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Impermanence, Grief, Strengths

By Dr. Maria Sirois

Last year as the Cathedral of Notre Dame burned, I found myself reflecting on impermanence and Anitya, one of the principle doctrines of Buddhism, which contends that all of existence is transient. If we are awake and aware, we cannot help but witness this and know it ourselves. Pre-Covid 19 we may have found ourselves witness to the fragility of flowers, blossoming for a season, or the presence of illness – signaling a necessary accommodation to new symptoms, medical appointments, and lifestyle adjustments. Some of us, at any one time, face a profound transience – the loss of a job, disintegration of a marriage or death of a loved one.

Adjusting to Our New Existence

Today, in this time, in the presence of an invisible force, we all face Anitya. We are all forced to experience its effects: we have lost normal rhythms, our predictable habits of working or schooling or traveling have been upended, we ourselves and everyone we know are at risk for harm, and for harming others. The constancies that rooted each of us in an assumed knowable future have crumbled. Everything is up for question – our jobs, our health, our resources, our future – everything has been touched by Anitya.

And in this touch, we grieve. We are bereft, aching with so much loss. Life as we knew it has fallen apart and we find ourselves irritable, exhausted, labile, and uncertain. We can’t focus, or we notice how our minds race and we can’t seem to stop ourselves from trying to fill every moment with action. We sleep but aren’t rested. We numb out or armor up and for so so many of us now, we feel as though our hearts are literally breaking. Loved ones might die, are dying, have died and we cannot be with them in the ways we long to be. So much pain – as pervasive and global as the virus itself. Life no longer coheres, and in the words of meaning researcher, Michael Steger, we are forced to find a way to make sense of it even while we suffer.

And yet, some things do remain the same.

We Still Have a Choice

In the worst moments of our lives and in the best we have a choice, a choice that is constant and available to all: the choice made evident by Viktor Frankl’s observation that even while in Auschwitz, he could make his experience worse or better by choosing where to put his thoughts and his energy.

The same choice demonstrated by the folk of Gander, Newfoundland on 9/11/01, who, when asked to receive 7,000 strangers, arriving from 38 jets, representing 95 countries, said yes, and got to work feeding, clothing, housing those strangers throughout the town. They did not know when airspace would open up again, nor what it would cost them to care for more people than belonged to the town itself, and they opened their homes anyway.

And the same choice, made centuries ago by the folk of Eyam, England in 1666, who decided during the time of the Bubonic Plague to close the borders of their town. They did so so that they would infect no stranger, cause no unnecessary harm to another, while ensuring that those in the town who became diseased would be cared for or die in the arms of someone they knew, someone they loved.

This one thing does remain constant: the option to be our better selves.

Bringing Our Best Self Forward

In a time of grief, of upheaval, of chronic distress, we can mindfully choose to bring the best of ourselves to the day. Maybe not all day, maybe not in every moment. But to do what is within our ability to bring forth those qualities within us that bring goodness to ourselves and goodness to others.

This is the realm of character strengths – of our deepest values made real by the capacities we each possess in a beautiful and particular array.

I like to imagine that when Viktor Frankl opted to lead himself mindfully into his observations of what enabled some to survive concentration camps intact, thereby bringing to us a powerful understanding of what we might frame as resilience today, he knew that he was leaning on his love of learning and his perseverance. Or that the townspeople of Eyam and of Gander could see clearly within themselves a collective upswelling of bravery, love and kindness.

Our strengths are a constant within us, and they enable us to live into the one other constant that has been true for humanity throughout time: the option to lead from those strengths in order to be our better selves. This is how we navigate upheaval and loss healthfully. This is how we cultivate resilience within us and this is how we, over time, choice by choice, re-cohere and make sense of the world again.

My Personal Challenge

As I write to you this morning, it is snowing in Massachusetts. The three, tiny lilac bushes, planted just days ago, may not survive. My mother, sheltering alone in North Carolina, is at risk each time she goes out. Two friends have been diagnosed with the virus and one has just lost a brother to a sudden heart attack. My business is in flux, four young adults have come back home to isolate with us and my son, in Boston, working for a company considered essential, has to leave his apartment a few times each week. My worry for him is relentless. My worry for my mom, the same. My grief is exhausting and my fear is like a low-grade fever – not enough to stop me, but enough to shade the day. The spring snow feels both like an insult and the perfect metaphor for this moment – even the seasons aren’t quite as they should be – nothing is as it was and all is at risk.

And yet, I wake to the day and do my best to hold myself accountable to the better parts of myself. This morning, writing to you, I lead with creativity and love. Last week, posting a WE LOVE YOU sign on my local hospital ER corridor, I did the same. Later this afternoon, when all those young people finally get out of bed, I’ll do my best to lead with kindness and humor… at least for a little while. And tonight, when my grief and anxiety and fear tend to peak, I will try to remember what the exemplars of humanity have taught us over and over again. I may not be able to control much, but I can shape the day, by shaping myself toward the good within me and through this choice, elevate my small piece of our world.