Take care of yourself — In moments of overwhelm, our default can be to try harder, skip lunch, avoid exercise and dodge people who might encourage us not to do this. We need to root out the old idea that it’s selfish to take care of ourselves. It’s essential for the greater good.
As a part of my series about the things we can do to develop serenity and support each other during anxious times, I had the pleasure of interviewing Janine Urbaniak Reid, mother of three and author of the recently released memoir The Opposite of Certainty: Fear, Faith and Life In Between. Hoping to bring humanity into the healthcare discussion by sharing her experience as a mother of son with a brain tumor, she penned a piece for The Washington Post which went viral. She has been interviewed on national news networks, and continues her work as a spokeswoman for healthcare justice. Janine writes about her imperfect life, what connects us, and addresses the question of what it means to love fiercely in a sometimes dangerous and always uncertain world.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
My most recent title is author. I left my career in public relations to stay home with my children and writing ultimately became a way to find myself in the context of an overwhelming life. The pause in my career was meant to be a hiatus. Then my young son was diagnosed with an inoperable and unpredictable brain tumor and I’ve spent the last 12 years doing the important work of caring for him while advocating for families like mine. Putting pen to paper brought meaning and grounding to my life when the foundation on which I’d built my (supposedly safe) life seemed to liquify.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I heard a politician threaten my child on the radio as I was driving one day: He announced his commitment to repeal the healthcare law that protected my family. During this time, my son was relearning to walk, talk and eat after suffering from a hemorrhage in his brain that almost killed him. The Affordable Care Act assured us that he would not be denied insurance because of his preexisting condition. That day, I wrote an op-ed that ended up being published by The Washington Post. Following that, I was interviewed on MSNBC and many other national news programs to share the reality of what this change in healthcare availability could have on a family. Soon after, I was inspired to start writing my newest book, The Opposite of Certainty, which was released in May of 2020.
What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?
So often we hunker down, convincing ourselves we’ll take better care when that next deadline is met, if we meet a certain goal, after the crisis has passed — months go by, years even. My advice is to start today, do what you can. Drink an extra glass of water, go for a walk. Pace yourself. Value YOU as a resource. So many of us have come up in a culture where it’s encouraged and expected to push past the point of exhaustion when truly we’re more productive — and sane — when healthy and rested.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird is a manual for writing and getting through when the days stretch too long and the news cycle morphs from unrecognizable to truly awful. The title comes from a story about the author’s ten-year-old brother, who was trying to write a report on birds due the next day. He was crying when Lamott’s father sat down beside him and said, “Bird by bird, buddy, just take it bird by bird.”
I would’ve been paralyzed at the computer screen if I tried to write a book by telling myself: expose everything you never wanted to say out loud, what broke you and then made you want to live after that, cut to the bone. Oh and be sure to make us laugh too, profound spiritual insights would be nice. It’s too much. I can’t do that. But I could write down scenes, which got strung into stories, then into chapters. Each step of the process was the foundation for the next in creating a book I love, and building my musculature as a writer.
It’s like this with life too. I recoil from two years of Covid uncertainty, but I can do Wednesday noon. I can show up for what’s next and if that’s too daunting, I can break the task down into something more manageable — send an email, make the appointment, write a paragraph. It’s the secret to living: bite-sized moments. We do right now, then the next right now, and the one after that. The threads of small moments make up the abstract, crazy, but beautiful, weave of this life.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Many people have become anxious just from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have only heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to develop serenity during such uncertain times? Can you please share a story or example for each.
- This life now — In the midst of a years-long crisis, I realized I’d been holding my breath, waiting for the life I recognized to come back around. I told myself I’d be happy when___, or I’ll take better care if___. I realized that this it, the life I have, and it was time — right now — to dig in. Start simple. That day I took a walk in the neighborhood outside the medical center where the marigolds and mowed lawns reassured me that there was a world oblivious to our crisis, and it was nearby. In these pandemic times, hikes through the big trees do this for me. But it can be as simple as noticing the bird outside my window. Look up, acknowledge what’s beautiful, then eat something that makes you feel good, protein and vegetables are good, drink an extra glass of water. It helps to think of these times as a marathon. We’re being asked to push beyond any realm of comfort physically, emotionally and spiritually, It’s our job to do what’s possible, and take gentle care.
- Take care of yourself — In moments of overwhelm, our default can be to try harder, skip lunch, avoid exercise and dodge people who might encourage us not to do this. We need to root out the old idea that it’s selfish to take care of ourselves. It’s essential for the greater good. I had a boss years ago who said that if we weren’t stressed out we didn’t care. She thought we’d work harder fueled by adrenaline, caffeine and exhaustion. This is not sustainable. Of course we are stressed during this time of global uncertainty and threat. We must seek calm and sustenance whenever possible so that we can do the heavy lifting that is reality. It isn’t going to look like a week at a beach resort in this moment. But what can we do — in these circumstances — to take care of ourselves? Five, ten, one minute breaks count.
- Be where your feet are — At some point during one of Mason’s hospitalizations a friend suggested, “be where your feet are.” This simple practice brings me back to right now: not last week or ten years from now. Often I’m holding my breath again, waiting for the present reality to become acceptable before I breathe into it. Then I notice my feet, striped socks on hardwood. I inhale, then exhale. Where are your feet? Are you okay right now? If the answer is yes, that’s a lot. If the answer is no, is there one thing you can do right now that might help?
- Avoid catastrophizing — My default is to anticipate the awful things that might happen. I’ve never once said, “It’s great that life is unfolding in this unpredictable way, how exciting.” On the plus side, I have plenty of canned soup and my insurance premiums are paid. It’s important, especially now, to cultivate a trustworthy source of information so that we can make smart plans and protect ourselves. And there’s a point when speculating and planning slip into obsessive negative thinking. Researching Covid-19 statistics in my county is reasonable, doing this multiple times a day or at 2 a.m., is not helpful. This is a phone-a-friend moment. I need to talk to someone who is not currently terrified and reason out what is fear, what is reality, what action can I take and what consequences can I let go of. This is our challenge in the world right now. As crises develop by the minute, I’m reminded that my safety can’t really be stocked in a go box. When security is so tenuous in the outside world, I have learned to go deeper inside.
- Swim deeper — Big fish dive deeper when the tides becomes erratic. It’s like this for humans too. When outside circumstances are out of control, we’re forced to delve underneath the chaos and the big waves. What do you believe in? It shocked me that as more and more of my outside identity got stripped away by crisis that I felt more and more myself. What truly mattered was obvious. What feeds your spirit? Is there a spiritual practice that brings you comfort? Somehow during my crisis I ended up with a deeper faith, believing more while knowing less. We go deep to tap a peace that surpasses reasonable understanding, and then we look up and notice how we’ve walked through yet another impossible day. Belief comes from the experience of being taken care of despite everything. How are you being taken care of today?
From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?
- Radical kindness — Offer kindness where kindness is lacking. People are stressed and reactive. Don’t let the angriest, most fearful person in your path set the tone for your day. There are many opportunities to practice. I was speaking to a customer service person who snapped at me. Instead of going snarky (which I am really good at) I said, “Things must be busy over there.” This broke the trance. I treated her like a valued person and she responded like one. Sometimes the kindest choice is to walk away. There are plenty of times it’s appropriate to hang up the phone or leave the room. We should never let ourselves be abused, this just perpetuates the cycle. But can we walk away without picking up that bomb of frustration and anger, then carrying it with us the rest of the day? Every interaction is an opportunity to put kindness into the world instead of more annoyance and anger.
- Compassion — Compassion is easy when I love and agree with someone. It’s much harder when I perceive someone’s viewpoint as stupid and their actions as threats. If I can’t assume good intentions, I attempt to acknowledge the pain that’s likely underneath cruel and unfeeling behavior. I become willing to be willing — some day/eventually — to forgive them. This doesn’t excuse cruelty, but it starts to work that splinter of resentment out of my tender foot. Compassion has a healing overspray. The more we feel it for others, the more we experience it in ourselves, and the more effective we are in this world.
- Listen — It’s a profound and loving gift to sit with a friend in their unknown, uncertain places without trying to fix them. Set aside judgment, also advice (unless asked, and then tread lightly). We all react to pressure and crisis differently. Have confidence in your friend’s ability to work through their difficulties and unearth their own answers, even when the process takes longer than you think it should. Offer encouragement when you can.
- Let go of impossible standards — People will make mistakes, especially in this environment of extremes. You will make mistakes. It’s okay. Things can get fixed. Delays are to be expected. Put a high price on your peace of mind and consider the cost before giving it away.
- Simple — I think I have to come up with something brilliant and insightful that will alleviate someone’s pain and anxiety. What I can do is attempt to be useful and helpful in practical ways. I can pick up groceries for a friend. Send an encouraging text (without any sort of expectation of a response), drop off dinner. My days always go better when I remember that my purpose is simply to be useful to the people around me. Then I’m not in conflict with what is, I’m just trying to be helpful, no matter what.
What are the best resources you would suggest to a person who is feeling anxious?
Pause — Look away from the object of your anxiety, even if only for fifteen minutes. Think of the problem like a knotted chain, the harder we pull the more stubborn the knots become.
G.O.D. = Great-Out-Doors- There’s something about looking up at the sky that reminds us of a world bigger than our problems, and beauty beyond our imagination. Get outside, feel the sun, breathe the fresh air. The dawn’s light consumes the night sky, whether we’re watching or not. Notice what’s beautiful, the unexpected and the taken for granted.
Ask for help — Every turning point in my life has started with asking for help and noticing what I haven’t been willing to see before. Being super capable can leave us isolated trying to figure out life by ourselves. It’s difficult to have perspective on our own problems. Reach out to a trusted friend who won’t judge or try to fix you. Sometimes we just need to be able to say how hard things are. Professionals can be helpful. The more support the better in this precarious world of ours. It takes hundreds of skilled professionals to bring those iconic lone-wolf heroes to the movie screen. In real life, wolves travel in packs. This is a sign of strength and wisdom. Why wouldn’t we fortify our support system during difficult times?
Seek — What feeds your spirit? Platitudes don’t hold up in inclement weather. I had to ask myself, “what can I believe in?” Circumstances didn’t change, but I did. I began to notice the improbable good, even on the worst days. The neurosurgeon answered his own phone right when we needed him. The nurse’s aide coaxed a laugh from my mostly silent son. Sun through the window. Therapy dogs. “Look for the helpers,” Mr. Rogers advised in times of trouble. This is where I see good and grace. I call it God, the source of love and strength big enough — so far — for any circumstance. I’m not sure the name matters so much as the free flow of kindness. Some days we get to be the helper. Others we learn to surrender to our human limitations and receive. Grace shows up for us, through us and sometimes despite us.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
My memoir The Opposite of Certainty is inspired by a quote from the great theologian Paul Tillich, “Doubt is not the opposite of faith it’s one element of faith.” Also Anne Lamott’s take on that, “The opposite of faith isn’t doubt, it’s certainty.”
I had the illusion that if I had the right kind of faith I’d be sure of more. I wouldn’t be so afraid, and I would accept and trust, rather than resist and gird. I spent my life striving and trying harder. My faith wasn’t good enough; I wasn’t good enough. But it turns out that my imperfections, the messiness of questions and doubts — all of it — is the human experience, my experience. Faith means showing up for the mess, and tapping a source of strength I didn’t know I had. Courage sometimes means being very afraid and not giving up no matter what. Faith is more of a muscle than idea.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would call my movement there is no them. As I discovered during my time in the pediatric ICUs, where I spent months with other families, and as we are all discovering with COVID-19, we are all vulnerable. There’s this idea of Otherness that enables people to turn away from real need and suffering, as if it’s just careless people who get sick, whose kids develop tumors, or get hit by cars. We are more alike than different (no matter how much we pretend), as humans in these fragile bodies. Faced with our own mortality and the fragility of our economic safety net, maybe more of us will care. My movement would be founded on the radical idea of smart people working together toward the goal of caring for everyone. What if we treated all children like our own, and refused any messaging in this world that seeks to sort people like dirty laundry, into worthy and unworthy, good and bad. I believe most of us are basically good. What if we finally said, no more? I’m encouraged by the Black Lives Matter movement, the depth and the breadth of the movement, people finally coming together and saying brutality and indifference have to stop.
What is the best way our readers can follow you online?
Facebook and Instagram — @JanineUrbaniakReid
Twitter — @JanineUReid