As I’ve been considering what my family and I will need to both survive and thrive through the uncertainty of the next several weeks and months, I’m reminded of a truth I learned about myself recently.
Last winter, I discovered something that transformed my life: the power of an electric blanket. I have, of course, known about electric blankets, but it wasn’t until I happened to pick up an inexpensive electric throw and plug it in next to my couch that I realized how much comfort this item could offer. Not only did this blanket warm me, but it also significantly reduced the stress I was holding in my body. I hadn’t realized that I was in a near-perpetual state of tension due to my constant, low-level chill. Once I snuggled up with my blanket, however, I was able to relax, focus, and actually become more productive.
The realization called to mind Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a concept I learned about in one of my undergrad education classes. Maslow posits that a person’s basic needs must be met — food, shelter, safety — before embarking on tasks like learning, creative work, and pursuing personal goals. If there is a deficiency in one of the more basic needs, you can still work on the higher level tasks, but you’ll be hampered by anxiety tension. Thinking this through offered the reassuring insight that my blanket was not merely an irresponsible waste of energy, but instead was serving a pretty strategic purpose in my life.
By all accounts, we need to prepare ourselves for a long ride here. I have followed recommendations to stock up on pasta, Advil, and toilet paper, and my hand-washing technique has gotten very scientific. But I can see that we will all need some long-term strategies to proactively care for our mental and spiritual health. We are encountering just the beginning of an indefinite period of uncertainty. I can see that my own typical strategies to manage spiritual and emotional challenges might not be quite robust enough to handle the stress. What practices or habits will help me — and all of us — to thrive in this coming season? How can we reduce our inner stress in order to foster creative solutions? What will serve as an electric blanket for the soul in these times?
There are some who have already written eloquently about some of the self-care practices we can put into place, and I am taking these words to heart. Here are a few specifics that I’m working on. What practices will help you to thrive over the next weeks and months?
Engage in prayer.
What I know for sure: God is compassionately aware of all of our concerns — including the coronavirus — and he cares deeply for each one of us. We can bring our worries and fears to him. I’ve been practicing (and I truly mean practicing, because I’m not very good at it) a few kinds of prayer lately, particularly in reference to the virus, both for me and for others in the world.
Breath prayer. I love this prayer technique for its simplicity — perfect for desperate times. Choose a short, focused phrase and dedicate half to an inhale, then half to an exhale:
Dear Jesus (inhale), please help (exhale).
Be near (inhale), dear Lord (exhale).
You can read more about this online, but it is pretty hard to mess up. I find that I use it most in moments of panic over someone’s hardship, suffering, or incompetence — Lord Jesus, have mercy. At the very least, it reminds us to breathe — a beneficial physiological process. I need to do more of it.
Circle prayer. I’m just learning about this Celtic form of prayer, but the concept is beautiful: offering a prayer that invokes a circle of protection — for yourself, your family, your community, the world. Enfold the good, push away the bad. For example:
Circle my neighborhood, Lord. Keep love within, and hatred without.
Circle our government, Lord. Keep wisdom within, and foolishness without.
I love the image of Jesus’s arms encircling and protecting, particularly when I feel fearful and exposed.
Your usual prayers. I plan to continue with my usual spiritual disciplines of journaling and Bible reading. If finding the words feels overwhelming, you can try something like the Book of Common Prayer. When the world turns upside-down, it can be hard to maintain routines, but regular disciplines are very helpful in retaining clear-headedness and perspective.
Monitor the news feed.
It’s important to stay informed about new developments, but I also know that I need to take breaks regularly. This week, I have confirmed that it does not help my mental state to start reading coronavirus updates immediately upon waking. I have also confirmed that I have a limit — probably 20 minutes — after which scrolling becomes compulsive and unhelpful for me (and those with whom I live). I’m still developing my own personal policies on this, but I think it will include 1) no news updates until after breakfast, 2) check only twice per day, and 3) vet fears with a trusted and rational person.
Use power for good.
Although the uncertainty around this virus gives me a sense of powerlessness, I am encouraged when I see ways that I can use my own power for the good of my community. From washing hands and not touching your face to social distancing and working from home, there are many ways that we can contribute to slowing the spread of the virus.
Last week, I asked hard questions in every local community where I have leadership or influence about canceling meetings and washing hands. This week, I plan to look into my spheres of influence for ways that we can connect creatively by video — classes for kids, meetings for adults. (Consider joining a WAP book club!) If you’re on your own or live alone, find ways to connect — even if you don’t have a lot of friends nearby. (Drop us a line if you need suggestions!)
I also learned that blood drives are being canceled due to closed churches and school buildings, so I’m investigating the possibility of hosting one at our own church — and doing it safely, with staggered arrival times and social distancing.
It helps my heart to do good things, both for the physically vulnerable and the emotionally and socially vulnerable. If nothing else, we can embrace this newfound opportunity to reduce our carbon footprints.
Attend to the body.
I believe in the benefits of planning meals as usual and engaging in my regular exercise routines. This is not easy. I have proven to myself this weekend that it is possible to eat donuts and cookies all day, but that it doesn’t solve the real problems. This week’s menu will include pasta with sauce, a St. Patrick’s day bread and cheese dinner (with some sage cheese I picked up last week), and omelets with a baguette. Not hard, not particularly virtuous — but also not (all) cookies.
I am remembering that I benefit from time outside. Social distancing means creating some space between people, not bunkering down. It’s okay to go outside for a walk.
I’ve also begun a campaign for eight hours of sleep. I fail at that most nights, and so I am attempting to supplement with “horizontal daytime resting hours” — if I only get seven hours in a night, I am required to lie down for one hour during the day. I’ll be honest, this is not going well so far, but I’m determined to find a way to increase my rest.
Allow for fun.
Mental health is important, and one of the best ways we can relieve tension is through laughter. I’ve seen a lot of good work on social media in this area. We’re brainstorming favorite movies to watch (we just began another Lord of the Rings marathon) and playing board games together. I recently purchased a few rubber chickens (just because they are ridiculous) and sent one to relatives on the East Coast — let the exchange of goofy photos begin!
Seek creative outlets.
This is an unprecedented experience for all of us, and once I stop being afraid, I feel extraordinarily curious about what creative things will come into being through our restricted movement. How will my kids connect with one another? What does a video playdate look like? I’m picking up some knitting projects that I have abandoned. I am also beginning to think more seriously about gardening as an effort to connect with the outside world in this season. I’m an awful gardener, but this might be the year.
I sat for a moment today and just gave thanks to God that this virus doesn’t seem to be affecting children too badly. I gave thanks the other day in conversation with my mother as she recalled the polio epidemic. Things are bad, but they could be a lot worse in many ways. Growing my awareness of blessings while offering prayers for those who have struggles helps center me and bring me back to the present moment.
We are living in uncertain times, and it is extraordinarily uncomfortable. We are not in control and we feel this keenly. But the truth is: we are never in control. Life is full of risk and unpredictability. We have been called to this time, so let us take up the mantle of responsibility and live nobly, acting with wisdom and love — and caring for ourselves and our loved ones through sustaining practices. I’ll leave you with this favorite quote from Tolkein’s The Fellowship of the Ring:
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”