Holding back, letting go, moving on
There’s a dilemma most parents know about: the vulnerable, adventurous child you love is taking her first faltering steps, trailing her fingers along a table’s edge for balance, and you hover to protect her should she happen to fall, while knowing she needs room to grow. Then you are running alongside her, holding her up as she pedals away on her first bicycle, faster and faster, knowing you soon will have to let her go.
Years later you’re sitting beside her in the passenger seat as she learns how to manage the family car while navigating the neighborhood streets, and then you’re waiting up for her later than you like while she’s out on her first date, and eventually you’re proud to walk her down the aisle toward the minister and the boy you know you don’t know well enough – but you also know you must take each step, escorting her toward whatever waits around the corner of a future that is unseen, unexpected, and perhaps dangerous.
It is a surreal walk through an uncertain, interminable dilemma that we find ourselves in today. We need to protect ourselves and one another from a terrible disease, and yet we know we need to recover some sort of normality, some sort of healthy, interactive society, as quickly as we can. For fully half a year we have been isolated from one another, many of us not able to work to earn the money that we need. And we can’t gather; we’re not able to hug one another, we’re not able to be with loved ones when they are hospitalized, nor in the saddest of cases be with them as they die, nor can we attend their funerals.
And we don’t know how much longer we will have to do this, nor how much longer we can. We have become disoriented, our routines disjointed, our priorities shuffled, and it can seem we have lost our way. The impact on mental health is significant; the National Center for Health Statistics and Census Bureau reports that 30 percent of adults had symptoms of clinical depression last month compared to 6.6 percent last year, and 36 percent had symptoms of anxiety last month compared to 8.2 percent last year.
Depression is about a sadness for the past so severe that it fills our present with despair, and anxiety is about fear of the future so debilitating that it fills our present with desperation. Nothing can be done about the past or the future, but we may change our experience of the present if we find a way to keep our temper and have the curiosity to explore the complexity of the world in which we find ourselves. Mental health is about resilience in the face of such uncertainty.
On top of this we have entered a dangerously stormy political season, flooded with contention as strong opinions collide, and civil discourse is losing all civility. Tempers are short. Discussions online are laced with snide comments and ad hominem attacks that ignore the issues to go for one another’s throat. There is the urge to release tension by picking a fight; it’s a slippery slope, sliding from the stress we all feel into frustration, and then resentment, and then anger – all of which solves nothing, and only perpetuates and reinvigorates the tension.
There is for instance the debate between those who will wear masks and those who will not, with hyperbolic characterization of one another as stupid, or as evil. The ambiguity about the use and usefulness of masks is difficult for many to accept, and so it’s tempting to take one position in defense against the other in an argument that has become, now in some cases, violent.
The first step we must take is to listen, and to hear what one another is saying. People crying out in crisis need first to feel they are heard. It is necessary to accept a difference in opinion, and to work to understand where that opinion is coming from. To accept another opinion does not mean we approve of it, we simply recognize it is there. It’s okay to agree to disagree – this replaces contention with toleration, allowing opinions that differ from our own to widen our perspective and increase our understanding of a terribly complicated situation – one that cannot be reduced to a simple solution.
By becoming more flexible and not taking a rigid stance in life, we learn to take such dilemmas in stride – just as we once learned to walk when we were children, to fall from foot to foot and make of each fall another step in our progress. To get through these difficult times we must all remember how to walk, how to shift from one foot to another, perhaps awkwardly at first, as we find our balance not in standing still but in moving forward. Some day – it is hoped – we may even learn to dance with one another once again.