We live in a world in which millions in one part get vaccinated and speak of a return to normal whilst COVID devastation tears apart the families of India and elsewhere. I have felt overwhelmed by the inequities of the world we have created and the pain of the moment. In my coaching work, I am acutely aware of how hard this time is for all of us. It is tiring, oftentimes heartbreaking.
Today, I am breaking with our usual format to attempt to find a way through this moment. I hope it helps in some way.
In Tayari Jones’ Silver Sparrow, Chaurisse observes her mother’s pain saying, “I knew by then that I would never have my mother back, not in the way I had known her all my life. When you have seen your mother shattered, there’s no putting her back together. There will always be seams, chipped edges, and clumps of dried glue. Even if you could get her to where she looks the same, she will never be stronger than a cracked plate. I climbed into bed beside her and closed my eyes, but I never relaxed enough to forget who I was and what had happened to us.”
Later in the novel, her sister Dana reflects that “People say, that which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. But they are wrong. What doesn’t kill you, doesn’t kill you. That’s all you get. Sometimes, you just have to hope that’s enough.”
In his book The Examined Life, psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz tells the story of his patient Thomas.
Thomas was nine. He had been expelled from school after arriving carrying a large knife saying that he wanted to murder a little girl in his class.
For the first three months that Grosz saw him, Thomas would swear at him, threaten him, jump on furniture, and kick the door and walls. Grosz reflects that none of it truly troubled him. He knew that Thomas was trying to provoke, but to what end he didn’t yet know. Then one day Thomas spat at him. Grosz felt a flash of anger which he tried to hide, but Thomas must’ve intuited the response. He kept spitting at him. Every day, for a year and a half.
Grosz discussed with his therapist how stuck he felt.
She advised, “Think of the deadlock as an obstacle that the two of you have created. What purpose does it serve you?”
As he reflected, he realized that Thomas was seeking to provoke the anger, because Grosz’s anger meant that he held an expectation that Thomas could be different to who he was, that he could be different.
In provoking Grosz’s anger, Thomas found hope. And in not resolving the impasse, Grosz too kept his own hope alive that he could help.
In their next session together, Grosz explored this idea with Thomas. He asked Thomas if he is provoking his anger because, “If I’m angry, it means I still believe that we can fix what’s broken”, and then asks, “Can you tell me what’s broken?”
Thomas responded, “My brain’s broken, stupid.”
He went on to speak about his sisters, “they can do all these things I can’t do ‘cos their brains work. Mine’s wrecked.”
He asked Grosz, “Isn’t that really, really sad?”
Grosz responded, “Yes, it is really, really sad.”
Two days later Thomas spat at Grosz one more time and then never again. Thomas is now a grown man. He lives with one of his sisters and has regular work. He phones Grosz a few times a year.
Grosz reflects that, “Looking back, it is clear now that Thomas and I were at an impasse because neither of us could bear the thought that he was irreparably damaged. And it was only when we were both able to be sad, to despair because we couldn’t fix what was broken, that his spitting stopped serving a purpose for us and we were able to move forward.”
In a recent episode of the OnBeing podcast, host Krista Tippet speaks to Christine Runyan, a clinical psychologist, professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and founder of Tend.Health a provider of mental healthcare for health professionals. They discuss what this pandemic has meant for our emotional health, how our nervous systems have responded and practical actions to take in order to cope better.
Runyan reflects that there is enormous power in naming what we are experiencing. She says that in naming it, we allow ourselves to understand our experience “as a human response to the conditions that are, rather than something wrong with me.”
The social isolation and distancing coupled to the losses we all experience, fear and witness mean that our autonomic nervous system – our fight or flight system – is in a heightened state of arousal.
Our autonomic nervous system is primitive, it is designed to ensure survival. This system gets triggered differently for each of us, depending on our histories and contexts, and so we all cope with the moment differently.
The constant triggering of our autonomic nervous system bypasses our thinking, rational brain – the part of us that allows for considered action that creates possibilities. By pausing to reflect, understand and name our experience, we activate our thinking brain. We return ourselves to the possibility of choosing, of connecting, of creating.
As Thomas experienced, in naming his pain and frustration, he was able to move to behaviours that helped him build a better life.
So, whilst there may “always be seams, chipped edges, and clumps of dried glue” and perhaps what has happened may not make us stronger, perhaps by pausing, understanding, and naming all that we experience and witness, we can enable new possibilities.
As I end I realise today’s letter is not just about this moment.
In all our lives we will experience periods of impasse. It may help you to ask, ‘How is this serving me?’ And then, “What might I do differently?” and “How could I name this in a way that opens possibility?”
Our lives will have pain. There will be times when there is breakage. Perhaps pausing and naming, may open a different way to relate to the loss, allowing some integration, some learning, some healing.
We have different histories. This moment impacts differently, as indeed do all moments.
Thomas spat both because he knew it angered Grosz and because he wanted to hold to hope. What seems nonsensical to us may be rooted in someone’s past. How can we see beyond the moment to seek connection?
If this letter helped you today, please share it with those people you care about.
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PS: You’ll recall that last year Emma Strydom, the wonderful CCO at Ideas4Good, helped magic up a visual identity for me. It had you all speaking of Dali, Rothko and other august names. A year down the line, Anne Hoefinghoff has been helping me integrate Emma’s work more seamlessly. Today’s letter design reflects that evolution as does my Instagram. I’d love to know what you think.
(This letter was first published on 2 May 2021)