spent commuting to and from work. For one friend, that means 10 hours each week she has regained, 10 hours no longer spent sitting in traffic, frustrated and stressed
  • Discovering yoga, and meditation
  • More time for meaningful conversations without continual distraction
  • A deepened sense of neighborhood and community, as neighbors come together, at a safe distance, to share drinks and stories
  • More time with parents or grandparents
  • Catching up on TV series, or finally having time for that growing pile of books
  • Delight in seeing greater friendliness and solidarity among neighbors and even strangers 
  • Loving the recognition we are giving to hospital staff who are risking their lives daily, as well as a recognition of how much we depend on workers whose labor is often undervalued: teachers, daycare workers, and home care staff, for example
  • Gratitude for humanitarian workers, many of whom still place themselves in harm's way to support vulnerable communities around the world.
  • Pleasure in having more time to cook, and discovering online cooking resources
  • Appreciating leaders who are honest, compassionate, and deeply informed by science in their decision-making. Several female leaders topped the list (e.g., Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand, and Angela Merkel of Germany), along with Justin Trudeau of Canada. 
  • My friend Chris, who works at a science museum, wrote of his delight at seeing the museum make many of its learning resources available online so all families can access them, regardless of their income. He said this will continue after the pandemic abates, a lasting change. 
  • Another friend wrote to say how he’s come to appreciate more deeply the blessings he has: a family with whom he is spending more time, being able to work from home, and having greater time for personal growth and pleasurable activities. But realizing these blessings has also deepened his commitment to helping others who are less fortunate.

And then there is this: a deepened appreciation for the precious and fragile nature of all that we hold dear. Loved ones can fall ill and be gone in a seeming heartbeat; livelihoods can disappear from one day to the next as economies come to a stop; and plans for the future may be upended nearly overnight. And so we come to appreciate more fully the people and things and situations that matter to us, seeing more clearly now that nothing is truly as permanent as we might once have believed. 

What's the point of all of this positivity, in the midst of what is a very difficult time for so many people? The point is not to minimize the pain people are experiencing. We need to do everything possible to mitigate the harmful effects of the lockdowns: the financial crisis so many families are facing, the pain and stress of isolation, and the loss of so many vital resources, from dental care to childcare. But as we work towards addressing these problems, there may also be room to pause, and to recognize the changes, small and large, for which we can feel grateful. It turns out that gratitude has some powerful benefits for our wellbeing, both psychological and physical. It lowers stress, and can shift us, at least for a time, from worried and depressed to a state of greater calm and ease.  

I’d love to know your thoughts: have you found a silver lining around the dark cloud of this pandemic and the difficult changes it has wrought?  

References

Chen, A., Tossyeh, F., Arnous, M., Saleh, A., El Hassan, A., Saade, J., & Miller, K.E. Phone-based data collection in a refugee community under COVID-19 lockdown. In press, The Lancet Psychiatry