The paradox of pain
For many of us, the last 19 months have been the biggest ongoing challenge of our lives. The pain we’re in is real. Putting one foot in front of the other is hard. We are exhausted and defeated and yet, we are still managing.
Here’s what I learned about pain as a psychologist: Pain makes us kinder or pain makes us harder. Pain can open our hearts or close them. Pain shows us that we are part of a whole that we cherish, or that no one matters more than me. Pain warms us or it freezes us. Pain teaches, but we don’t get to choose the lesson.
This is a time of deep sorrow. I think many of us are sad much of the time. We’re grieving lost lives, lost opportunities, lost experiences, lost learning. We miss other people, the lives we led. There is hopelessness and even despair. Will we ever have “normal” lives again?
And yet there are moments of caring and giving. The meal we dropped at a friend’s home. The zooms with family and friends. The triumphs of figuring out how to keep doing what is vital to us, with greatly diminished personal contact. When I let someone enter the traffic in front of me, or smile at a stranger under my mask. The unexpected generosity of strangers and the care of those we love.
What are the lessons pain has taught us over the past 19 months? That connections matter, that love sustains us. That sharing who I am and how I feel normalizes both how difficult this is and has been, and that I have learned from it.
In the early summer, those of us who were vaccinated felt a new level of freedom. We didn’t take business trips. We went to see family. As soon as we got second shots in our arms, my husband and I planned a visit to his 92-year-old parents, beloved people we worried we might never see again. Flights were full, not with business travelers, but with families reuniting.
COVID has taught us to sanctify the ordinary. The blessing of flour on the shelves at the grocery store, of a friend’s hug, of time with loved ones. In the slowing of our lives, we see what matters – and how much we have been given. What if we were able and made the effort to sanctify what we have, rather than notice what’s missing?
In the midst of sorrow, in the pain of loss, in the depth of isolation, we are still here. When we do less, we see more. I can still reach out to those I love. If I pause and know my feelings, I will continue to survive this challenge. If I allow others to share their feelings without shame or judgment, I help them survive.
From the outset of the pandemic, I have been advising people to set the bar lower. We still need goals, but they must be achievable in this new, challenging world. Expect less of yourself. Be willing to be satisfied with what you can do now, not with what you could do before. If the sermon isn’t polished, so be it. If your house is messy, that’s OK. If your kids are learning now what they should have learned last year, roll with it. Let this pain teach us what matters.
Two changes we should anticipate: We are all regressed. We will see an increased number of toileting accidents, aggression and misbehavior in our students, and emotional outbursts in staff. We’ve lost social skills. If you’re an educator, change your motto. Before COVID, it might have been CONTENT FIRST. In COVID lockdown, it was CONNECTION BEFORE CONTENT. Now it is CONTENT THAT BUILDS CONNECTION. Make sure your content drives deeper inter- and intra-personal connection.
The second change is in our relationship to work and the workplace. Supportive workplaces spent a lot of the last 19 months deepening connection. They are now moving back to being product centric. I think this can be confusing for employees. Some are returning to work wondering why their bosses don’t “care” about them. This shift is huge for staff. They’re nervous, scared and looking for the support they received over the last 19 months. Don’t expect them to go cold turkey.
A friend who works for a large Jewish nonprofit told me this story. In the darkest days of January and February of 2021, her executive director told the staff – the entire staff – to come up with 5 responsibilities in their workload and stop doing them. Don’t prioritize what needs doing, but what you don’t need to do. What can be cancelled, what can be postponed. And the staff failed. People were unwilling or unable to postpone what might be done. We work too hard.
Postpone now. If you’re clergy, find lay leadership who can lead services or teach that class. If you’re a program director, figure out what adds the least value and don’t do it. If you’re an educator, make the Hanukkah celebration smaller, and change faculty meetings to faculty support. If you’re a lay leader, encourage your staff to feed their souls, not yours. We don’t feed our souls through work. We feed ourselves by walking and baking and playing video games and exercise and holding our families.
And let’s forgive ourselves for hurting, for being reactive and slow and moody and weepy. For many of us, the last 19 months have been the biggest ongoing challenge of our lives. The pain we’re in is real. Putting one foot in front of the other is hard. We are exhausted and defeated and yet, we are still managing. Be the person who chooses to be kind. Every day.
Betsy S. Stone, Ph.D., is a retired psychologist who currently teaches as an adjunct lecturer at HUC-JIR. Her classes include Human Development for Educators, The Spiritual Life-Cycle, Adolescent Development and Teens In and Out of Crisis. She is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.