Last week, I received an email with a video a talk about how the solution to anxiety is to smile. After all, if you can’t do anything about what you’re worried about, why worry about it?
This week, I heard about a teenager who asked for advice about dealing with the coronavirus situation. The advice she received was that we would pull through this and we need to summon our courage.
The intention in these messages was to calm and reassure.
Yes, it is important to smile and to laugh. Vital to mental, emotional, and physical health.
And I agree 100% with the philosophy that we should focus on what we can control and influence. It’s something I teach and try my best to practice.
This situation will be uncomfortable for a while, but we will get through it, and we will emerge stronger. Perhaps we will emerge with more compassion and awareness as a collective.
This is not serving the public good.
This relentless focus on smile and everything will be fine is emotional bypassing: it ignores and suppress the very real emotions we need to process at this time.
This is damaging to adults, and especially to children.
We must do better.
Facing the Fears
Obviously, there is fear. Fear for our health and the health of those we love. Fear for our futures.
People are getting laid off in large numbers as businesses “temporarily” close. Some of those businesses — many of the small businesses that define and create community — will not be able to reopen.
We can sweep this into a generalized “fear of what will happen to the economy,” but the “economy” is an amorphous, impersonal, abstract concept. We are talking about real people whose lives have been affected. Our neighbors. Our friends. Our family.
Many people are afraid. Telling them to smile more, telling them that this will make them stronger, minimizes their emotions. It’s the opposite of holding space for the fear.
It is crucial at this time — at any time — that we create space for the fear to be seen, heard, and expressed. We must hold space for fear, not sweep it away with memes about smiling and growing stronger through adversity.
But this is not just about fear.
Acknowledging the Loss and Grief
If there’s one emotion that we avoid more than fear it is grief. A big component of anxiety is grief that is unexpressed and unacknowledged.
We must bring the grief out of the shadows.
Let’s start by acknowledging what we have lost — and will lose.
We have all lost something in this.
Even if we are lucky enough to avoid harsh symptoms, we will likely know someone who is hospitalized. We may know people who die from this.
Many people have lost jobs already. Businesses will fail.
We have lost our way of living as we knew it before. The community at the local yoga studio, the chit chat at the office, our routines that defined our days. Children and teens and young adults in school have been separated from friends, they’ve lost their sense of rhythm and routine they have at school.
These may seem minimal compared to losing a life, or losing your health, but they are not casual losses.
Most of all, similar to after 9/11, we have lost our sense of innocence.
A major pandemic sweeping through cities, infecting thousands of people. Hospitals overwhelmed by the influx of patients. Doctors forced to make hard decisions about who lives and who dies.
We have a story — a belief — that these things aren’t supposed to happen in the United States. This is a description of what third-world countries deal with.
And yet here we are.
We have lost the illusion of that we are invincible and immune.
This can happen here. It is happening.
Our Work in This Time
By now everyone is familiar with the need to maintain physical distance so we can flatten the curve.
There’s another big task for us to do.
Part of our work here is to hold space for the fear and loss and grief. We must allow it to be spoken and expressed, so that it doesn’t get buried inside.
We are not meant to hold these emotions within us. In fact, the emotions that we hold within create physical illness. Creating safe space for their expression is vital to our healing, as individuals and as a collective.
We are all going through a trauma right now, and we must create space to process it.
Those on the front lines in the hospitals will see inordinate amounts of death — likely more than they ever have in their careers until now. They will need space to express their grief.
This is Our Greatest Challenge
And this, perhaps, will be our greatest challenge in dealing with this coronavirus. We don’t talk about this in our culture.
We don’t teach our children how to speak of fear and loss and grief. Instead, we teach them to buck up and show courage. To smile. We teach them that crying is a sign of weakness.
Those who say to show courage are correct, in a way.
Courage is required here: courage to face the emotions that we often tuck away, to speak what needs to be spoken, and to hold space for all that arises.
If we can do this, as a collective, we will emerge stronger for it.