By Celia Coates
Often, I begin to write what will be published in WINN by rummaging around in my own experiences. This post began with something I was feeling last week.
I became aware that although, like most of us, I’ve been experiencing a great deal of fear and anger, there was another, quieter discomfort hidden just behind them – a sense of loss and grief. Not the kind of tragic, overwhelming grief that is experienced by those who have gone through the death of someone they love, or who are having to close businesses they’ve put years and all their resources into, or those who are being evicted from their homes and have no place else to go. Massive losses. It’s not even the loss the young are experiencing of their once-in-a-lifetime events like proms and graduations. This is the grief felt by those of us who’ve been lucky. But it is real and it’s important to face it.
When this all began in late February and early March, I assumed that the pandemic would demand a serious adjustment that would last for two or three months. When July was bad, or even worse than the preceding months, I began to shift my perspective. It took until September for me to see ahead to an Autumn and Winter with life still completely shaped by Covid19, and to recognize that some things have already changed permanently. There will be no simple return to what was, no picking up the pieces and just going back to what was normal. All that has happened means that this is now a different world.
Even 9/11 didn’t change things as much as these events have. With that destructive shock America discovered that the rest of the world could reach us, could hurt us. But now we have experienced being part of that wider world. There were no national boundaries, no walls, no gated communities that could keep us free from the virus. There’s been no way to protect ourselves from an incredibly virulent illness or from the reckless ignorance and selfishness of those in power in our own country. We haven’t been able to isolate ourselves from this pandemic as a society or as individuals. That can leave us feeling helpless.
Again, rummaging around in my mind, I remembered old lessons learned in graduate school that are relevant. Please keep reading …
“The change that Robert Ader helped initiate in medical science began with a serendipitous discovery. It happened in the early 1970s, when he and Nicholas Cohen were studying taste aversion. The researchers had been giving rats a saccharin solution accompanied by an injection of cyclophosphamide, an immunosuppressant drug that induces gastrointestinal upset. When the injections stopped, they found as expected that the rats had become conditioned to avoid consuming the sweet solution. To complete the experimental protocol, they forced the rats to take the saccharin solution using eye droppers. This is where the surprise arrived. Ader and Cohen found that some of the animals they had force-fed with the saccharin later died. … (T)he taste of saccharin alone was enough to stimulate neural signals that suppressed the rats’ immune systems.” *
This pioneering study demonstrated the connection between the brain and the immune system and Ader became the founder of the field of psychoneuroimmunology. Let’s spend just a few more moments with the long line of researchers who contributed to our knowledge of how the brain and the body work together:
* The early research in conditioning was done by Pavlov in a pairing of food with a bell thus creating dogs that drooled when they heard that sound.
* Walter Cannon was involved with studies of threat in the early 1900s that established the fight/ flight (and freeze) response to stress.
* Hans Selye, pioneered studies on the effect of stress on the human body.
* George F. Solomon studied emotions and immunity developing the field of psychoimmunology that preceded Ader’s psychoneuroimmunology.
* And, importantly, Martin Seligman explored learned helplessness (and then became more interested in studying optimism).
There are findings from some of these studies that are significant for our times. People who perceive events as uncontrollable show a variety of reactions and symptoms that threaten their mental and physical well-being. Researchers found that rats who can’t escape the pool of water they are swimming in, give up and drown. Our beliefs and attitudes matter – if we don’t assume that we are helpless, we do better. So, what are we in control of? What is it we can do? Are we in a pool we cannot escape?
Both fear and anger engage us easily and give us an outward focus. What can we blame or fight? Who can we talk to, who can echo what we are experiencing – who will share our rant? When we speak out, especially collectively, we are not being passive and it can be a very useful focus for taking action. Protest is a good and genuine strong response, a healthy way to refuse to feel helpless. But it is not enough.
Grief is an interior, more self-involved emotion. It contains very useful personal information in ways that neither fear nor anger do. So, a first step is to stop and take note of the sadness and sorrow we may be feeling. This is an exercise in assessing ourselves as accurately as we can. It’s no time for denial – “Wrong? Nothing is wrong with me!” – or for drama – “Woe is me! I am doomed.” Unaddressed loss and grief can cause trouble – it can sap our energy and make us lose focus. Feeling helpless or hopeless can result in fatigue and a foggy mind.
It’s time to ask, what has been lost? What is different now? Be specific. Even seemingly low-grade difficulties need to be acknowledged. We will each have our own answers to these questions. I miss, I grieve for, a government guided by reason and honor (this is no small thing). I long for face-to-face conversations with people dear to me. I miss seeing my grandchildren. I also miss going to favorite restaurants. I miss shopping! I am deeply aware that familiar comforts and securities I took for granted are now gone. These changes are real. We can choose how to think about what’s been lost in our own lives and then make choices about what to do. And, we can do better than rushing out to buy too much toilet paper.
Having gotten our own sense of what we’ve lost, we can discover replacements for the things that have true value. I don’t need to go shopping but I do need to find ways to connect with my grandchildren and to be with friends. Having looked at what my own personal losses have been and what I’ll work to regain, I can look towards what is needed beyond my small self.
This has been a time for many of us to rediscover what really matters. What have we lost? what do we really want to re-gain? For me, it begins with taking care of my own human self, extending love to others, and then including my community, this nation, and the whole world. Sounds grandiose put that way, but it’s true. Globalization could be about more than giant supply chains that benefit banks and corporations. I believe that a time lies ahead (perhaps far ahead) when everybody will care about everybody. I believe that not to care about all the rest of us is like the foot saying it doesn’t really care about how the lungs are doing.
So, what do we need in order to be a full part of now?
There has been Then, this is Now, and what will be Next?
* * * * *
* This is from the obituary for Robert Ader published in The Lancet: vol. 379, January 28, 2012
The image that leads this post is from Needpix – photopea/free online image editor.
You can view it online : http://www.winnpost.org