“It’s a pretty human thing, to favor the stories we tell ourselves above all others.”
I first read this sentence 5 or 6 years ago, and it landed as one of those unassailable truths I’d been looking for my whole life: Be careful with the stories you tell yourself. I’ve since incorporated it into my parenting, my friendships, my coaching, my lecturing and my wifeing (especially the wifeing...).
What is the story I’m telling myself right now? Is it objectively true? How do I know? Is there an alternate narrative I'm missing? What questions should I ask to learn more? How wide is the window of my experience? Who can help make it broader? How long is the timeline I'm using, and at what point in the narrative am I stepping into it?
Creating a counternarrative to our hardwired impulse to believe our own stories isn't easy, but it is crucial if we are going to successfully transition out of the Tridemic of the last 11 months. Right now, we have opportunity to deliberately and mindfully begin co-occupying space in which we widen our window of understanding by asking others about how they are making sense of the world.
This is a step towards something better.
Unpacking the stories we tell ourselves is a critical life-skill. In fact, I would argue that developing this skill has become a matter of life and death. I often joke that the last year stripped my ability to know, without checking, what day of the week (what month!) it is. Joking aside, the greater loss of the past year has been in our willingness and capacity to engage in context. Everything is played out online and in soundbites, but context matters now more than it ever has. And context is complex. Unfortunately, our threat detection systems abhor complexity and thus reflectively narrow our window (again. Seeing a theme emerge?).
I have no interest in adjudicating the intentions of others. Wait. Ok. Well, that isn’t actually true at all. I’m as down for finger pointing, rage texting, doomscrolling and cuss-laden screaming into the void as the next person. Let me rephrase more truthfully: I do not think that adjudicating the intentions of others serves me, nor does it serve the work of making you, our children, our communities or our nation safer.
What *is* of value is examining the truth of the stories I’m telling myself and asking if the lens I am choosing is one that increases or diminishes my desire and ability to respond with compassion.
We see what we believe.
Uncertainty feels like torture (I recently learned that uncertainty is often weaponized to keep suspects off balance during interrogations). We are on the tail end of a year of intense uncertainty, and every passing day seems to add to the collective anxiety we feel about what is vs. what may be coming. As a physician and public health professional, my fears center mostly around delivery of care and preservation of life: What does the new, more infectious variant of coronavirus mean to pandemic spread in the U.S.? What does that mean for further hospital overwhelm and my colleagues? Will we have enough vaccines and when will they be widely available? How do we improve our public health messaging in order to move away from the politicization of the pandemic and into a space where Americans once again feel heard, seen and supported? How do we begin working together to get ahead of this virus, and protect the health of our citizens while simultaneously getting our economy and schools open and recovering?
Much as I’d like to wrap this up in a bow with an answer, I just can’t. Except to say the following: I believe we see the beginning of a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel. We have two very effective vaccines approved for use. Rollout was slow, but rollout often is. Hesitancy was initially high, and as more of us get vaccinated without difficulty and we answer questions with full, unguarded transparency we are seeing marked increase in willingness – even desire – to get vaccinated.
We have some hard months still ahead, and curtailing the rate of transmission has to remain a priority. As of this morning, 396,000 Americans are dead. The tragedy of this truth cannot be overstated. As of the end of December, more than 2,900 healthcare workers had died of COVID they contracted while caring for patients. These are real numbers. This is real harm.
What we need now is a little more stamina.
We can fix anything but dead.
Every physician I know is willing to freely give of their time to answer questions; please ask.
If you find yourself working a little harder than usual to locate your compassion, know that you aren’t alone. We are collectively exhausted. To me, that signals a need to return to basics:
Hydrate: 3 litres of water a day (coffee doesn't count. Not even for me).
Breathe. Deep, deliberate, controlled breathing is your superpower. This is how you downregulate your sympathetic (fight-flight) nervous system and shift into a state of calm. It's good for your thinking, your blood pressure and your stress.
Sleep: 8 hours every night, preferably on a set schedule. No, you are not "fine" with 5 hours -- that is just the story you're telling yourself (one of my favorites, in full transparency...)
Nourish: Put down the cookie. What? Fine. Eat the damn cookie. Now make yourself a vegetable-laden soup.
Play: It is cold and gloomy and it doesn’t matter – bundle up and go outside. There is no such thing as bad weather, just bad layering. You need the air and the movement.
Connect: Call someone and check in. If you need or want help, please ask. When someone asks, "how are you?" please take a deep breath and tell the truth - it frees them up to do the same.
If you're hurting and need support, please do not feel you need to caveat with "I know I don't have it as bad as others..." There is no Suffering Olympics. Yes, it can always be worse, AND your pain matters.
Vaccinate when you can, as soon as you can. Support those around you in doing the same.
We can fix anything but dead, friends.