Navigating our troubled times

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From the St. Paul Pioneer Press Opinion page, June 7, 2020

Protestors with masks on freeways, a fuel truck bearing down, horn blaring. It’s one of many powerful images reflecting the surreal state of affairs in 2020.

For months we’ve been told to quarantine, furlough employees, avoid family, friends, churches and gyms, all to protect personal and public health.

We complied, for the call to honor the social compact was persistent and persuasive.

Thousands put funerals on hold. We postponed weddings and vacations; pivoted to online learning and working from home.

We waited.

Two weeks ago, the curtain was poised to lift. Restaurants, salons and places of worship were on the verge of re-opening. We were nibbling at the edges of a renaissance.

Then on the day we remember those who died while serving our country, one man’s actions and others’ inaction ignited a chain reaction around the world.

Our fragile social compact shattered after we watched a 9-minute video shot on a cellphone.

A horrific scene supplanted a pandemic, triggering different responses depending on our life experiences.

Previously compliant shut-ins catapulted from their homes.

Daily briefings shifted from COVID deaths to arson and systemic racism.

I fear we haven’t seen the end of the unrest, for, as horrific as the circumstances of George Floyd’s death are, the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt the elements of the crimes of murder and aiding and abetting murder.

And here’s a stark truth that might be lost in the roar of outrage, the river of tears.

It will take months of hard work to prosecute these charges, as Attorney General Keith Ellison has said.

Our visceral reaction to a horrific act is not enough to convict a person of murder.

In the past week, anger, angst, and tears have flowed.

Social distancing concerns became secondary to making space for citizens to exercise their First Amendment rights to assemble and speak out.

Thousands threw COVID caution to the wind and headed to the streets, many with masks, some without.

Young, old, black, white, and brown, citizens marched. A few looted and burned, while others watched, eyes glued to screens, afraid to watch, afraid not to watch.

Would arsonists torch our homes, our vehicles, our businesses? Would armed law enforcement personnel station themselves outside our doors? Would anyone else die?

As information, misinformation, and disinformation flooded traditional and social media, we were left to grapple with frightening and conflicting accounts of who was decimating our cities.

As I witnessed both the grief and goodness of strangers, a question festered: Now what?

Image courtesy of Pixabay

We were already living in a cloud of uncertainty. The cloud has become bigger and more threatening, filled with complex issues that are close to some, more distant for others.

We’re still waiting, now in fear and wonderment, as work has shifted from protestors and protectors to prosecutors and change agents.

Massive reforms are promised. Will they work? Will they effect meaningful and lasting change?

We’ll listen to daily reports on testing, hospitalizations, and deaths and, depending on the COVID numbers, learn whether months of precautions and sacrifices were warranted. We’ll see whether previously compliant citizens and business owners will continue to follow COVID rules.

Emotions are raw, coping mechanisms stretched.

How are we to manage? People with – and without — mental health challenges such as anxiety and depressive mood disorder were already struggling.

I posed these questions to Janet Yeats, licensed marriage and family therapist and specialist in trauma, grief, and loss.

None of us is dealing with the pandemic or the Floyd death in a vacuum, she said. We’ve all brought our life experiences, stressors, and emotions to the present situation.

We need to offer ourselves some grace, permission to acknowledge we are struggling, even if we’re impacted in different ways.

“Situations like this just remind us of how much control we don’t have,” Yeats said. “To develop a practice in our lives that focuses on what we can do and how we can control ourselves becomes very critical because so much is outside our control.”

The best place to start is with self-care, she said, though in troubled times, self-care is often the first thing we abandon. And, while we’re quick to encourage others to take care of themselves, we might not walk the talk.

“We must engage in some sort of self-care activity every day to balance out the situations in the world that threaten to shatter us,” Yates said.

“Part of the ability to take care of ourselves includes being able to recognize all the ways in which we’re hurting right now. It’s going to be different for everyone,” Yeats said.

Fear and stress can paralyze us. Instead of berating ourselves because we couldn’t get our act together, she encourages compassion.

There is no one prescription for self-care. It might involve meditating, creating art or walking the dog. It might be delivering groceries to families who can’t purchase their own. It could mean limiting time on social media, or listening to music.

There’s power in recognizing that, while we can’t always control what happens around us, we can control our response.

“I think that’s ultimately the message that I would want to put forward,” Yates said. “What can you do for yourself? How can you respond in your truest, best self?”

~~~If you enjoyed this piece and would like to read more of Caryn’s work, you can sign up to receive her columns by email. You can also purchase a signed copy of her award-winning memoir, “Bitter or Better: Grappling With Life on the Op-Ed Page,” filled with inspiration and insight on living the “better” choice, here.