by Greta Taylor
photography by William Zeus Hardy
Silver linings are glimmers of hope in otherwise grim situations. The pandemic was, in varying degrees, a traumatic experience for all on earth. In the dark cloud of the pandemic, my silver lining was the “Safer at Home” order.
Before the shutdown, I wasn’t seeing the forest for the trees. The abrupt halt to my routine was a helicopter that lifted me out of the forest to get a panoramic view of my life. I found new insight and direction. I woke up like a whirlwind in the morning. I rarely ate breakfast. I was anxious to get to work and get things done. At home, the dishwasher needed to be loaded, and clothing needed to be folded. I moved from task to task without much thought of the bigger picture. I was critical of clichés like, “You only live once” because they are often used as reasoning for irresponsible behavior.
During the shutdown, I rediscovered thinking, practiced mindfulness, took time to write out my thoughts, learned to be present, and reflected from a place of gratitude and balance. It is true, that you only live once, so get an emergency fund, invest in your 401k, and buy property because planning makes for a better future. But also be a tourist in your own town, go on a vacation, treat yourself and treasure the time you have with family and friends. Invest in experiences.
I realized I hadn’t thought deeply in years. So much of my life was on autopilot. Perhaps I was avoiding thinking because I associated it with depression. In the past, the gray cloud of rumination floated above me on New Year’s Eve and my birthday. I thought about unaccomplished goals and compared myself to others. I am not the only one who feels down during the holidays.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness reported that 24% of people reported the holidays worsen their mental health. One factor of holiday depression is the time to take inventory of our lives. There is a cultural narrative of what our lives should look like. When our lives don’t meet our expectations, disappointment can hit hard. A Solomonic proverb captures it all, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a dream fulfilled is a tree of life.”
I found a marathon of Hallmark movies to be helpful against the holiday blues, but it’s a form of escapism. How do we move from dark rumination into positive reflection? The Buddhist way of observation is to see things as they are without assigning a label of good or bad. The Shin Buddhists take it a step further and perceive everything with gratitude. The biblical perspective is to “not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” Even though we want a circumstance to change, thankfulness moves us into optimism.
Solitude is practiced by many spiritual traditions. The soul is restored in the stillness. In addition to time alone and silence, there is mindfulness, a practice that turns off autopilot. UCLA research has found mindfulness “benefits psychological health, such as decreasing anxiety and depression and increasing well-being and concentration.
Zandra Wagoner, University of La Verne chaplain, says, “Mindfulness helps us place ourselves in the here and now. The present is the only place where things actually are happening. But our minds have a habit of being mostly in the past or in the future. Focused worry, pain or anxiety—we can get looped there.” She says mindfulness breaks the cycle of rumination or catastrophizing and clears the slate for us to think objectively about the future. Another form of mindfulness I learned was asking questions of myself—How can I make my life better? I noticed small annoyances that could be fixed by just organizing my closet. I became more aware of my spending habits and resolved to stop buying dumb stuff and to contribute more to savings.
My sociology class taken the second semester of college was one of the most impactful courses in changing my perspective. There, I learned about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The foundation level starts with necessities to sustain human life, such as food and water then moves up to social needs—the love, care and emotional support of friends and family. Next is self-esteem. We need to believe we are capable of the highest level, which is self-actualization. Modern inventions have made reaching self-awareness more attainable. Dishwashers, washing machines, water heaters and cars all afford us more time. Technology is also our demise when we binge-watch shows, and when social media occupies time that could be spent in positive contemplation and mindfulness.
I am grateful for the slower pace the pandemic brought. For the most part, my time was my own. I had less to do. Life slowed down. I am committed to not forgetting the lessons learned during the pandemic and will continue the practice of mindfulness and reflection. ■