On our different responses to adversity

responses to adsversityWe all have different responses to adversity, and none of them are “wrong”.

I write this post a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, sparked by the personal experience of an old friend, psychotherapist and author Nancy Leach. She shared the following:

This was the journey

I thought I had successfully managed my emotional wellbeing through almost a year and a half separation from my daughter and grandson, who live in California. I was deeply sad at times, but phone calls, texting and FaceTime usually took the edge off and so I carried on. I was grateful that I and my Toronto family were safe and well, and that I not only love my husband but like him and enjoy his company. The addition of an 8-week-old puppy just before Christmas kept us both incredibly busy and provided many moments of unbridled joy.

Then there was an emergency in the extended California family and in response I hopped on a plane. Twelve hours and two flights later, my daughter and I fell into each other’s arms. I was not surprised to feel a tsunami of love and relief; I was well aware that I was suffering without physical proximity. But I expected the pain of the past year to resolve itself quickly. I’m someone who feels intensely, and I tend to mine feeling for insight, so I figured I was pretty-much in touch with my inner state.

It therefore took me by surprise, when a few days later we stopped on the road to talk over the fence with a neighbour. “You must be so happy to be together after all this time” said she. A lump suddenly appeared in my throat and tears came to my eyes. “How was it to be in airports?” she asked, to which I replied, “It was a little crazy, but I didn’t care…” Deep breath as I struggled to let the grief move through me. “I would have walked here.” Sheltered in the soft and deep silence of a redwood forest and in the company of the two I had missed so much, my very cells were releasing the cumulative sadness of more than a year.

It wasn’t until at least a week later that I felt I had fully “metabolized” the loss of a pandemic shutdown. My daughter is of very similar sensibility and often conceptualizes and better articulates an experience we share. She commented that it was almost as if she had been gaslighting herself, telling herself she was okay when she was not.

Of course, we need to “carry on” even when conditions are far from optimal. But I’m sharing this because I wonder how many of us have convinced ourselves that because no family member has been incapacitated with Covid or we haven’t lost our job or aren’t devastated at the impact on a vulnerable child we are doing okay. My “suffering” was but a small fraction of what so many people have endured, and I simply didn’t realize how much ground I had lost.

Well, what is ground but an illusion? The deeper message is one that is always with us, but we don’t always want to acknowledge. When we investigate the nuances of our suffering, we come face to face with the reality that any certainty we feel about life is an illusion. Throughout our lives, our hopes, dreams, plans, even parts of us that identify with a certain narrative or condition must die. In these small deaths is a reminder of the fragility of the “self” we have so painstakingly built over this lifetime – and the reality of the impermanence of all things.

We don’t like to be reminded of our death and despite the passing of each moment, sadness or joy, we cling to all vestiges of what seems to endure. But in the end, we cannot change the law of impermanence; we can only strive to make peace with it. As the worst of the pandemic restrictions ease, I hope I won’t be too quick to put that insight behind me.

This was the journey

“I thought I had successfully managed my emotional wellbeing through almost a year and a half separation from my daughter and grandson, who live in California. I was deeply sad at times, but phone calls, texting and FaceTime usually took the edge off and so I carried on. I was grateful that I and my Toronto family were safe and well, and that I not only love my husband but like him and enjoy his company. The addition of an 8-week-old puppy just before Christmas kept us both incredibly busy and provided many moments of unbridled joy.

Then there was an emergency in the extended California family and in response I hopped on a plane. Twelve hours and two flights later, my daughter and I fell into each other’s arms. I was not surprised to feel a tsunami of love and relief; I was well aware that I was suffering without physical proximity. But I expected the pain of the past year to resolve itself quickly. I’m someone who feels intensely, and I tend to mine feeling for insight, so I figured I was pretty-much in touch with my inner state.

It therefore took me by surprise, when a few days later we stopped on the road to talk over the fence with a neighbour. “You must be so happy to be together after all this time” said she. A lump suddenly appeared in my throat and tears came to my eyes. “How was it to be in airports?” she asked, to which I replied, “It was a little crazy, but I didn’t care…” Deep breath as I struggled to let the grief move through me. “I would have walked here.” Sheltered in the soft and deep silence of a redwood forest and in the company of the two I had missed so much, my very cells were releasing the cumulative sadness of more than a year.

It wasn’t until at least a week later that I felt I had fully “metabolized” the loss of a pandemic shutdown. My daughter is of very similar sensibility and often conceptualizes and better articulates an experience we share. She commented that it was almost as if she had been gaslighting herself, telling herself she was okay when she was not.

Of course, we need to “carry on” even when conditions are far from optimal. But I’m sharing this because I wonder how many of us have convinced ourselves that because no family member has been incapacitated with Covid or we haven’t lost our job or aren’t devastated at the impact on a vulnerable child we are doing okay. My “suffering” was but a small fraction of what so many people have endured, and I simply didn’t realize how much ground I had lost.

Well, what is ground but an illusion? The deeper message is one that is always with us, but we don’t always want to acknowledge. When we investigate the nuances of our suffering, we come face to face with the reality that any certainty we feel about life is an illusion. Throughout our lives, our hopes, dreams, plans, even parts of us that identify with a certain narrative or condition must die. In these small deaths is a reminder of the fragility of the “self” we have so painstakingly built over this lifetime – and the reality of the impermanence of all things.

We don’t like to be reminded of our death and despite the passing of each moment, sadness or joy, we cling to all vestiges of what seems to endure. But in the end, we cannot change the law of impermanence; we can only strive to make peace with it. As the worst of the pandemic restrictions ease, I hope I won’t be too quick to put that insight behind me.”

Responses to adversity

Nancy’s experience resonated with me. Over the previous couple of weeks, I’d noticed feeling sad in a way I couldn’t quite put my finger on. After all, I was about to be fully vaccinated, and the future of our pandemic-beset world seemed a little brighter. Why was I now feeling sadder than during much of 2020?

Nancy’s post helped me understand that I, too, had delayed getting fully in touch with how I had been feeling about the effects of the pandemic.

I shared Nancy’s post and my reaction with my wife, Celia. We had a good discussion that illuminated for me our different responses to adversity. Throughout our 46 years together, Celia tends to respond emotionally more in the moment. While I, like Nancy perhaps, tend to bottle up feelings to some extent until some triggering experience brings them up.

Different responses can strengthen a relationship

Interestingly, Celia and I find that our different responses to adversity strengthen our relationship.

How? Well, I am better able to support her when something upsetting happens and she feels upset right away. And she is in a better place to support me when I am eventually able to fully experience feelings I’ve denied for a while.

In my experience, people often process their experiences unconsciously over time. I certainly do, as I shared in It wasn’t the lobster. We are more likely to remember the moment when we become conscious of our processing than the preceding weeks or months.

We all process experiences differently. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to do this, certainly regarding when we do the processing. Though, of course, if we never process a significant experience, its effect on our health and well-being may stay hidden, sometimes to our long-term detriment.

My response to Nancy

I wanted to thank Nancy, and let her know how her post had affected me. Here’s what I wrote:

“Dear Nancy,

Thank you. You helped me focus on and understand better some of the sadness welling up in me recently. Like your daughter, I had been telling myself I was OK when I was not.

I read your eloquent post to Celia, and we talked about how each of us has different responses to adversity. She responds to it more as it happens, and sometimes feels guilty about sharing her feelings about it, while I am trying to reassure her (and, to some extent, myself). You and I are similar, perhaps, in telling ourselves “this too will pass” and, perhaps, only allowing ourselves to fully get in touch with how we feel if or when it seems a respite or a less fraught future is on the way.

I’m moved to write a post about dealing with adversity that quotes your piece. Would that be OK with you?”

To which Nancy replied:

“I’m touched that you were so moved and of course you may quote freely! As I’ve read through some of these responses it just affirms how much each of us is carrying, individually and ultimately as a culture or even a world. A lot to get one’s heart around!! Love to you both…”

Thank you Nancy for helping me, and letting me share what you wrote with others.

Readers, if the spirit moves you, check out the other comments on Nancy’s Facebook post.

Image attribution: Government Press Office (Israel)

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