Updated: Jan 24
A small, invisible life form – which knows no creed, nor race, nor political affiliation - has come to our cities and towns. It has made inroads in every state in the nation and around the globe. It is a pandemic, from the Greek pan (all) + demos (people) - meaning it discriminates against no one, no matter where you call home.
Within the span of a few weeks, the way in which we live our lives has been upended. Things we took for granted require entirely new levels of focus and attention. Disinfecting every surface is a newly ingrained habit; proper hand washing is now, thankfully, de rigueur.
HOW IS THIS UNCERTAINTY MAKING US FEEL?
There are many reactions occurring in living rooms and kitchens across the globe right now, each of them somewhere on Kubler-Ross’ stages of grief spectrum. Depending on your individual situation, you may be in denial or anger, have moved on to bargaining, are just depressed, or are contemplating some form of acceptance.
Despite these concerns, hope is also rising. Hope is a universal human emotion that comes to the forefront during times of anxiety or fear. Is there a way to be fearless, to lead with hope instead? How can we banish our anxiety when our adversary is invisible, whether a virus or a personal concern?
Let us recall how far we have made it as a species. Over centuries we have crafted practices that allow us to calm fears of what might happen next: philosophies, faith, science, and more. These practices help by building mental resilience, meaning, and purpose into our lives.
RESILIENCE, MEANING, AND PURPOSE: A PATH TO WELLNESS
By mastering fear and embracing hope and reason we release ourselves from the anxiety feedback loop. Easier said than done, you say? Yes, it takes practice, as does anything you desire mastery over. Nietzsche spoke of not only accepting what fate hands us but loving it. How many of you can honestly say today that you “love” what has been placed in your path?
Remember, only you control your mind. You can choose your reaction to any bit of adversity. Train yourself with this new habit – respond to adversity with reasoned choice. “I can’t change this situation, so how can I ‘love’ it or turn it to my advantage?” This is how you begin strengthening the resiliency muscle.
So, what’s your training regimen? Aaron Antonovsky, a sociologist who studied salutogenics (solutions focused on health), said there are three core elements to building resiliency in yourself: comprehension, manageability, and meaning. Let’s examine each element further:
1) Comprehension is your ability to understand what is happening to you - personally, situationally - at present. Either alone, or with the help of others, being able to wrap your mind around the challenge and understand what is at stake is the first step in building your internal resilience.
2) Manageability is the next step in building resilience. By having a clear path forward on how to manage your adversity – what choices you will make, what are your next steps - you are giving your brain a set of reliable tools it can access for any future encounter. We humans are elastic in our ability to adapt to new circumstances. Reminding ourselves of this ability, that we’ve been here before; that we CAN manage anything the world tosses our way, is key for a resilient life.
3) Lastly – and this is the differentiator of a health-focused approach – is the ability to find Meaning in our circumstances. Building meaning can take many avenues. Some find meaning in belonging: to a group, to a cause, to a family. Some find meaning in stories – inspirational, truth or fiction, fairytale or fable. Transcendent or awe-inducing experiences can also produce a sense of meaning, along with feelings of altruism.
Meaning can also be derived from exploring our sense of purpose, something humanity has done for eons. Contemplative practices like meditation or forest bathing can help us think through these eternal questions. Why are we here? What is happening to our culture? What will the future look like?
Purpose can also come from actions that serve something greater than yourself. Explore ways to strengthen the relationships within your communities. Serving others – both human and more-than-human beings – is a positive step forward in an environment where we may feel disconnected, bolstering that much-needed optimism.
By consciously moving from behind our screens to in front of them – physically engaging with other persons and the more-than-human world by listening, conversing, and eventually, touching again – we will reignite the curative power of connection.
NATURE AS CATALYST
Now we turn our attention to the thing – the place – that can act as the catalyst bringing purpose, meaning, and inspiration together in one location. After all, getting outside is what is currently keeping us all sane.
This place can go by many names: nature, forest, or even wilderness. According to author Genevieve Morgan “The forest has long held a place in humans’ collective psyche as a source of wisdom, healing, and regeneration. It’s where the Buddha obtained Enlightenment, where St. Francis of Assisi preached to the birds, and where Luke Skywalker did handstands with Yoda.” What could be more timeless, and timely, during social isolation than nature’s mending medicine?
Humanity has been attracted to nature’s replenishing powers for eons. Scottish naturalist, J. Arthur Thomson picked up the mantle of Hippocrates (460-370 B.C.E.)and his theory of vis medicatrix naturae during a keynote address to the annual meeting of the British Medical Association in 1914, where he relayed this sentiment:
"What then do I mean tonight by the healing power of nature? I mean to refer to the way in which Nature ministers to our minds, all more or less diseased by the rush and racket of civilization, and helps to steady and enrich our lives. My first point is that there are deeply-rooted, old established, far-reaching relations between Man and Nature which we cannot ignore without loss... there would be less ‘psychopathology of everyday life’ if we kept up our acquaintance... we have put ourselves beyond a very potent vis medicatrix if we cease to be able to wonder at the grandeur of the star-strewn sky, the mystery of the mountains, the sea eternally new, the way of the eagle in the air, the meanest flower that blows, the look in a dog's eye."
After another one hundred plus years of the “rush and racket of civilization”, and a global disruption of life as we know it, this idea seems even more relevant now than when Thomson presented it.
Humanity is being re-awakened to something deep and transformational – even everyone’s favorite animated snowman – Olaf - knows this. In the latest Disney film, Frozen II, he expounds on the transformational power of the ‘enchanted forest’ – wondering what effect it is going to have on him and his friends.
Our physical environment is one of the most influential components of our health and wellbeing, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Society has spent too much time in a cultural and technological rain shadow – that parched and arid place on the leeward side of a mountain – while all around us the vitality of green places tries to gain our attention.
Humanity is currently rediscovering that landscapes are a relaxing place for building resiliency, finding purpose and meaning, and dialing into inspiration. Being outside more than may be typical we are seeing the positive effects on anxiety and lowered stress levels; we are noticing that we are kinder, more forgiving, and more empathetic when an entire community – or the entire world – reposes.
As author Garrett Graff concurs in his recent article for the Atlantic: “We must recognize…the collective-ness of this moment, and the mutual regard we all hold together for our communities and the most vulnerable among us in order to understand that the effect of turning off daily life, with the suddenness of a light switch, is actually as inspirational as it is a short-term hardship.”
Something else to ponder - after 9/11 NYC parks and botanical gardens had record numbers of visitors. We are seeing similar things today, as green spaces act as our collective release valve, places to ease our minds and bodies from our imposed isolation. Even if we’re walking 6 feet away from others, we’re out in the parks and gardens together.
WHERE ARE WE HEADED?
We find ourselves asking a lot more questions as of late – both practical and enlightened. What transformation is in store for us after this great reset? Perhaps we finally realize that acquiring more stuff, endless cases of social media-inspired FOMO, and working ourselves to death is not in our best interests. We will ascribe a deeper, more spiritual value to the surrounding landscape.
We will reclaim our connection to the forests, tapping into a relationship built up in our DNA over millions of years. We will realize that our green spaces play a significant role as the guardians of our mental health. We will understand that pushing too hard and too long in one direction will upend that balance.
Perhaps we will rediscover the simple joys of wandering slowly with others while noticing the profundity of the world. These refurbished relationships could foster a resurgence of community interdependence, of empathy, of kindness.
It will lead us, here in the United States, to reclaim and embrace our original national motto –
e pluribus unum – out of many, one.