A wish for the future
According to Gretchen Rubin, Robert Benchley said ‘there are two kinds of people in the world, those who divide people into two groups and those who don’t.’ I’d say I fit into the latter group, and that’s because I like to think that each person is unique and that the world is not black and white. If the world is more complex than black and white, then people must also be more complex and, therefore, not easily reducible into one of two groups.
That said, as we move around in times that have been described in many ways – unprecedented, uncertain, unimaginable, strange, interesting – I notice that there are different ways people seem to respond to crises. There are those who deny there is a crisis and those who panic because there is a crisis. Both of these responses seem to be different versions of self-preservation reactions. In fact, there are many behaviours that fall into the category of self-preservation (e.g., selling stocks before the bottom falls out of the stock market; making sure your family has everything they need while they shelter in place for some unknown period of time; making plans and developing a strict structure to the coming days and weeks). No matter how one person reacts, there will be another person who believes the opposite. Just look at the judgement so freely meted out on social media – judgements of peoples’ instinctual self-preservation reaction.
For some, though, self-preservation means helping others. Practically anyone in a helping profession has an instinctual response to put another first. So, our ‘key workers’ just now, are those who – every day – walk right into uncertainty to do what they can. While our view of who ‘key workers’ are may be shifting, this doesn’t negate the fact that many people, pandemic or not, opt to work in professions that challenge them daily to walk into uncertainty and danger. Paramedics, fire fighters, those in the military, search and rescue volunteers are now being joined by doctors, nurses, social workers, teachers, grocery store workers, cleaners, delivery drivers and many others. And before the U.K. government enforced a lockdown, many of us chose to do our part to help others – we chose to walk into the uncertainty of the circumstances – by sheltering in-place.
As I continue to work remotely, it occurred to me recently that what people do in counselling – what, in effect, I am asking people to do when they come to see me for help – is to walk directly into uncertainty. I’m asking them to risk their strategies of self-preservation, which no longer seem to be working for them and to head into the danger zone, which for some might look like fire, for others, a deep, dark, inescapable hole and for a few, unspeakable pain. It could be the case that I am asking a “self-preserver” to become a “walk into the unknown-er;” in fact, I’m willing to bet that many times I am asking just that. But because I am in the business of change, I understand that this journey feels extremely uncomfortable or even impossible for some. So I go gently and offer ways to help navigate the difficulty of change while also doing my utmost to accept each person in front of me as unique, “unsystematisable” and capable of moving beyond any category.
Currently, I feel fortunate that I’ve been grappling myself with change and the unknown for years. I’ve been thinking, reading and examining my own reactions to uncertainty in an effort to manage change and uncertainty with more grace. And, when relevant, I bring these ideas into my work. My own work with uncertainty has not only enhanced my ability to use these concepts in my practice, but to some degree, it has also allowed me to stand back and watch what has been happening in the world; to watch with interest and curiosity the different ways people are reacting to extremely uncertain times. I must admit, some days watching with curiosity has been easier than others and some days it has been nigh-on impossible, but it has certainly got me thinking.
The conclusion, at least at this point in time, that I’ve reached from all this thinking is that right now – and maybe for much longer than we’ve been aware of – we are all in some way falling into the unknown. My experience suggests that falling into the unknown is not a comfortable place to be. Look around you at how people have reacted to this pandemic. Who do you know that has not been impacted in any way by this new and invisible threat? Is there anyone whose reaction has surprised you? Have you been surprised at your own reactions?
This is what happens when we fall into the unknown. We can surprise ourselves or be surprised by others. As much as we may have grown, developed and become self-aware, it’s not unheard of to retreat back to previous, less-than-helpful behaviours that we thought we had outgrown, especially in times of stress or in response to fear. It’s not uncommon to react with high levels of anxiety, to feel more sad or hopeless than we think we need to feel or to just not know what to do with our fear. But, because we’re all in this together, it seems ok, right now, if we’re not feeling ok. If we’re lucky, we understand that things will not always be the way they are right now and we can manage our fears and uncertainty with hope for the future and an attitude of kindness towards ourselves. (And maybe that’s the reaction that surprises us!)
But what about those people for whom fear and uncertainty feels unmanageable even in “precedented”, certain, easily imaginable, pretty regular and un-interesting times? Naturally, right now, their feelings will be exacerbated. And as important as it is that these people get the support that they need, both now and into the future, this it is not what I’ve been pondering. What I’ve been contemplating is that these people who struggle with their mental health, these ‘one-in-four’, must feel the discomfort of walking into danger most of the time. They are uncertain, scared and full of doubt. They are falling into the unknown, but unlike the way it is now, with everyone falling in the same way, people with mental health difficulties tend to fall into the unknown, threatened by their own invisible attacker, while everyone else around them seems to be ok. And sometimes we tell them to ‘buck up’ or suggest ways they can make themselves better, never really trying to understand how they are feeling. We believe that they don’t have a reason to feel unsure or uncertain, so we try to tell them that everything’s ok – even though for them it isn’t.
How would you respond to someone right now, if they were to tell you that everything’s ok – or that everything will be ok? Will that automatically make you feel better? I’m willing to bet that it wouldn’t. In fact, it may even make you feel worse; it may make you feel silly about worrying or feeling however you feel right at this very moment about what’s going on.
So as we come out of the other side of this pandemic, which I do believe we will and I am hopeful that this will happen sooner rather than later, I wonder if we’ll be able to remember this – that no matter what anyone says about how things will be, things don’t feel very nice just now. How soon will we forget the impact the coronavirus has had on our every day lives? How soon will we forget that we felt scared or anxious and had to work each day to keep ourselves going without loosing the plot?
If we can remember how we are feeling now, maybe in the future we’ll be able to sit with others who feel scared and anxious without trying to fix their feelings for them or tell them there is nothing to worry about or that everything will be ok. We may even develop an ability to fall with them into their unknown so that they might have a better chance of learning to live with faith that they can be ok, even when they are scared they might never be ok. I’m pretty certain that attitude can help people heal. It can help every one of us become one of those who walks into uncertainty, danger or pain and helps others manage their uncertainty or pain, without discounting the feelings themselves. It may help us help ourselves and others to find glimmers of hope and faith to keep us going – perhaps giving someone the lifeline they need at the time that they need it.
My favourite quotes since I began exploring how to manage uncertainty are these:
“Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.” – Desmond Tutu
“Faith is a place of mystery, where we find the courage to believe in what we cannot see and the strength to let go of our fear of uncertainty.” – Brené Brown
And so that is my wish for the future. That we don't have to fall into one of two categories: someone that turns inward in the face of danger OR someone that turns outward in the face of danger. That we all become better able to sit with pain and uncertainty, even if we ourselves don't feel the same. That we will share hope and faith – in ourselves and in others.
May we all be able to sit in stillness, falling into this unknown for a little bit longer, with hope and faith so we can all come out stronger, healthier and more understanding in time.