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We all have Covid now: Extracting our minds from the grip of the virus

In this post:

Inundated #

Everything hurts right now, most especially my head.

Three weeks ago, my friend John Roach forcefully directed my attention toward Covid. I ended up editing and publishing the post he wrote about the need to flatten the curve in our community.

Ever since then, I feel like I have spent every waking minute responding and reacting to wave after crushing wave that has come at me. And yet it feels like we’ve hardly begun.

I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this way, and in fact I know I am unreasonably privileged in the face of current circumstances.

In the approximate duration of a lightning strike, what was once a tiny worry spiraled into becoming the lens through which we view everything.

It started as a trickle, just the tiniest anxiety in the back of my mind nudged on by news from across the world.

After talking to John and members of his family of doctors, that worry grew into a serious concern for me. I enlisted myself in the service of a group trying to educate other leaders in our community, connect people who want to help, and create a network of resources.

That week in early March, we were a band of self-appointed unlicensed meteorologists warning of a coming storm and flash flood, begging leaders to stop making jokes about toilet paper and start getting sand bags. We pissed off the powers that be, annoyed others, and who gives a shit.

Then, while we continued to look upstream for the flood to come, the water started filling up our own houses from leaking pipes.

That worry started to morph from something that made me concerned on behalf of our community into something we could see the impact of firsthand: friends getting laid off, friends’ businesses facing the need to lay off and even consider closing for good. Thinking of the need for my grandparents to be physically cut off from the family who love them so much, all the while knowing that the people in my immediate circle are largely very lucky and that whatever we are experiencing is just a fraction of what others are going through.

Then water and water and water. Suggestions became advisements became restrictions became forced closures became lockdowns. Hours flew by, days melted together, and as instantly as each week seemed to pass, every one seemed like a year removed from the comparative normalcy of the week before.

Every day was filled with a hundred questions and discussions of what the future might look like in the months and years ahead.

The need in every direction has become far greater than anything anyone has the time or capacity to offer. As eagerly as I want to help, as much as I want to be useful, It has seemed like there has been almost no room in my head to think about anything else.

To that end, I have been infected by Covid and, I suspect, so have you—regardless of any physical symptoms.

We all have Covid now #

I have become overwhelmed by the hyper-vigilance of needing to know more, prepare more, help more. Constantly looking over my shoulder, constantly trying to absorb more info.

But as researcher/therapist/rabbi Edwin Friedman put it, “It is almost as though the more knowledgeable one tries to be, the more anxious one must necessarily become.”

I know my own propensity to become consumed by social media—to the point where I have mostly been off of it for the majority of the time for several years. After first taking a hiatus from social media in 2012, I came to describe it as outsourced schizophrenia and said that the feeling I had which caused me to cut the line entirely was a need for some kind of “introvertcation” to finally be alone with my thoughts.

And I think that’s so much of the problem: in the chaos driven by the flood of voices surrounding us, it is all too easy to lose our own clarity, and our own voice.

Even though I haven’t tested positive for Covid, I am in desperate need of an antidote.

Thankfully, I know where it starts: slowing down, creating space, which ultimately allows me to also come a source of calm, clarity, and hope for those around me.

Easy to say, hard to do.

Well-differentiated leaders and being a non-anxious presence #

A year ago, at the suggestion of our friend Liv, Sarah and I read a couple books by Edwin Friedman: Generation to Generation and Failure of Nerve. There are some things Friedman expresses in those books which I disagree with, but he makes some powerful observations.

In both books, Friedman digs deep into exploring the implications of the late Murray Bowen’s family systems theory, which has implications for all social groups—not just literal families.

In Failure of Nerve , Friedman focuses on the role of leaders in systems (which I believe can ultimately be anyone), and more deeply explores the concept of being a nonanxious presence.

A few excerpts from Failure of Nerve are worth sharing here:

“Living with crisis is a major part of leaders’ lives… Most crises cannot by their very nature be resolved (that is, fixed); they must simply be managed until they work their way through. This is generally a process than cannot be willed, any more than one can make a bean grow by pulling on it. This, of course, puts a premium on self-regulation and the management of anxiety instead of frantically seeking the right solution.”

Two weeks ago, Sarah and I were completely overcome by the agony of anticipating the wave of heartache that seems to be imminently descending on the world.

My response was to dig in, trying to help as much as I could in so many directions. Sarah’s response was to pull back and reflect.

As a result of her reflection, Sarah led a group at &yet in starting a project called Gather the Courage, a guided journaling project for creative leaders to reflect, be encouraged, and make courageous decisions.

Now, I can’t underscore the difference that Sarah regularly makes in my life, and how she has been a clear voice and valuable mentor to me through so many challenges.

In this case, her work blew my mind.

It wasn’t at all what I would have thought that I needed—I was looking for solutions!—but it was, indeed, exactly what I needed, and it has shaped my thinking ever since.

Friedman says, “leadership is essentially an emotional process rather than a cognitive function.” Later adding, “emotional processes are always more powerful than ideas.”

Thus, much of his thinking has to do with the self-regulation of leaders’ own emotions and reactivity.

Friedman describes being a “non-anxious presence” as one critical aspect of well-differentiated leaders, meaning a presence that is self-regulating and able to choose responses to difficult circumstances rather than reacting.

“By well-differentiated leader I do not mean an autocrat… I mean someone who has clarity about their own life goals, and, therefore, someone who is less likely to become lost in the anxious emotional processes swirling about.”

He talks about how “you” is the language of blame, and “I” is the language of leadership, since the nature of leadership is an individual person expressing their individual intent, and influencing others as a result. Friedman says leadership is “totally incompatible” with assigning blame.

He says elsewhere, “Differentiation means the capacity… to say ‘I’ when others are demanding ‘you’ and ‘we’. It includes the capacity to remain a (relatively) nonanxious presence in the midst of anxious systems, to take maximum responsibility for one’s own destiny and emotional being. It can be measured somewhat by the breadth of one’s repertoire of responses when confronted with crisis. The concept should not be confused with autonomy or narcissism, however. Differentiation means the capacity to be an ‘I’ while remaining connected.”

Pulled in a thousand directions #

For those of us who gain meaning in life from being useful and helpful to others, it’s so easy to be pulled in a thousand directions, and it’s even more difficult not to be driven by reaction if we remain connected.

This tension between individuality and community may dramatically come to a head in a time of crisis, but for many of us, it is something we regularly wrestle with. A few years ago, in navigating and expressing our own beliefs about living amidst this tension, Sarah and I wrote The Call of the Wildling as a story and experience about pursuing your gifts without being drowned by the needs of the world.

There’s one quote from Parker Palmer’s great work Let Your Life Speak that sums up the core message of The Call of the Wildling:

"Our deepest calling is to grow into our own authentic selfhood, whether or not it conforms to some image of who we ought to be. As we do so, we will not only find the joy that every human being seeks—we will also find our path of authentic service in the world. True vocation joins self and service, as Frederick Buechner asserts when he defines vocation as ‘the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.’ Buechner’s definition starts with the self and moves toward the needs of the world: it begins, wisely, where vocation begins—not in what the world needs (which is everything), but in the nature of the human self, in what brings the self joy."

What does the world need? Everything.

How do we get out of react and respond mode? #

So, yeah, neither you nor I have any shot at being and doing all the world needs. But it’s so easy to get endlessly pulled in reaction to every single emergent need.

And so I know I need to create space in order to get into a place where I can have the kind of well-differentiated, non-anxious presence that comes from time spent without being inundated by the loud voice of the needs of the world.

As much as it sounds self-centered to spend time focusing on my priorities and creating clarity for myself, each time I have taken time to create space and separation, I have gained insight that has aided me in serving others in ways that would not have been possible if I remained submerged in the chaos.

I have been able to create moments of space in the past couple of weeks. But each time I have pulled away, the world has quickly rushed back in, full force, and it’s taken tremendous energy to pull myself back into the space that I need.

Because I know that battle is going to be harder right now than it has for some time, I have been ever-so-slowly beginning to create a plan and rhythm in order to preserve the space that I so desperately need.

Given we’re all living in the matrix now thanks to social distancing, it’s even more important to me to create clear separation of time and space so that I can ensure that I am deciding on my own priorities from a place of clarity, rather than allowing them to be overrun by reacting to the tremendous needs of the world and the fires burning in every direction.

I had been doing a reasonable job of creating that separation, up until Covid rushed in. I came to the conclusion that I need to create a simple and sustainable plan to establish better boundaries that maintain the space I need to take care of myself and to have room to rest and reflect.

When everything you’re doing is centered around one physical space, there is a need to be even more intentional about boundaries. I have read multiple people over the years who work from home and who have created little physical rituals in order to delineate between “work mode” and “home mode”. One oft-cited example is the idea of putting on shoes to “go to work” even if you’re at home, and taking them off when you’re “home”.

For, me, a “work” and “home” mode separation don’t come so easy. My life is not compartmentalized. The things I am working on are deeply integrated into my life. I spend much of my time volunteering and supporting others in their efforts, and I get so much life from creativity and reflection which ultimately come to benefit various efforts I am involved in.

Whose priority is it? #

Because “work life” and “home life” are not the buckets that I divide my existence into, I have needed to create a better way for discerning priorities.

The delineation I’ve come to use is focused on asking the question ”Whose priority is it?” and shamelessly telling myself the truth as I dig deeper on that:

  1. Is this my priority or is it someone else’s priority?
  2. If it is my priority, am I in the right place to do it? Am I feeling urgency that comes from my commitments to others? (In that case, it may actually be someone else’s priority.)
  3. If it’s someone else’s priority, where do they fall in my circle of concern and my circle of chosen responsibilities?

Now, there is no problem working on others’ priorities. It’s even true that many times others’ priorities can become my priorities, in a perfectly reasonable and healthy way. However, it’s important for me that I am being mindful about the underlying “why” and priorities and responsibilities that may be driving urgency on each thing I’m doing, and whether that urgency is in alignment with my own goals.

Note also that nearly any time spent using social media (or traditional media for that matter) is indulging someone else’s priority. It is directly inundating myself in a wave of the world’s deep need.

In 99.999% of cases of the world’s needs, I can’t fill them, I can only feel them.

Feeling them has value, but that value is limited because we ourselves are limited. When it comes to Covid, I have felt and understood enough to know what I can do.

Alongside these questions, I must also be realistic about what capacity I have to focus on “priorities”, as I make sure that I prioritize time to be “priority-less”, which is necessary for genuine rest, decompression, and reflection.

Rhythms, boundaries, and transitions #

Similar to the shoe-donning-and-removing ritual some WFH folks use, I benefit from creating transitions in physical space as a reminder of my constraints.

After some time discussing this, here’s what this looks like for me and Sarah on a “regular” work day:

Throughout each day, I’m also using a bullet journal that I started a couple months ago in order to write down my intents for the day, so that I am clearly making a decision about what I focus on, and naturally considering whose priority it is for each item I add to my list. I try not to start something without writing it down in the journal first, as a way of giving me pause to consider and give some resistance to natural reactivity.

That’s our basic plan for the regular “work” week.

In addition that that rough schedule, for ~36 hours each week (Friday night to Sunday mid-day), we aim to be in pure shutdown/disconnect/decompress mode in order to allow rest and create space for reflection.

Using physical space to create boundaries #

Beyond our rhythms to the day and week, Sarah and I are also taking advantage of the layout of our condo in order to create boundaries.

Our desks are on a tiny 8’x5’ landing at the top of the stairs. Generally, we work all over the house on our iPads, but downstairs is always where we relax and reconnect. We’re going to be keeping each other accountable that any work we’re doing that is others’ priorities happens upstairs, unless we’re doing it during work hours.

One thing you’ll note in the list above is we didn’t create a hard and fast schedule. As flexible people, rigid discipline doesn’t really work for us. Instead, we set goals for what we’re working toward and we try to be mindful about what we’re resisting and get curious about where that resistance is coming from, because we can learn a lot from that.

Along those same lines, when we talk about “accountability”, we simply mean that we’re going to be gently reminding and asking each other how we’re spending our time.

If we’re in a mode of reflecting or decompressing and we find ourselves engaging in work that is someone else’s priority, Sarah and I are going to use our upstairs “office” area.

During our 36 hour “shutdown” windows, I’ve been blocking my iPad and phone so that I have to go get on the computer upstairs in order to use social media or other tools that I tend to need when working on others’ priority.

Having to physically go upstairs when I ought to be in shutdown mode serves as a strong reminder that whatever I’m doing, I should probably make it quick!

What about you? #

I’m curious how you’re creating space. I’m definitely looking to learn from others in all of this. It’s a really hard thing for me!

I want to leave you with the encouragement to prioritize taking care of yourself, and making space to gain clarity that will enable you to contribute from your unique gifts and perspective.

That’s the only antidote.