There are a lot of smart researchers who study this and who have written about how we depend on these narrative arcs for our mental health, and about how we sometimes get ourselves to the abyss when we construct a narrative that ends with despair or desperation. One of these is Melissa Fay Greene, who wrote an important piece about the pandemic, “You Won’t Remember the Pandemic the Way You Think You Will” in The Atlantic.
Ms. Greene’s article traces the research on how we construct the tapestry that is our memory, and also how the way we craft our stories helps to determine our well-being and our resilience. This article is a transformative read and the science and anecdotes throughout the piece are entertaining and illuminating, especially as it relates to how we curate our mental health and wellness with a gallery of memory, illusion, vignettes, and, yes, stories. It is well-worth reading and I would not do justice to the article to précis it here.
But here’s the thing that I took away from that article, especially when I placed it against my own memories of how my parents talked about their hard times: we are capable of extraordinary resilience and good mental health when we are able to reshape our bad times into redemptive, and sometimes comic, and often extraordinarily heroic, stories. Stories about survival, compassion, kindness, generosity, and, sometimes, about just keeping on keeping on.
I am one of the people who fell in with the jingo about how we all couldn’t wait for 2021 to end. I am one of those who lurched through December hoping for no more bad news. I am one of those who felt the passing of all the great ones as a deep pain in my heart, and yes, as a personal affront. It is very hard to package everything that happened in 2021 as the stuff of potential or optimism.
It was even harder to embark on 2022 with anything more than a deep and persistent ennui. “I’ve had enough,” I told myself pretty much through the Christmas holidays. [Context: I am a lawyer whose work is in divorce, specifically, high-conflict, high net worth marriage breakdowns. As my late great mentor said of all of us working in the field of domestic relationship meltdown, “we all toil in the vineyards of marital wrath.”]
I saw my legal work as a microcosm of the COVID chaos that was besetting the world. I saw—and still see, and fear—that what William Butler Yeats imagined in “The Second Coming” is now coming to be, a place where
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed time is loosed, and everywhere
The Ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
I wonder, in short, like at the end of the Yeats’ poem, “what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?”
When I’ve had enough sleep, when I see a sunrise, or when I listen to one of my colleagues talk about their children, I wonder if I am falling prey to those narrative arcs that enable resilience to break down. I wonder if, in the end, I need to avail myself—right now—of the salutary effects of the narratives that redeem. And I wonder if I write down the little stories that will etch my future—those that came out of 2020 and 2021—if this is the path toward resilience, health, and survival.
Below I share the things that I am determined to remember—not forget—of what has come out of 2020 and 2021. I don’t know if these are universal, but I know now that I am determined to remember them and I promise to be forever shaped by them. I will carry these with me as I move through 2022 and (I hope) the dark days and the light ahead. Here’s what I refuse to let go from these past years:
- “How are you?” will never be the same. I used to say this in a rote way, never wanting a real answer. Those around me did the same. It’s different now. Those I respect don’t use those three words with the same meaning. They want to know, really, how I am. They want to hear. And so do I. The best of us are no longer afraid to be vulnerable. We don’t see vulnerability as weakness. We see ourselves differently. We hear each other differently. A lot more of us really do give a damn, more than before.
- “The kindness of strangers.” The simple phrase “Be Kind” was bandied about like the next new thing during this pandemic. But it had wings. I saw it and I learned from it. I saw the power of random micro acts of kindness, in the grocery stores where I shopped; in the random comments of people in shops; in the people on the street who were just passing by. All those micro expressions of kindness blot out the micro aggressions of ignorance, betrayals of humanity, and selfishness that I have seen. Oh yes, those were always there even in the “before times.” But when someone says “Be safe” or “Stay safe” or just smiles at you even though they don’t know you, it helps to neutralize those persistent micro aggressions.
- “Self care is not selfish, and it includes the right to disconnect.” What I learned in 2021 is that self care sometimes means disconnecting. What I learned is that all this “connection” that comes from technology can be a menace. And I learned that “tuning in” is no longer always healthy, and that “tuning out” is often the answer to better mental health. What I have learned is that “turning off” and “tuning out” is a hard thing to do. What I have learned is that “turning off” needs to be mandated, required, and led. In my work life, with my employees and partners and colleagues, I have promised myself to do better.
- “Bravery” and “courage” have new meanings. It used to be putting on a game face. It used to be “turning your hat around and facing the world with neither fear nor timidity.” No more, I think. I think it means being brave enough to say when you just can’t anymore. It means being brave and smart enough to say it out loud and, even more, hear it when it’s coming from someone else. Yes, in my world of advocacy, it still means having the courage to be the voice for those who do not have a voice, and for standing up to injustice, for taking up the challenge, for not backing down in the face of adversity. But “bravery” and “courage” no longer have that two-dimensional cartoonish meaning of the “before times” when I was a warrior for justice wearing blinkers about my colleagues. It’s deeper, and more profound, and, I think, better, because we understand that we are all players on a stage that depend way more on each other than ever before.
- “Necessity is the mother of invention” has a whole new meaning. It was the great thinker Marshall McLuhan who modernized that phrase. And when he did, he just as quickly turned it into “Invention is the mother of necessity.” Zoom was a quirky invention in 2019. By 2020, Zoom became a necessity, thus fulfilling Marshall McLuhan’s prophetic phraseology. We connect mostly in the virtual universe. There is a lot of academic writing on the benefits and detriments of the Zoom universe and virtual connectivity. Mostly, it’s pretty bad. Mostly, we have lost the joy of human touch. But there is a frontier of invention waiting to be harvested from this necessity. There is a generation of people—mostly much younger than me—who is going to figure this out. There is an entire raft of young people who are going to make a better world out of this virtual world to which we are slaves. They are the Millennials and GenX’ers and GenZ’ers about whom we wring our hands and worry. I don’t think we should worry. I think we need to listen better.
In my dark moments, I want to forget everything and wake up in a time when everything is long gone. When there is no pandemic; when I can see people; when I can share a coffee and a story; when I can sit beside a friend and hold their hand; when I can admire a piece of art, or a new recipe, or a new piece of clothing.
In my lighter moments, when I have slept and eaten, and when I have disconnected for enough, I vow to never forget the lessons I have learned. I promise to honor the stories that have kept me whole and that made me smile. I promise to make those moments, those people, part of the story that I shall tell myself, and others, about this most extraordinary time.