When your six-year-old is first learning to ride a two-wheeler, you pay close attention to her progress. You track every wobble. When she starts to go over, you swoop in and catch her. You’re able to do that because you’ve been paying close attention to her every move.
The same approach doesn’t work when we’re watching a global pandemic. Watching, for example, the economy’s every gyration doesn’t position us to be helpful in any way – to the economy, or to ourselves. There’s no swooping in to catch it when it looks like it’s going over.
Hovering moment-by-moment over the latest news updates amplifies the on-edge, nervous state of mind we already have. Checking, checking, checking moment-by-moment for better news, for increasing risk, for confirmation of our worst fears contributes to mental agitation, rather than relieving it.
Of course we need to know whether restaurants are closed and banks are open, where needed supplies are available, if schools are open, etc. But checking for updates every few minutes rarely yields useful information. Instead, it makes us more freaked out, and that’s a useless state of mind – always, and definitely now.
We’re very accustomed to reacting to problems with frustration, anger or even fear. The bigger the problem, the bigger the reaction. And now we all find ourselves in the midst of a sea of global-scale problems that threaten health, livelihood, and the future. Do global-scale problems inspire hysteria? Indeed they do.
But is hysteria helpful?
It may be tempting to dismiss that question.
What difference does it make if hysteria is helpful or damaging? If it’s a response we can’t control, then hysteria just is, and whether it’s helpful or not is sort of beside the point.
That assumes we are powerless to control how we react, and since that’s the case, we shouldn’t try. Hysteria, anger, rage – they’re all permitted because they’re human nature. Is that it?
This is a good time to notice something about problems small and large. Every problem we encounter exists in two ways – outside ourselves and inside ourselves. There’s the thing that’s happening, and then there’s how I feel about it. They’re two separate things, but we often don’t see them that way.
There is, for example, the fact that my car won’t start; that exists outside myself. Then there’s my state of mind about the car: annoyed, impatient, frustrated. We usually fuse together car won’t start/annoyed as if they must go together, as if it’s impossible to respond to a car that won’t start with a mind that’s amused, or simply unbothered.
But it is possible. There’s no rule that says we must be irritated when the car won’t start. We get irritated because it’s a mental habit, not because it’s a requirement.
Now we’re facing something far more challenging than a car that won’t fire up. You may think that a global calamity is no time to diddle around with one’s state of mind, there’s really no more useful thing we can do than to develop states of mind that aren’t angry and anxious. Anger and anxiety may be normal, but terribly difficult situations call on us to do things that aren’t normal, such as reach inside, develop perspective and cultivate fortitude.
Perspective About Problems
It’s tempting – and normal – to run around trying to fix things when they go wrong, trying to get things to function the way we think they should so that we can relax, keep going, keep doing what we do. Yet one might argue that fixing the things around us – even when they are somewhat fixable – is always a temporary repair. Things will derail again. They always do. Even if it were possible to swoop in and catch the economy when it wobbles dangerously, we wouldn’t be able to stabilize it forever. It’d be a miraculous, but temporary, save. The economy would derail again. (Remember 2008?)
We know this about life – that it’s unpredictable, problematic, can’t be trusted. We even have sayings about that. When things are going well, we say we’re “just waiting for the other shoe to drop.” Because we know it will. After a few weeks at the new job, we know “the honeymoon period” will end soon because they always do.
On one level, we know that problems are completely normal and expected, but we live as if they’re abnormalities interrupting our otherwise smooth and easy lives, which would be just great without all those infernal problems.
As if we’ve ever known a time like that.
Here we are now faced with enormous problems, knowing that there’s not much we can do to make them go away faster or to make them less severe. It’s unlikely most of us can alter the external world to fix these specific problems. But we can alter our internal one, that is, our state of mind.
That may not be something you think about every day. Or at all.
How’s my state of mind?
How’s my state of mind affecting my ability to function?
Can I improve my state of mind?
It’s not what most of us say to ourselves on a regular basis. But we should, now more than ever.
Strung out, frazzled, distraught, impatient – all are states of mind that make it difficult to listen, wait, put up with inconvenience, and make good decisions. We don’t listen to other people, and we don’t help them, when we’re impatient. We crack more easily under hardship when we’re frazzled and distraught. Resilience and strength come not from distress but from calm. Being calm isn’t a result of circumstances; it’s a cause of circumstances. Ask anyone who’s endured difficult medical treatments: once they accept that it’s painful, they’re less distraught, they’re calmer, and the treatment is a lot easier. Rejecting what’s happening – No! It can’t be, I refuse to accept! Why me? – only makes it more difficult.
Your state of mind is something you can control. You may not think so, since we have lots of practice at not doing so. But you can. Start by seeing the difference between the situation (car won’t start) and the state of mind (annoyed). They don’t have to go together. Apply this logic to every problem. Situation: stock market down; state of mind: acceptance. (If you’re hysterical about the stock market being down, will that bring it back up?)
Don’t wait for everything to be resolved so that you can be calm and unannoyed. Get calm and unannoyed by training your mind to be calm and unannoyed. Try being quiet and detached for ten minutes every day. No distractions, no music, no coffee, no cat in your lap. Just detach for ten minutes. It may not sound like much time, but learning to be calm and unannoyed for ten minutes every day is the first step to learning to be that way for thirty minutes, then an hour. You can’t do fifty pushups until you can do one. Training your state of mind is a lot like training your body. You build strength gradually, and then you keep it in shape.
We’re all facing a lot of uncertainty, inconvenience, isolation, and potentially significant hardship. Those circumstances can easily fling us into dark, frantic states of mind. But there’s an alternative, which is that we can recognize that the state of mind we bring to these situations is just as important as the practical steps we take.
Susan de la Vergne is a writer and communication instructor who worked in software development and Information Technology leadership for a very long time. Susan is the author of Engineers on Stage: Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals. Find more of her Cogent Communicator columns here.