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Maintaining Equanimity in a Time of Collective Weltschmerz

How do we create and maintain calm during a crisis?

I’m an unapologetic word nerd.  I inherited this particular quirk from my dear Nana, who wasn’t observant in any traditional religious sense but regarded the Sunday Times Crossword Puzzle as a holy scripture of sorts.  She taught me words like “lagniappe,” and although I have never in my life used that word (until now), she instilled in me a deep appreciation for language.

Equanimity is one of my favorite words, and it is one that has been used a lot these days. Webster’s dictionary defines equanimity as “evenness of mind especially under stress.” Some synonyms are calmness, tranquility and equilibrium. It’s a state of being that I aspire to in normal times and one that has even greater appeal in these extraordinary circumstances in which we find ourselves right now.

Weltschmerz is a word I learned today. I fell in love with it instantaneously and noticed an irrepressible urge to weave it into something useful. Weltchmerz isn’t just awesome because it’s fun to say; the word means “mental depression or apathy caused by comparison of the actual state of the world with an ideal state; a mood of sentimental sadness.”

Um…relevant much?

One could argue humankind is in a shared state of Weltschmerz right now- and will be for the foreseeable future. And of course we are. Uncertainty is built into the fabric of life and the human experience, but this crisis has thrown us all outside of our comfort zones and into the unknown collectively, in short order, and in ways we likely could not have contemplated. Along with the discomfort in the uncertainty (e.g., How will this end? When will it end? What losses will we suffer? What will the world look like when we emerge?), people all over the world are facing loss- of businesses, of income and livelihoods, of connection to others, of experiences we likely took for granted before (team sports, dinners with friends, trips, family visits), of health, and, in too many cases, of life itself. Humankind is coping with a variety of griefs at the same time. It is a lot to be with.

Mainstream news outlets bombard us regularly with data and mathematical modeling related to Covid19. The models vary wildly, but the consensus seems to be that, as a society, we must “flatten the curve,” or slow the spread of the infection. We are being asked by healthcare workers, scientists, epidemiologists, public health experts, and responsible leaders to stay home, in order to stem the tsunami flooding our health care system. We can ALL do our part in this.

But there’s another curve to consider, which is stress over time. Unchecked, the stress, overwhelm, panic, anxiety, fear, despair, hopelessness…. all of it-could consume and waste us. Not to mention the long-term impacts of a population of deeply stressed people- on our physical health, mental health, the welfare of our children, and the economy. 

We can be responsible for creating equanimity in ourselves, even in an unprecedented global crisis. And I’d venture a guess that all of us are committed to surviving and emerging on the other side of this with grace and perhaps even stronger than we were before.

How?  How do we create and maintain this equanimity?

I really don’t know. But I have some ideas that I’d like to share. Consider this a recipe of sorts, and because I am a terrible cook, pay no mind to quantity or order of ingredient(s).

  • Focus on what you can control, and practice letting go of everything else. For example, you get to shape your attitude and perspective, socially distance, self-regulate the amount of news you take in and from what source(s), and create fun and connection with friends and family. You cannot control whether others are staying at home, how long this will last, and whether the grocery store has toilet paper.
  • Feel your feelings. Whether you acknowledge them or not, your feelings are there. If they are unexpressed, they will likely “leak out” in some way (I’m pretty sure I cried the other day when I couldn’t open a can of corn). And, when we don’t give ourselves the space to release our emotions, we end up operating on top of them. There’s nothing “wrong” with that; it just limits our creativity, possibility and power. There are lots of ways to feel those feelings and free up space, such as journaling, meditating, or expressing an emotion that is authentic for you on purpose.
  • Create some sort of structure to give your daily life a sense of predictability, but try not to be too rigid with the structure, particularly if you find you have needs throughout the day that require attending to.
  • Take care of your physical well-being. Do your best to get enough sleep, bathe regularly, exercise regularly, stay hydrated, and eat healthy foods.
  • Make time for connection with others.  Distanced does not have to mean disconnected. Call a friend or two a day. Get on a video call with family so everyone can see each other. Play a game with friends (several of my friends played psych this past Saturday night, each one of us bringing a cocktail or glass or wine to the “party”; it was a blast). Join a virtual community like Out Loud: Community, Connection and Creation in Uncertain Times so you can be heard and supported.
  • Consider creating a regular spiritual practice or deepening the one you already have. I don’t pretend to know what this might look like for you, and I believe that any practice of this nature is highly individualistic. This is very much a work in process for me, but I’ve found that journaling and meditation have given me a new sense of peace and freedom.
  • Pay closer attention than ever to your own needs, and do what it takes to get those needs met. You may even consider asking yourself at various times throughout the day:  What do I need right now? Perhaps you need a nap, to watch a silly show on TV, to cry, to go for a walk, to drink a soothing cup of tea, to take a hot shower, to do nothing at all, to read a novel, to phone a friend, to ask that someone tells you you are loved.  Whatever it is, tune in to the needs, communicate them, and honor them.
  • Be of service. I find myself on a daily basis hunting for individual citizens and companies demonstrating servant-leadership in this challenging climate. Sharing that news on social media gives me so much hope and this deep sense of interconnectedness and humanity. I’ve been inspired to find my own ways to be of service, such as coaching my clients and building a virtual community with colleagues and friends to hold space for people to share, connect, be heard, and create. Today I donated some money to maskson.org. I notice that doing and making space for others takes my mind off my own woes and serves as a reminder of the ways in which human beings are capable of so much love and resilience. Consider finding your own way(s) to serve, and notice what experience you create through your service for yourself. 
  • Practice gratitude. Even when there is loss, and even when there is loss on this kind of scale, there are always things to be grateful for. Taking time to remember what those things are allows us to be present in this moment and creates a sense of tranquility. Last week, I practiced gratitude on my walk/run outside and noticed that I felt more alive and “here” that entire day that I had felt in some time.
  • Give yourself permission to be wherever you are and to feel whatever you feel. It is ok to not be ok. Practice radical compassion for yourself and for others. This is some f’ed up sh*t. Whatever you are experiencing right now is hard enough without the judgment you’re reliable to impose upon yourself for having that experience. Cut yourself some slack.
  • Breathe.

As one of my favorite public figures, Glennon Doyle, frequently says:  “We can do hard things.” We are truly in this together, folks. We are knee-deep in the Weltschmerz. And, we can create equanimity for ourselves and within ourselves as we weather this storm.

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