I’m Certain of It

How Perspective is Helping Us Through the Long COVID-19 Night

It’s no secret

that in the most uncertain times many of us just want some certainty to fall back on. We understand in principle that one day the quarantines will be lifted, but we don’t know when. So even though rational thought tells us it won’t be forever there’s that little voice (which sometimes becomes a big voice) that’s nagging at us saying “Well, I mean it could be.” It’s not a rational thought at all, but it’s still loud enough to spike our anxiety (which is all it’s really trying to do anyway).

How about the stock market? We’ve seen this happen before. Well, maybe not this, but cycles like it. Between the coronavirus outbreak and the oil price war between Saudi Arabia and OPEC the world markets got effectively curb-stomped these past few weeks. When I pull up my retirement accounts right now my balance is basically just the “shrug” emoji.

P.S. – If you get any anxiety whatsoever about the markets then now is a great time to not look at your accounts. The markets are cyclical, and always trend up in the long term. There will always be ebbs like this and flows like the 11-year bull market we finally just broke. This is a natural, albeit very pronounced, part of that cycle. Things will turn around.

The way that our routines have been modified, or in some cases blown up entirely, by the current pandemic give us an opportunity to self-check our perspective.

Side bar: the aforementioned modification and/or blowing-up of our routines also sucks. In some cases it sucks a lot. Don’t let this post of me trying to give you a recipe for lemonade make you think I don’t realize that some of you have life throwing lemon-fastballs right at you all day long. Looking at you, now-homeschoolers. You’re the real MVPs.

{EDIT: Maybe teachers are the real MVPs, and parents-now-homeschool-teachers are about to be the MI(mproved)Ps. I’m open to your thoughts on this matter.}

Many things feel uncertain right now. It would be easy to say “everything feels uncertain,” but that wouldn’t be true, would it? That’s the type of hyperbolic speaking that I know I have a terrible habit of. One thing goes wrong and somehow I convince myself that everything is going wrong. I start saying things like “This just isn’t my day” or “I’m screwing up whatever I touch this week” even though one thing went wrong for 5 minutes.

And before you know it I’m dragging that mentality with me throughout my day and letting it bring down my performance at work, letting it corrode my communication with my wife, letting it affect the way I drive (seems too specific, but I definitely drive like more of an asshole when I’m having a bad day and that’s immature of me and needs to stop), letting it dominate my thoughts and bring about feelings of anxiety.

Wouldn’t you know it, now everything is going wrong.

It’s going wrong not because of what happened to me, but because of me. My reaction to one thing not going my way (which, by the way, is just how life goes sometimes) caused me to influence every other situation I was in to match that singular negative. This is why we need to talk about perspective. Because, selfishly, I need it. And I don’t feel too bold in suggesting that you need it too.

This virus-increasing economy-decreasing world is the situation we’re in and it’s not going to change very soon. This could be cause for a complete halt of our progress, but as people who want to better ourselves it’s our responsibility to find opportunities for growth in this moment.

Things will go bad sometimes,

but our reaction to that circumstance has a far greater impact on the way the rest of our day, week, month (or even your yeeeeeear) plays out than that one moment of ignorance or poor judgement or just bad luck.

I don’t subscribe to all of the pillars of stoicism, but I do find benefit in a great many of them. Especially in times like this.

Tangent: “Especially in times like this” is the type of thing a non-stoic would say, isn’t it? A real stoic would be like “these times are the same as all times.” Yeah I’m a kindergarten stoic at best.

There’s a prayer that makes the rounds on social media from time to time which is really interesting to me. I see it most often associated with the 12-step program in Alcoholics (etc.) Anonymous.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.

Reinhold Niebuhr, ~1932-33

Religious or not it’s striking Nieburh’s prayer strays far from our typical focus, particularly under stress.

Working from the bottom up: it’s clear first of all that we often lack the wisdom to discern what we can and can’t control. In fact, we more often than not will focus the majority of our attention (see also, whining and complaining) on the things we have the least control over. We naturally lean into the things that make us seem most victimized.

Courage to change the things I can? Hardly. Instead we say “There’s nothing I can do about it” we lie to ourselves. I am a victim. I cannot change anything. I am abdicating any responsibility to display courage.

And at the same time we hold an equally untrue belief in as high a regard as the first, though they are mutually exclusive: “I’ve done everything I can and it makes no difference.” We’ve taken the aspects least in our control and throw some effort at changing them just so we can show our friends and family that we deserve pity.

No wisdom. No courage. No acceptance.

So let’s work on improving this. We don’t need to fix it all today. Let’s just improve it.

How? By accepting that our perspective sucks and we need to change it.

Get to Work: Action Items

Change your Perspective: Look for the things we can’t control

Before we can accept the things we can’t control we have to know what the things we can’t control are.

For me personally here are a couple:

  • My wife is pregnant with our first child and is due in July. We’re uncertain about how to navigate the next few months with this pandemic and all of the restrictions within the medical industry at the moment. I can’t control a single thing about that.
  • My day job is considered “essential infrastructure”, and is thus far stable. That could change any moment though, and my position being considered overhead puts me at the front of the line to be let go if the financial position of the company dictates that. I can’t control a single thing about that.

Find a few things you can’t control. Admit you can’t control them. That’s a good start.

Change your Perspective: Look for the things we can control

Before we can display courage in the face of resistance and overcome obstacles in our way we have to know what these obstacles are.

A couple of mine a the moment:

  • No matter how weird and stressful work is, I absolutely can have a good attitude when I get home to spend time with my wife. And no, it’s not enough for me to just take a breath after putting the car in park when I pull up to the house and “putting on a smile”. No, I can take actionable steps to improve my mood and attitude drastically. The biggest steps I take are to exercise before leaving the office (we have a gym at work), and to listen to a comedy podcast on my way home. My current favorite is Plumbing the Death Star by Sans Pants Radio out of Australia. I don’t need to beat the exercise drum for you – you get it, it helps your mood. But the comedy podcast is something I discovered a while back and it’s been a big help. I used to listen to more educational podcasts (I still do on my way to work in the morning) on my way home. While it didn’t put me in a bad mood it often left me pretty neutral, and frankly that’s just not how I want to show up at home. I don’t want to be fake, but I want to take steps to make the normal experience of arriving home to be joyful. That takes more than just giving yourself a 5-second pep talk right before walking in the door.
  • My health. Gyms are closed. Restaurants are closed. Routines are thrown off. I have every opportunity to let my fitness and health go to shit while this virus runs its course. I also have every opportunity to maintain or even improve my fitness routines and diet. This is entirely under my control.

Find wisdom

I have no notion that I can write something here that’s going to equate to some sort of enlightenment. That’s not my place and it’s not within my capability.

What I want you to do is pay attention to the items you listed above. Wisdom is experience analyzed and understood. Remind yourself of the things you can’t control so that you can learn to accept them. Then remind yourself of the things you can control, and remind yourself that you have within you the power to control them, so that you can learn the courage to exhibit that power.

That’s where you’ll find wisdom.

All the best to you and yours. I hope you’re safe and healthy.