Broken connections

An extract from the new book by Emmy van Deurzen, 'Rising From Existential Crisis: Life Beyond Calamity'.

Most of the emotional and mental health problems caused by the pandemic were related in some way to the fact that our usual frameworks of meaningful connections were suddenly broken apart and that we were not prepared for this. This was particularly true of children and teenagers who could no longer see their friends, their gang, their peers to make life interesting. It was also strikingly true for those who lived alone, or who were elderly, chronically unwell and disabled, most of whom had to spend long months in almost total isolation. However, such disconnection was also experienced as a positive thing by some people in some situations. Perhaps this was particularly the case for people who had become over-connected in their lives. There certainly were gains as well as losses in the pandemic. A team of researchers from a number of different universities made sure to remind us that we should not fall into the narrative of a pandemic mental health catastrophe (Bentall, 2021). 

My life was certainly changed in many ways by the virus, and I would say that mostly these changes were positive. It certainly brought many difficulties into my life that had to be resolved, for instance how to keep my business running, supporting all my staff members. It also brought some anxieties and deprivations, as well as a tangible fear of my potentially impending mortality and my new vulnerability. But it was also a great relief to stop commuting into London from my home in Sussex as I started doing all my teaching, administration, therapy and supervision online. This meant that my everyday life became a great deal easier in the simple terms of logistics and I saved myself many train fares. Likewise, when air travel became almost impossible, I had to cancel numerous conference presentations and workshops that I had booked worldwide for 2020 and 2021 – trips to Russia, India, Iran and Australia, and various European venues. Most of these events were moved online, so overall, my life became calmer and more centred around its new focus in the home. I felt more able to spend time doing what I like doing. 

I found that this had a very peaceful effect on me. I no longer struggled with the pressure to travel the world to spread the word or to accept every invitation that I received. While invitations to speak at online events multiplied, it had become much easier to say no, as there was not going to be a face-to-face encounter. It became more straightforward to guard my boundaries, as other people were already distant and kept out of my inner circle. 

Like many other grandparents, I missed seeing my children, stepchildren, grandchildren and grand dogs. That was an emotional and physical hardship that sparked a sense of being isolated and unimportant in their lives. It was especially difficult not being able to be with the grandchildren; I missed their warm and lively presence in my life. Seeing them online was just not the same as playing with them or hugging them. The way I dealt with this was to count my blessings that I could stay in touch via Zoom every week and by reminding myself how extra special it would be when we could finally meet again. I thought of all the people who had to say goodbye forever as they lay dying of the virus and I felt humbled. It helped that I have a very close relationship with my husband, and we were lucky enough to be able to adopt a puppy in lockdown, along with many thousands of other people. This provided plenty of occasions for cuddling and physical closeness. It made the isolation much easier, as it created a warm feeling of caring and being needed. It also helped that I was still very busy and very much required to continue working with colleagues, students and clients. 

Having a philosophical mindset was also helpful. It always lifted my spirits to remind myself that this crisis was shared with every single person in the world and that we were working hard at solving the problems. Knowing of the difficulties some people had to deal with kept me down to earth and on my toes. I quickly realised that I was safe enough, locked away from human contact; things were not as bad for me as they were for a lot of other people. This made me aware that I could hardly count this experience as an existential crisis in my personal life. If it wasn’t going to destroy my life or plunge me into grief or poverty, I sensed that I could cope with it with relative ease. It did stimulate me to think about the impermanence of my life in a new and more acute way and to become more reflective about my age and my growing dependency on the society around me. 

This suggests that there were mental and emotional gains for some at least, as well as losses in the pandemic. This also emerged from Vos’s research: 

Many authors seem to paint the pandemic with a Janus face, and it is uncertain which will dominate. On the one face, there are those arguing how biopolitics undermines the material, psychological and social conditions of individual empowerment, democracy and revolution. On the other face, there are those saying that the pandemic is motivating people to reflect, criticise and rise against authoritarian governments. (Vos, 2021, p.72)

In other words, there was an effect of consciousness raising. We realised on the one hand that we were all in the same boat, but on the other hand discovered that we were not all in the same position on that boat. Some were travelling first class; others in steerage. I have already mentioned the poverty that struck those who lost their jobs, and the cramped living conditions for those who found themselves locked into small flats with their children, who needed schooling. But the existential crisis was also fierce for those with pre-existing health conditions, who literally began to fear that their lives could be curtailed by simply going shopping. The phenomenon of ‘shielding’ was a peculiar experience that could easily lead to a sense of desperation and desolation and also to a feeling of constant alarm that sapped people’s emotional stability. I was moved and saddened when hearing about people who died of the virus alone, in their own home, and who had not wanted to contact the health services in order not to be a burden or because they were afraid of dying in a hospital corridor. There was a lot of silent suffering that the world never witnessed. 

I posted some YouTube videos reflecting on the paradoxes of the pandemic and people watched them more eagerly than other videos I had posted previously. It seemed as if people did really seek support and new ideas. It was pleasing to feel that I could contribute something, however small, to the wellbeing of others. The thought that it was better to light one candle than to curse the darkness was starkly in my mind. 

Retrieving hope and meaning 

When we begin to see that the pieces of our shattered life can be put together again, we begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel. It is vital that we don’t go too fast or forget the territory we have just crossed with so much effort. It is also important not to idealise what came before our catastrophe or to try to rebuild our lives exactly as they were. The crisis has taught us courage and we need to have the courage to build our lives anew, rather than try to revert to how things were. 

Solnit expressed it well in her Covid article (2020): 

Hope offers us clarity that, amid the uncertainty ahead, there will be conflicts worth joining and the possibility of winning some of them. And one of the things most dangerous to this hope is the lapse into believing that everything was fine before disaster struck, and that all we need to do is return to things as they were. Ordinary life before the pandemic was already a catastrophe of desperation and exclusion for too many human beings, an environmental and climate catastrophe, an obscenity of inequality. It is too soon to know what will emerge from this emergency, but not too soon to start looking for chances to help decide it. It is, I believe, what many of us are preparing to do. 

It is easy to become convinced that there was a better world in the past. Our challenge is to accept today’s challenges and create a better world for the future.

Here is our friend Joan, the nurse, again, writing for this book about his Covid experiences:

The fear of Covid was the catalyst for me to become a volunteer in the Oxford trials to develop the vaccine. I did not want to live with Covid any longer than necessary and I reached the conclusion that the only way out of this pandemic would be with a vaccine. But being a volunteer has also been a rollercoaster of emotions. My heart stopped every time a problem with the vaccine made the headlines, but at least it gave me hope and that hope was priceless. When they finally approved the vaccine and I actually held it in my hands, I cried. Being back working on the frontline has been the hardest thing I have done during my 23 years career in nursing, but it is also the thing I am most proud of. The impact on my mental health has been enormous, but thanks to my emotional awareness, which I learned through my previous crisis and thanks also to the fantastic support of my psychologist, I have managed to keep a healthy mind.

We see how Joan learnt to hold that courage and transport it from one crisis to the next one. He also knew what he needed to do to stay sane and brave. Courage is not a one off. It is an attitude that remains part of our process of living, a new backbone that remains with us. 

This is what many of us who have been hiding from the challenges still need to realise – for there will be other pandemics, and there will be other crises related to climate change and other consequences of human meddling with nature. Before too long, there will be large areas of the earth that become uninhabitable and new crises of migration of large populations will become a reality, because land is either too dry or flooded. We need to prepare ourselves for such eventualities. What we are learning is that life is precious and precarious. We should not think we can take our habitual mode of living for granted again. We shall not be out of the woods for the foreseeable future and will face new crises again and again. 

This is why finding meaning in crisis is so essential. We have to learn this skill when crisis strikes, so we train ourselves to be resilient on every future occasion when our courage is needed. Our lives will be far more profound and consequential if we are open to appreciating the dangers and difficulties, knowing we are equal to them and that we will be able to overcome them and appreciate the joys and treasures of everyday experience again. This is what many people discover after they have been through existential crisis: that they begin to appreciate the things they have been deprived of. As Camus remarked in his essay Return to Tipasa (Camus, 1942/1955):

In the middle of winter, I at last discovered that there was, within me, an invincible summer. (p.181)

If we let ourselves be touched deeply by our experience, we become much stronger for it. As Nietzsche wrote in Thus Spake Zarathustra:

… there is something in me that I call courage: it has always destroyed every discouragement in me… For courage is the best destroyer - courage that attacks: for in every attack there is a triumphant shout. (Nietzsche, 1883, p.177)

- Rising From Existential Crisis: Life Beyond Calamity by Emmy van Deurzen

Publishes on 23th June  ISBN 9781910919859

The book is available at PCCS Books at £20 (including free P&P in the UK - RRP £21.99)

See also Emmy's article on Brexit and our interview with her.

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