Being a Better Person When It Counts Most
It is difficult to know what to say in a time of such unprecedented concern and upheaval (at least in our lifetime) as we are experiencing now. But in such times my mind keeps returning to Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings, a book that has resonated for me over much of my life. Faced with the daunting, almost crippling responsibility of keeping the ring of power away from the evil forces of Mordor, Frodo, the small, seemingly insignificant and unheroic hobbit says: 'I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.' The wise counsellor Gandalf replies: '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 to us.’ And so, whilst there seems to be much taken out of our control and with more impending, the most important thing that we can do will be the decisions we make with the “time that is given us”.
Pandemics of course are not a new phenomenon. David Brooks writes that:
“Some disasters, like hurricanes and earthquakes, can bring people together, but if history is any judge, pandemics generally drive them apart. These are crises in which social distancing is a virtue. Dread overwhelms the normal bonds of human affection.”
From the bubonic plague to the Spanish Influenza pandemic, humans have responded often with inhumanity to others during these times of crisis. Daniel Defoe wrote in the 1600s that “the danger of immediate death to ourselves, took away all bonds of love, all concern for one another.” The poor were sacrificed, class conflict deepened, neighbours were seen as enemies and shunned. Brooks found that it was difficult to find much written about the flu pandemic that swept the US after World War 1 resulting in the death of over 600 000 Americans. He ends up concluding that “Perhaps it’s because people didn’t like who they had become. It was a shameful memory and therefore suppressed.”
Of course not all was bleak: health-care workers – doctors and nurses – have been a shining light then, as they are today, in their sacrifices to help others through illness and suffering. Their example is instructive for us all; when we work and think of, and for others, we not only feel better within ourselves but we make for a better society. Conversely, when we focus exclusively on self we are often miserable and discontented. While practising social isolation it is worthwhile to explore ways that we can help others, whether literally or virtually.
Jacqui Manning is a psychologist who specializes in anxiety and stress and she has outlined some useful tips for coping with the stress that many are experiencing at this time.
Be compassionate with others, and be compassionate with yourself – when you have negative thoughts or ideas running through your mind tell yourself that ‘It’s OK to feel unsettled, and I’m doing the best I can.’
Like the Great Depression and the World Wars, 'this too shall pass', so be prepared to take it day by day. To do this you need to move ‘outside’ of “yourself and broaden your perspective on your thoughts, emotions and life in general.” This means involving yourself in activities such as playing with pets, gardening, knitting, crosswords, jig saw puzzles, playing an instrument, restoring furniture, cooking. Activities such as these help you be present in the moment and not consumed by things outside of your control.
In contrast, limit your contact on social media – at least for periods throughout the day and instead listen to music that relaxes or soothes.
Constantly being exposed to media and information about the virus and its effects can increase the production of stress chemicals in your body. This will elevate anxiety and effect your capacity to make clear decisions, thus making you feel more anxious. Be informed, but don’t saturate yourself with non-stop coverage. Be deliberate when you check in on what is happening.
Breathing is a powerful tool to manage feelings of anxiety – Manning suggests the 4-7-8 rule of breathing is a good place to start. Breathe in through your nose for a count of four seconds, hold your breath for a count of seven, then breathe out through your mouth slowly for a count of eight. “Do this anywhere, any time and as often as you like” or need. Breathing induces the body to relax. You can’t feel relaxed and stressed simultaneously.
Finally, make sure that you have someone with whom you can share your thoughts and feelings. This does not mean you need to express all of your negative thoughts and feelings – it should also involve consciously talking about the things that were good in your day or that you are grateful for having. This doesn’t need to be a person – it may be in diary or blog form. A family might try to do it around the dinner table – trying to identify one thing for which they are grateful in their day.
In times like this it is worth remembering the Philosopher in Ecclesiastes. Most people know the first verse – made famous by The Byrds in the 1960s song ‘Turn, Turn, Turn’. The writer in this Old Testament book is renowned for reflecting deeply on how short and contradictory human life is, with its mysterious injustices and frustrations but he also had an acceptance that we are unable to change what is, urging us to simply accept and do our bit, trusting that in time God will make sense of it all.
Ecclesiastes 3: 1-22
“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing, a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away, a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak, a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.
What do workers gain from their toil? I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God.
I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that people will fear him. Whatever is has already been, and what will be has been before; and God will call the past to account.
And I saw something else under the sun: In the place of judgment—wickedness was there, in the place of justice—wickedness was there. I said to myself, “God will bring into judgment both the righteous and the wicked, for there will be a time for every activity, a time to judge every deed.” I also said to myself, “As for humans, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals. Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. Who knows if the human spirit rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?” So I saw that there is nothing better for a person than to enjoy their work, because that is their lot. For who can bring them to see what will happen after them?”
This year we launched our mantra to ‘Be Better Everyday’; in particular, to be a better person. What a wonderful opportunity we have in the coming months to strive to be better learners, friends and people during a testing, challenging period of life – what more opportune time can there be to discover what we are truly capable of achieving, who deep down we really are than under the most testing of situations? The first episode of Friday Night Lights has the star quarterback becoming a paraplegic in the opening game. At the end of the episode Coach Taylor prays:
“Give all of us gathered here tonight the strength to remember that life is so very fragile. We are all vulnerable, and we will all at some point in our lives, fall. We will all fall. We must carry this in our hearts, that what we have is special, that it can be taken from us. And when it is taken from us, we will be tested. We will be tested to our very souls. We will now all be tested. It is these times, it is this pain, that allows us to look inside ourselves.”
Mr Mick Larkin - Assistant Principal - Pastoral Care