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Vulnerability

The global unease and fear that has hit us in recent weeks has left us feeling vulnerable, anxious, and uncertain about the future. We feel like we are at war, but with an invisible enemy. Many people are busier than ever but others feel helpless and without a role in fighting this battle.


As a psychologist and student of mindfulness, it is really interesting to watch the collective response. Some people have responded with determination to care for others and be kind. These individuals are insightful and resilient, gaining strength by engaging in positive behaviours. I am grateful for the health care workers - their grit and sacrifice is unprecedented. It’s important to note however that it is not what you do for a living that determines your level of self-compassion and compassion for others; compassion transcends a job title. Some people are suddenly unemployed and scared about the future, but still calling friends to check in and support them through this hard time. Suddenly grocery stores employees and pharmacists are our heroes, and it is wonderful to see them getting credit! There are government workers running on adrenaline, working day and night to help provide people with financial support, to support science research, or develop policy. One of my friends sent me a message at 1 am, saying she is literally working day and night in her federal government job: “But it’s what is needed. And I think you once told me the only way out is through”.


Others are, not surprisingly, showing anger and throwing criticism at others. I say this with compassion, not judgment. It is human nature. We are uncomfortable, vulnerable and some people are flailing, looking for an enemy at whom to direct their anger. I cringe when I see the terms and jokes about “Covidiots” and social media posts shaming people about stepping outside after returning from holiday or buying too much toilet paper. I do not cringe because these interpretations of the rules of social distancing are right or wrong (the “rules” are pretty new to all of us!) but because I just know as a psychologist that none of this does any good. It won’t convince people to drop off their boxes of masks at the closest emergency. I don’t know anyone who changes behaviour in the face of criticism or condescension. However, I know that when shown compassion and caring, many will think about their choices and make changes as needed. Most of us need a “good listening to” much more than a “good talking to”.


Grief has many stages, which come and go and overlap. We experience denial, anger, depression, bargaining and we work towards acceptance and adaptation. As travel advisories came out and some borders began to shut down, we saw people still getting on planes to travel, not ready to face this new and never before seen reality. Adult children begged their parents to start the drive home from Florida early. Others cried and grieved as they cancelled trips and stayed home to face the new reality. People stopped having playdates, others kept them going. Some went to the gym, others put memberships on hold. From their homes, the critics shook their heads and wagged their fingers.


Everyone’s denial and then gradual acceptance of the new reality develops at different paces. When we feel scared, it is so easy to look for someone to blame or even to blame people for their own suffering. Compassion for others starts with our own self-compassion. Can we remember when we first heard about people dying in China and said “That won’t happen here!” or when we made our own mistakes in other situations? It is always easier to show kindness to others when we start with looking within ourselves and seeing our own messy imperfection.


“...pain comes from holding on so tightly to having it our own way and … one of the exits we take when we find ourselves uncomfortable, when we find ourselves in an unwanted situation and or unwanted place, is to blame.” We habitually erect a barrier called blame that keeps us from communicating genuinely with others, and we fortify it with our concepts of who’s right and who’s wrong. We do that with the people who are closest to us, and we do it with political systems, with all kinds of things we don’t like about our associates and society. It is a very common, well-perfected device for trying to feel better.” (Written by Pema Chodron in “When Things Fall Apart”)


Can we practice gratitude rather than criticism? I personally am grateful for so much and choose to focus on the good when my fear for myself, my family and the world in general settles in:


I am grateful for the politicians trying to make impossible decisions about our health and economy in unprecedented situations, now and in the weeks to come.


I am grateful for the many employees at municipal, provincial and federal levels supporting them, often giving up time with their own families for many hours beyond their usual schedule.


I am grateful for small business owners who find a way to continue, thus helping our economy.


I am grateful for the small business owners and allied health care professionals closing their doors at great personal cost, continuing to pay overhead, forced to lay off valued staff, so that they can support social distancing.


I am grateful for suddenly unemployed yoga teachers, gym owners and coaches, posting free videos online to keep us active and grounded when they themselves are so scared.


I am grateful for health care workers, on the front line with Covid-19, preparing to be on the front line, or taking care of other patients.


I am grateful for teachers and educators who are anxious for direction on how they can help their students at home and share their resources online.


I am grateful for crisis counsellors, police and child protection workers responding to a heartbreaking increase in calls (I have heard anecdotally) from our most vulnerable members of society.


I am grateful for those who work with the public, often without protective gear, so we all continue to get food and medicine.


I am grateful for the unemployed applying for assistance, we all need to take care of ourselves so we can contribute again someday.


I am grateful for parents trying to keep their kids happy and occupied, maybe even doing some schoolwork. Those kids are our future.


...Your turn. What are you grateful for?


Let’s breed compassion, and healthy feedback to others, not shaming and condescension. We have a potentially once in a lifetime, collective opportunity to come together.


By Michelle Sorensen, C.Psych.

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