By Charles Herrick, MD
I can think of no better lines when preparing for this coming winter in the time of COVID-19. They come from the beginning of Shakespeare’s “Richard III” and speak to the hope that the worst is past and better days are ahead. But these lines are ironic, because Richard is speaking about the fact his family has just come to power and he is about to embark on a spree of murder and mayhem to secure the throne for himself.
We are now entering our own winter of discontent with both a political and viral upheaval. I can think of no better time to reconsider these lines in terms of a hopeful future.
Hope is a concept we must learn to cultivate as we brace for shorter and colder days ahead. But how does one feel hopeful without feeling like a fool given all we are reading and witnessing in the news and social media? To learn how to cultivate this, I encourage you to think about the following ideas to remain hopeful.
First, remind yourself that “things change.” Recall how many times in your life when you felt your world was ending, and yet you are here today to both recall those times and share them with others. They remind you of where you have been and how the world moved on. They give you strength in knowing terrible things come and go, but you persist. They now serve as important chapters that provide meaning and value and form the story of your life.
Be Here and Now
The second idea is there is only the “here and now.” The past and future are just products of your unique ability to remember the past and project into the future, and you are entirely alone in that. The rest of the world is indifferent to it. This may seem contradictory when I tell you to draw on your past adversity as a path toward hope, but in fact it is not.
Anxiety and fear are always about the past and future, fretting about previous misdeeds and worrying about catastrophes ahead. But just as your memories of bad experiences show you there was an end to it and the world moved on, living in the here and now is an attempt to focus on how things are at this moment in your life; if they are good, ride with them; if they are bad, remind yourself this too will pass.
These two ideas are simple in concept but hard in execution. Do not think for a minute I have mastered it in practice. I lose sleep over similar worries and struggle to practice maintaining my own sense of hope. But that is just it; it requires practice. Practice means conscious effort is required to develop the skill. Fortunately, there is a way to make it easy through the practice of storytelling.
You Control the Story of your Life
Storytelling is what makes us human. All our thoughts and feelings, all our actions are in the form of a story we tell ourselves and others. But here is another irony; although we love stories and readily lose ourselves in them to escape our present miseries, we would never actually want to live through them. Furthermore, what we dream about would never really be interesting to us as compelling stories. “They were born, made rich, found love and lived happily ever after.” Boring!
“Richard III,” a story about a murderous tyrant who finally gets his comeuppance (“My kingdom for a horse!” he yells as he is about to die). We would never wish that on ourselves; yet, we still love to escape to it. Living an easy, rich life may sound like a dream come true but leaves us empty of stories. In the end, stories are all we have.
Choose your Narrative
Congratulate yourself. You are living in a time, however difficult, that you will one day share with your children and grandchildren about how you experienced great adversity and upheaval and are here today to tell the tale.
For that reason, you need to start scripting the story now. You may not be in control of all the events affecting you, but you have complete control over how those events shape your story. That is where hope comes in.
There is a narrative being told by the media that we are not only amid a COVID-19 pandemic but a mental health one, too. Yes, these times are stressful, but it is up to you to tell your story of how you faced the stress, and that will depend on what narrative you choose.
You can choose a narrative that your feelings are at best unhealthy and, at worst, an impending mental health crisis that may require professional help. You can choose an alternative narrative, one where your feelings are your mind’s normal response to stress. If they linger, it is your mind’s normal memories forming because of that stress.
You may call them scars — the body’s repair mechanism — and are no more pathological if they exist on the body than in the mind. More importantly, they can help punctuate your story as markers of pride and reminders of your strength for having endured.
Life is too Important…
I leave you with one last irony, a quote from Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde: “Life is too important to be taken seriously.”
We live in important times. We are all part of something much bigger than ourselves. Do not take yourself or anyone else too seriously.
See yourself as privileged to be able to participate in an important experience in your life and create a story of hope in the face of adversity. For that reason, be forgiving, be generous, smile and laugh. Notice the sun still shines, snow can be beautiful and the seasons always change. Spring will come, no matter what!
Dr. Charles Herrick is the chair of psychiatry for Nuvance Health.