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Turn on the Light and Start Sorting…

These are the times that truly test our mettle. The pandemic has been here over a year now, medical advice has changed almost daily as they scramble to figure out what to do, the political arena has gone from one of at least a modicum of decorum and respect to truly a three-ring circus complete with cream pies and water pistols, and people everywhere are increasingly feeling like the ground under their feet is pitching and rolling like the deck of a ship in a stormy sea. It is a daily, nay – hourly – test of our patience.

But as life always does, things are slowly migrating back to the general direction of “normal”, whatever they might be. At least here, the kids are (mostly) back in school. My youngest two grandkids are in school four days a week while the eldest is in school two days a week. However no busses for any of them; their town is NOT bussing students, which absolutely blows my mind. Instead, the parents have to drop off and pick up their kids. In our case, three kids in two different schools, separated by several miles of busy traffic, with start stop times mere minutes apart. In the morning, either someone has to arrive early or someone will have to arrive late. And for dismissal, the eldest will always be near the last of his class to be picked up, left standing outside in the weather, waiting while his siblings are picked up. But at least they are back in school. Baby steps.

I actually took my wife shopping the other day, to Home Goods; a calculated risk. She has been buckling for a while and of late is showing signs of possibly breaking. So I picked a store that she loves, that is never really busy, and then picked their least busy day and least busy time to go. We went, didn’t stay terribly long, avoided the few people in the store, and sanitized when we left with our purchases. Baby steps.

But like so many others, we are pushing the envelope a bit here by doing so. The viral variants have begun to show up, the state is still feeling the effects of Christmas and New Years contaminations, and the vaccine program in our state is an abysmal failure. Rhode Island, despite being the smallest state and low population, ranks last in vaccine distribution. Someone in town recently wrote that they moved here from Georgia a couple of months ago; everyone she knows in Georgia has already been vaccinated while here in RI, no one has even a clue of when they might begin to see a plan that includes themselves.

So given all of this, the stress, the constant frictional wear on our nerves and our patience, the lack of knowing….pretty much anything, the daily battle of trying to stay safe and still escape the Groundhog Day feeling, and the overwhelming desire to escape our own four walls – how do we cope? Sadly, there is no one answer – of course. We are all so alike in how we feel the stress of all this, yet all so different in how our brains and souls process that stress. We all have our own perspectives, our own unique life’s experiences, and our own coping mechanisms that there is no possibility for a “one size fits all” solution.

Some prefer to hide, bury, and ignore things that cause stress and discomfort; basically ignore them until they go away. Other prefer to drag every last piece and part of that stress out onto a table under a really bright light and look at it, examine it, roll around in it, immerse themselves in it. And a thousand other techniques in between. Some attack their stress, head on, fighting tooth and nail. Some use science and data to perform a clinical dissection of it in order to better understand it.

But given the fact that there is no single way to handle all this stress in our daily lives, that does not mean we do nothing! We don’t – can’t – just take it as is and do nothing. And there are some basic and universal steps each of us can take to handle the stress.

First and foremost is the acknowledge it; you can’t cope with it if you deny it exists. You have to at least admit to yourself that you are stressed if you have any hope of lessening or relieving that stress. You simply can’t live in a constant state of denial – telling everyone (and yourself) – that you’re fine when you really aren’t fine. Toughing it out, walking it off, is absolutely cool and something I embrace and admire; but there is a limit.

Think back to Monty Python’s Holy Grail and the Black Knight blocking Arthur’s passage. The King cuts off the knight’s arm and begins to go around but the Black Knight blocks him with blood spurting from the shoulder all the while. The King, in great surprise, states “but I’ve cut your arm off” to which the knight replies, “no you haven’t” and king points to the ground and says “I’ve have so – look – it’s laying right there” But the knight continues to battle and the king cuts off his other arm to which the knight exclaims: “why that’s nothing – ‘tis but a flesh wound”. And it continues until all four of the knight’s limbs are littered on the ground and his blood squiring torso sits among them with him trying to bite the king. Denial. (And yes, if you haven’t seen the movie it all sounds quite gruesome, but trust me, it is absolutely the opposite and is truly an incredibly funny scene).

If the knight had acknowledged his first lost limb he could have saved the rest. But he remained in denial throughout (happily so as it makes for such a comical scene). Likewise, until we recognize and acknowledge our stress, we can’t begin to abate it. So recognition and acknowledgement of the fact that this all this is taking a toll on you remains paramount.

OK – you’ve raised your hand – begrudgingly or not – and admitted that you are stressed. Now what. If you are the type that secrets your stress under piles of refuse and rubbish throughout your psyche in order to facilitate denying its existence, now you’re screwed. You’ve uncovered it all, brought it out into plain sight, and now can no longer deny it’s there. It is uncovered and unhidden and is right there under your nose. And now you have to deal with it. Remember baby steps? Use them now!

One of the first and easiest things to you can do is to begin to sort your stress, fears, worries, and concerns into categories or “piles”, in an objective and pragmatic way. Do not let your personal perspectives, filters, fears, or emotions cloud your vision. Pretend they are not yours – they belong to someone else and you are just helping them out. And the categories are really up to your personal choice: health, world stability, economics, family for example. Or perhaps instead, sort by fact versus fantasy versus fiction. Which are real and are here and are now?

For example, let’s say I owe my mortgage or rent payment for last month and I still do not have the money; that is real and it is here and now. Then there is this month’s payment coming due; real for sure, but not here now. Coming for sure, but not here yet. So focus on the real that here and now. And begin working on possible solutions for that. Borrow money, take a loan, negotiate payment terms with the debtor.

This, as opposed to: “what if I catch COVID and become seriously ill”? If you have no symptoms and have had no known contact and follow sound self-health advice (mask, social distance, and sanitize/wash hands) you may fear catching it, but that is not real, at least not now. The reality is that you are still virus free, you are obviously “doing it right” with regards to protecting yourself. So rather than live in fear of it, focus on more current and more genuine risks.

You may agonize over our current social and political unrest and divisiveness and I don’t blame you; it’s a mess out there. It is real and it is now. But…what can you do about it? Unlike the virus, where there are known and effective steps that you can implement to help assure your safety, there is little you can do about the hatred and unrest. That doesn’t mean to do nothing, but any steps you take will be indirect, not direct. Unless you go run for office, get elected, and go implement change, there is little you can do directly.

But here are some indirect suggestions: skip social media and news media – try to avoid the triggers – especially the biased ones such as CNN or Facebook. Instead – once or twice a day – go to a more neutral source such as AP News, BBC News, or NPR and seek a more objective and balanced narrative, but only to stay in touch with what is going on. Do NOT immerse yourself in it.

Live the life you wish others would – lead by example – be the reason someone believes in good people. Demonstrate goodwill, kindness, patience, tolerance and forgiveness. You will reap double benefits from this: you will feel infinitely better about yourself for living a life of love and caring, and also, you may well begin to help others do the same as a result of interacting with you. The Golden Rule is so simplistic that people often tend to dismiss it as too childlike, too simple to truly be effective. But when you consider it carefully – treat others as you would have them treat you – it absolutely makes perfect sense. If we all followed it, this world would be a kinder, gentler place.

The whole point of this exercise is to take inventory of all the things that keep you awake at night and cause all your cumulative stress. And once see it, and once you sort them all into piles that are real, that are now, and that you can change – you can go develop a plan to remediate them. Save the real but future ones for later, knowing that while they may happen, they are NOT happening now. And of course the fiction? Stuff that back into the corner with all the imaginary stuff. Because any time you have something bothering you, unless and until you take action to resolve it, you will not find relief. But often, the moment you acknowledge it and take action towards it, you immediately begin to relax and feel better. Have a splinter in your finger that hurts every time you use it or touch it? It will not stop bothering you until you find it and remove it. Much the same with stress.

And remember, a plan has to be flexible. But it also needs structure; you need a problem, a desired end result, the steps and resources you will need to reach that desired end result, and a schedule with milestones to measure your progress. You also need to regularly status your progress and effectiveness, and adjust the actions, resources, or schedule as necessary to adapt to miscalculations or changes. A rigid structure with the discipline to execute it and the flexibility to adjust it as required.

And once your mind knows you are working on it and have a plan of attack to eliminate, or at least minimize it, your mind will move off to worry about other things. Because we tend to focus and worry the most about things we fear most. And what things do we often fear most? Those things we think we can’t do anything about, or aren’t doing anything about. Things that tend to paralyze us because we don’t know what to do, how to do it, or how to begin. But taking that first step of action is exactly the same to our brain as is turning on the lights in a dark basement where we’ve heard a noise and are convinced something horrible is lurking down there; the light reveals the truth and the fictional part of the fear instantly diminishes. Being brave does not mean you aren’t afraid, that you don’t have fear. It means that you go do what you need to do despite of the fear, of being afraid. As Mandela said: “Courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.”

So dear reader, as we continue our journey through winter with spring now just 44 days away, turn on that light in your brain, collect those piles of fears, stresses, worries, and concerns, spread them out on a table and start sorting. And once the “workable” pile is sorted down to those precious few, make you plan and get to work reducing or even eliminating them. I wish you great success, and please, if time permits you, send me some feedback on how you did and how it worked for you. Stay well!!

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