Remember to Cry

Amid the pandemic, some of us may not have as many close, personal interactions with other people as we did in years past. For extroverts, it may be easy to empathize with people when you can look into their eyes and see their emotions so plainly.

I wouldn’t know about that part; I’m an ambivert, and I’ve always related best to introverts.

A few days ago, I received a beautiful card from a dear friend. Their words moved me to tears, and I could feel in those words the ache of being so far apart from so many that we love, and for so long now. It’s easy for me to read emotions on paper, and my friend’s pain and hope and love and fear all came through clearly.

But the bad news plays non-stop these days, and it’s all too easy to grow numb. To survive, sometimes we must harden our hearts just enough that we don’t bleed our emotions all over everything we touch. It seems that most people only have so much to give before we are exhausted. Without some good things happening around us, the one-sided cycle can build up enough momentum to crush the fragile hearts of all but the strongest among us.

Of course there is still beauty to be found — or made — in these sometimes endless days. Even with a pandemic raging across the burning planet of struggling people, there is still some good news. But you must dig for it, or for the peace to create some of it yourself. And how do you do that when your heart is growing numb?

Luckily, the answer to that is easier to find than it may seem: CRY. Yes, I can explain.

Cry. Not with helpless rage. Not in rolling fear. Help yourself to cry again. Find a song, a painting, a sculpture, a photo, a portrait of someone you love (and perhaps lost), a poem, or some prose. Anything that can soften the frozen barrier around your heart can save you from apathy and the terrifying disconnect that can creep over even the greatest empathizers when the world becomes too much.

For me, I keep close a small collection of poems and cards, some long messages with friends, and a short, specific playlist of songs. Any one of these might help if I’m just starting to slip, but sometimes I have to run a gauntlet through them to crack the shell I didn’t realize had grown so thick.

I consider myself pretty self-aware, and I can usually tell when I’m getting overwhelmed. Detecting when I’m growing disconnected is harder, but I can pick up the signs for that as well. Once I recognize the disconnect, I have to carve out at least a few minutes to immerse myself in these memories and works of art. Not just the most painful memories I have, but those specific mementos I keep to evoke a nostalgia of someone I love who is too far away, or a poem or song by an artist I love that expresses their pain. Really swimming in that, I can usually let myself get carried completely away into the art or the memory. With some of these experiences in succession, eventually I start to cry again.

Have you heard the advice that the best way to forget your own problems is to get involved in someone else’s? The reason that works is that it invokes your empathy. It opens your heart to someone else’s struggle. When their trouble is not the same kind as yours (or at least not currently), it can stir a rush of selfless love that refreshes those cold, drained channels inside of you. And that compassion can give you the courage to face their pain with calm dignity and the strength to lend your aid in whatever way you are able.

When you find a way to draw out your own empathy, whether the subject of your unconditional love is at hand or not, you gain a perspective that is just outside of your own struggles. Even that small distance can make yours seem more manageable, and that can mean the difference between wandering listlessly through your day, cold and detached, or engaging fully with everything you do, bringing even a little bit of hope and light to all you touch (distantly or not).

That difference is as tangible as life and death, or daylight and the darkest night. And it can save you from yourself when you question how you can continue to work effectively, connect with the people in your life, or maybe even get out of bed on the most difficult days.

For most of us, the highs can outweigh the lows, whether you love to mix with people, or whether your plants and your pets are the only ones you want to see most days.

Open your heart as much and as often as you can, and I promise you, life will be more rewarding because of it. More difficult? Certainly. But far more worthwhile.

Just remember to cry, and you will know you are truly alive.

We all need some little victories

Five months of quarantine, working at home or not working at all, and we have had good and bad days. But then wildfires grew from seasonal to terrible, and we’ve been stuck inside all day and night due to the pervasive smoke in the tiny backyard that was once our safety valve to the cabin fever that I know is challenging so many people these days.

Don’t get me wrong for a second: I know how lucky we are to HAVE a safe home at all, especially during wildfire season and this pandemic. It’s just that we had adapted fairly well to the temporary strictures of limited grocery shopping, extra cleaning and caution, and suspending literally everything else we wanted to do lately. We KNOW we’re lucky.

But when even the tiny bit of equilibrium we had maintained was spun off kilter, things started to break down again.

Last night, I realized that maybe what we need are some little victories. Even tiny little benchmarks can give you a sense of accomplishment, and when everything seems to be in stasis — when it seems like we are constantly holding our breath, all day, every day — having something to look toward and work toward, however small, might be the next rope we can cling to, to pull ourselves back toward solid footing again.

Months ago, I made a list of things I wanted to do each day, each week, and each month. The daily items were small: a few minutes of stretches in the morning, 4000 steps on my cheap pedometer (a relative measure, but one that made me feel sufficiently active), a free Duolingo lesson each day, and a personal goal to clear out my email newsletters whether I read them or not, so that I didn’t have even that miniscule burden piling up on me. The daily goals were fair, but even those slipped at times. My weekly and monthly targets didn’t even come close.

Fast-forward to the present, and we will have to see what tiny things we can do now, even all indoors if that’s what it takes. I don’t care how simple they are: anything we can work on and potentially check off a list, even a list of only one or two things at first, can be the difference between focus and floundering. And focusing on something that is possible, can make the difference between overwhelm and holding it all together.

Holding it all together for a few hours gives you hope. Doing so for a few days gives you momentum. And keeping up that momentum for a few weeks means you have formed a new habit, and THAT can bring you new equilibrium.

As people talk about “finding a new normal” in pandemic times, I prefer to talk about a new equilibrium. Things will never go “back to normal”, and with all of the challenges facing us as a country and a world today, that can only be a good thing. We don’t need to go BACK to how things were; we need to find a way to deal with life NOW, for today and tomorrow.

When we focus on the moment, things don’t always feel so overwhelming. Once we can manage today, we may find that we can spare some energy for new ideas, for tomorrow, and for our fellow humans everywhere. And that is a balance that we can use to help ourselves and each other, to make things a little better each day.

Big steps come after. Today, put a little victory or two in sight, and start with that.