By latest count, worldwide deaths from Covid-19 total nearly 740,000. This grim statistic doesn’t even remotely capture the extent of human pain and suffering contained within it. The global Coronavirus outbreak is an extremely harsh, but real, microcosm of the immense and heart-wrenching losses, setbacks, hardships, and major disappointments that we all face during our respective lives. In response to the current pandemic, many of us have voluntarily sheltered-in-place to one extent or another throughout a significant portion of the past five months. We often self-cloister, as well, in the face of other significant personal travails. Such as when we experience the loss of a loved one due to death, divorce, or break-up. Or when we’re laid-off from our job. Or become seriously ill. Or are forsaken by a close friend for no apparent reason. Or are victimized by the cruelty of uncaring others. When any of these painful things happen, we’re hurting badly. And our first instinct is often to Retreat to our Own ‘Rooms’ within ourselves. Who can blame us for that? At times, we do so for only a few hours to re-group and regain our bearings before we move ‘outside’ again. But in other instances, our self-confinement extends into days, weeks, months, or even years.
In order to better understand our natural human tendency to retreat, we need to go a bit deeper. When we face life’s inevitable crises, we often feel like we’ve become the subject of forces and circumstances external to us. It is as if we’re entirely acted upon in the moment. Something enormously unfair is happening to us. Imposed on us. Afflicting us. And our first human response is often Survival. To simply continue existing in the teeth of these forces. Day-by-day. Hour-by-hour. Second-by-second. Our sole desire is to make it through the initial shock of things. So, we sit alone in emotional and spiritual numbness for a while. We become lost in our thoughts, our sorrows, our pain, and our anger. Continuing to breathe while we disappear into a haze. It may feel superficially soothing just to hang on for the moment.
If we’re able to take a tentative step beyond Survival, we may seek Control. While surviving concerns itself with our continuing to exist through the pain, control is about our efforts to keep the painful feelings at bay to every extent possible. This may entail our own denial of what’s actually happening to us. Or our building a fortress around us. The fortress can be a mattress, a desk, or a couch. Or a book, a TV, our smart phone, or a video game. These things constitute walls that we build around us. The hallmark of control is finding ‘status quo’… preferably the ‘quo’ prior to the crisis itself. If that’s not possible, then sustaining a semblance of stability of one kind or another in the midst of the storm. Safety is paramount. Regaining a sense of homeostasis is the game. Our motivation is protection from further harm. A dug-in position, if you will. On the defensive. From our foxhole.
Admittedly, doing this can be comforting to a degree. For, if we can stop the world from circling around us for a while, we can try to keep things under some control in the face of the perceived chaos. Spending time in this space isn’t, therefore, all bad. Sometimes we do need to dig-in for a bit and restore our equilibrium. But it’s not a long-term strategy. That’s because bunkers can suffocate us when we’re entrenched in them too deeply or for too long. The air becomes stale and begins to run out. And it’s just another form of solitary confinement in our own respective ‘rooms’. Further, if we permit ourselves to see things more clearly, we’ll realize how little we actually control things anyway. The world doesn’t stop or even slow down in spite of our best efforts or wishes. In fact, life goes merrily along even though we’re anything but merry.
By coming to terms with this, we can tentatively take the next step: attempting to get better. Wanting to improve things is a good notion, to be sure. It’s movement in the direction of healing. But we have to be careful even here. For what often passes as healing in life can be little more than our Managing our pain and hurts. Then pretending that we’ve solved the problem when we really haven’t. Managing can be like a topical treatment for our symptoms, not a cure for the underlying causes of them. It’s analogous to putting a band-aid on a deep gash in our arm. It merely slows the bleeding. Or like taking an aspirin to control our pain levels. Or swallowing an anti-inflammatory medicine to reduce the outward swelling. Or choosing a sedative to calm our anxiety. Doing these things is sometimes required and it can be helpful if it’s part of a broader healing strategy. But our attempt at managing the situation can easily degrade into a superficial, quick fix kind of thing. An act of masking a deeper problem as we try to get on with life. And we’re still stuck in our own proverbial rooms of suffering.
In the end, we only truly get better (and, in turn, leave our respective rooms) when we move toward authentic healing. This, in turn, comes about through our acts of Seeking. Seeking isn’t the same as existing or survival. It’s not controlling. It’s not making our pain or loss go away in the narrowest sense of healing. Instead, it’s about giving our trauma, loss, and suffering some meaning. About making our sadness, guilt, shame, or frustration actually mean something for us. That said, seeking is not a destination. It’s a process. Sometimes a long one, by the way. And it’s never an easy one. But it’s an important one, nonetheless. It’s a process of iteratively gained insight, reflection, closure, and resultant behavior change over time. Solitude is important in this regard. Sometimes it’s crucial to our journey of seeking. But solitude is an interlude, not a long-term solution.
We embark on healing-through-seeking when we give expression to our suffering in the company of other caring people such as family and friends. In an inclusive, ‘communal’ way. And with professional support whenever required. We give expression to our pain in our conversations. In the stories and memories that we share with others. In the words that we write down in our journals and letters. In our heartfelt questions. In our outwardly shed tears. In our prayers to God. All these things represent an affirmative decision on our part to actively engage in the process of loss and grief. With ourselves and with others. We engage when we cry out or simply cry. Or when we give our pain a story or a narrative. With unvarnished, honest descriptions of our feelings about it in the moment. But, even more so, deep engagement strives to come to grips with what we’ve actually lost. Tries to make some sense out of things. Provides some meaning where possible. Takes something useful from it about who and what we can become having gone through it. It’s about doing all these things… before we try to move on.
Someone wise once said:
“When we suffer loss in life, the hole left behind inside us won’t ever shrink, even over time. We must, therefore, become bigger on our insides surrounding this hole in order to go on.”
This quote aptly illustrates the notion that, in order to leave our proverbial ‘rooms’ of life’s pain and suffering, we must first recognize that there’s a hole there in the first place. In turn, we need to wrestle with it. Grieve it. Pray to God about it. Honestly and openly verbalize it with others. Find some meaning in it. Plant a flag in the ‘ground’ immediately adjacent to it to build upon. Then become bigger around it. This may sound counter-intuitive, especially when we’re struggling, and we want our hurts to go away as quickly as possible. But, in all reality, the deliberate act of seeking opens us up to making deep progress. For we rise from the ashes, not in spite of the ashes. Only after we’ve first sought meaning in the ashes of our pain and loss can we subsequently begin a healthy, holistic journey of healing. It’s precisely in creating a strong foundation that we can ultimately leave our rooms of individual pain.
At this moment in history, human suffering for so many of us resides in the awful miseries and ravages of Coronavirus. While it may not seem like it at the moment, our current Covid-19 pandemic will eventually pass at some future point. But inevitable pain, losses, and setbacks will remain for all of us in one form or another throughout our respective lives on earth. Unlike Coronavirus, no herd immunity is ever possible. That’s for sure. Given this inevitable reality, how will we respond to our own suffering along the way? What unhealthy ‘rooms’ do we need to leave behind in our own resilient, healing journeys of life? As we think about these questions, remember this:… It’s where we begin our journeys that often matters most.