We aren’t as powerless as the coronavirus pandemic makes us feel. This is how to stay calm, one Post-it at a time
Oliver Burkeman @oliverburkeman Sat 28 Mar 2020 12.00 GMT
In 1939, in a sermon preached at Oxford University in the midst of a different global crisis, CS Lewis made a distinction that’s worth revisiting today. It wasn’t the case, he pointed out, that the outbreak of war had rendered human life suddenly fragile; rather, it was that people were suddenly realising it always had been. “The war creates no absolutely new situation,” Lewis said. “It simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice… We are mistaken when we compare war with ‘normal life’. Life has never been normal.”
In this time of acute collective anxiety, this sort of insight might not bring much peace of mind on its own. But it is a crucial first step, because it suggests that something about our gut-churning feelings of helplessness – the sense that we’re facing an absolutely horrible, unprecedented emergency, which we’ll surely lack the personal resilience to cope with – isn’t wholly accurate. And it implies that we might be much better than we think at dealing with radical uncertainty – because in fact, every hour of every day, we already do.
The special trouble with uncertainty is that it’s a doorway to infinity. When you’ve no idea what tomorrow will bring, it’s easy to fill that gap with fantasy, and the world of fantasy knows no bounds. It’s possible to imagine things getting limitlessly bad. (Most of us are vulnerable to what the psychotherapist Bruce Tift calls “annihilatory panic”: the unconscious belief that there are certain feelings that would literally destroy us if we had to feel them.) Unsurprisingly, this feeds the destructive and self-perpetuating thought pattern that cognitive therapists call “catastrophising”: taking every morsel of bad news as evidence that things are going to be globally, absolutely and eternally terrible. By contrast, when even extremely bad things happen, the situation, however dire, remains finite. An event occurs; it’s over; then the people directly affected can begin to reconfigure their lives. One overarching strategy for dealing with the experience of intense uncertainty is to do whatever you can to bring yourself back to the world of the finite – to things as they actually are in your own concrete world, and the concrete things you can control. As a first step, try not to see anxious feelings as something you’ve got to get rid of. Lisa Marchiano, a therapist and writer based in Philadelphia, suggests making it your mission “to tolerate uncertainty, rather than having to make it go away. That creates a different frame for thinking about things: all you have to do is tolerate it. Of course, that may be very difficult – but it can get us out of this place where we’re spinning our wheels, trying to fix something it isn’t within our power to fix.” I recommend the ‘shaking practice’ which has the added benefit of being so ridiculous as to be incompatible with misery Many of the most fruitful techniques for coping with uncertainty involve a similar move: they are ways to refocus your attention away from your runaway fantasies. If you’re confined to your home at the moment, giving yourself some structure by drawing up an approximate schedule can reconnect you to the texture of the day. (“Even if we hate our jobs, having somewhere to be at 9am is very containing, psychologically,” Marchiano says.) You’ll get a related “grounding” effect by returning to the body through virtually any form of physical exercise. (As a specific antidote to anxious feelings, I highly recommend the “shaking practice” demonstrated by the coach Deepika Sheleff on her website, which is what it sounds like – and has the added benefit of being so ridiculous as to be incompatible with total misery.)
There’s no harm in a little distraction, if you can manage it. But one of the most intriguing insights of Buddhist psychology is that focusing on discomfort is even more effective. In another demonstration of the power of returning to concrete reality, if you spend a few moments paying attention as closely as possible to the physical sensations you’re experiencing at this very moment, you’ll probably find them much easier to tolerate. The meditation teacher Kenneth Folk frames this as a matter of “attentional bandwidth”: your capacity to pay attention is strictly limited – and so the more of it you manage to dedicate to the experience you’re having, the less remains available for dwelling on how unpleasant it is. (Complement this with the powerfully calming 4-7-8 breathing technique: breathe in through your nose for a count of four, hold your breath for a count of seven, then exhale through your mouth, emptying the lungs as fully as possible, for a count of eight.) Meanwhile, as your to-do list isn’t going anywhere – depending on your situation, it may just have become unfeasibly longer – you’ll need a way to get things done in the presence of uncertainty, and here, too, a short-range, down-to-earth, finitude-focused approach is likely to the most effective. Even at the best of times, it’s a good idea to limit the number of tasks you’re working on at any given moment to three or four, seeing them through to completion before embarking on others; and in times of high stress, it may be worth reducing that limit to one. Pick a task, write it on a Post-it, position it somewhere prominent, then do that task; for that moment, it’s the only goal you need to worry about accomplishing. Then repeat. Soon, you’ll accumulate a pleasing number of Post-its, a testament to all the constructive stuff you’ve managed to get done. Silver linings: how to stay positive during the coronavirus crisis As the anxiety abates a little, it may even become possible to glimpse the profound truth that, as Marchiano puts it, “a crisis can heighten the opportunity to find meaning, to get clear about what matters most”. What’s your role here? There’s solace to be found in figuring out what this moment demands from you, then doing it as well as you can. It may not look like anything heroic from the outside. (“Maybe it’s just making sure the kids stay on top of their schoolwork, or doing your job as a clerk in a grocery store,” Marchiano says.) It won’t change the fact that nobody knows what tomorrow holds. But, then again, nobody has ever known what tomorrow held – yet life has always gone on, including its most uplifting forms. As Lewis said: “If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have begun.”
The meditation teacher Jack Kornfield explores Buddhist paths to peace of mind amid the pandemic in a Tim Ferriss Show podcast: tim.blog/podcast
Ten Percent Happier, a podcast and meditation app, has a free sanity guide: tenpercent.com/coronavirussanityguide
The Insight Timer app offers a vast collection of free guided meditations for anxiety, stress and much more: insighttimer.com
Andrew Weil demonstrates a speedy intervention for bodily calm, the 4-7-8 breathing technique, on his website: drweil.com
Three Jungian analysts discuss the deeper meanings and unexpected opportunities of the coronavirus outbreak in their podcast, thisjungianlife.com
The Unwinding Anxiety app, developed by American psychiatric researcher Judson Brewer, adapts traditional mindfulness practices to target the modern epidemic of anxiety: unwindinganxiety.com.
It’s no coincidence that many successful CEOs keep gratitudejournals. Gratitude is the most powerful correlate of happiness. When we’re feeling grateful, our body calms, and we feel at peace in all realms of our lives. It’s impossible to feel grateful and stressed at the same time. This is a basic principle in psychology called “Reciprocal Inhibition”; we can’t feel two contradicting states at once. And the best part about gratitude is that it’s easy to access in little time. article continues after advertisement
Try this brief mental experiment from Dr. Sam Harris’ mindfulness app Waking Up. Imagine what it would be like to lose everything and have died yesterday. I mean everything, from relationships to your identity to material possessions, your education, status, etc. Let that sink in for a few moments. How desparate would you be? What would you miss the most? After a few moments, then consider what it would be like to be fully restored everything you now have (after having lost it all), and to the precise moment you’re now in. What would that change about this present moment? How much more would you savor this moment? In gratitude research, this is called counterfactuals—purposely attending to what could have gone wrong, but didn’t, and how things could have been and can be worse. Intentionally attending to counterfactuals can make us significantly happier. On the other hand, when we focus on what could have been better (unfortunately what most of us tend to do), it usually triggers sadness, envy, resentment, and feelings related to low self-esteem. Luckily, you can rewire your mind toward gratitude.
If you’re reading this post right now, you are uniquely fortunate. As Sam Harris mentions on his gratitude lesson from his app, right now there are probably more than a billion people who would consider their prayers answered if they could trade places with you, if they had your life. I refer to the millions of people who have been dislocated because of war, politics, poverty, and/or religiousreasons. I also refer to people suffering from climate change (losing their homes or their communities burning down from fires), loss, accidents, acute bereavement, and violent crimes. To have people who care about you and that you care for, your health, even partially, interests and the ability to pursue them, even sporadically, is to be fortunate. Take a moment to take that in, really take that in.article continues after advertisement
What have you been taking for granted recently? Spend a few moments to jot them down and let them stink in. Seriously. This is the only life you have. What blessings have you been overlooking? Don’t miss any more moments to tell the people you love how special and precious they are to you. Your clock is always ticking; you just can’t see it. We can never really know when we’ll die. We thus can’t afford to not feel grateful for all we have; life is too short and precious. What better time is there to savor your life than now? Now is all we have. It’s hard to exaggerate how this awareness can transform the quality of your life. Life won’t wait; now is your chance. Mindfulness practices emphasizing gratitude can help us stay in touch with all we have to be grateful for. And I repeat, they’re effective, even if you only have a few minutes to practice.
To immediately access a sense of gratitude: Gently close your eyes, or keep your gaze on the ground. Then, gradually bring to mind someone you love, your partner, child, good friend, at their absolute happiest, smiling, laughing. Imagine them getting exactly what they want. How does this affect your mind and body? Let it color your mind and body. Can you see your smile? Find yourself bursting with joy. Notice it. Stay with it for a few moments.
Didn’t take too long to notice a positive effect, did it? Gratitude is always accessible, even in life’s most difficult moments; you just need to reach for it.
This post was written for educational purposes and is not meant to substitute for psychotherapy with a qualified provider. Copyright Jason Linder, LMFT, 2019
Arno Michaelis founded a white supremacist gang and was frontman for a white-power metal band. Yet, as he tells Lindsay Kyte, his ideology could not hold up when those he hated met him with love.
Arno Michaelis. Photo by Mark Seliger.
From the outside, Arno Michaelis’ 1970s childhood was idyllic—two parents still married, a nice house with a big yard in a middle-class Milwaukee neighborhood, lots of love and positive affirmation. Yet inside his home, his father’s drinking led to his mother’s misery, and, caught in the turmoil of emotional violence, Michaelis developed his own addiction—to adrenaline.
A constant thrill-seeker, Michaelis craved chaos, and created it through lashing out and hurting others. “I started out bullying on the school bus,” says Michaelis. “I got thrills from other kids fearing me. I would fight in the schoolyard and on the streets.” By middle school, Michaelis was ramping up his antisocial behavior to get an even bigger rush, moving to vandalism and breaking and entering. By age sixteen, Michaelis was an alcoholic himself.
I loved punk because it pissed people off. And if you think a mohawk pisses people off, try a swastika.
Music had always been Michaelis’ passion and a refuge from his parents’ fighting. He started with the Beatles and AC/DC and then moved into punk, with The Clash, Dead Kennedys, and Fear providing an outlet for his aggression. He got an even bigger hit of musical adrenaline when he found music that gave a context to his violence—white power skinhead music.
“I loved punk because it pissed people off,” Michaelis says. “And if you think a mohawk pisses people off, try a swastika. Swastikas really piss people off.” Michaelis and his friends decided to start not only a white power skinhead band, but also a white power skinhead gang.
Michaelis’ addictive personality became consumed with the white supremacy movement. He was an avid reader of mythology and fantasy, and the movement gave Michaelis’ violence a heroic narrative—he fancied himself someone who was saving the white race from oppression. “It was about fighting for your people and National Socialism. Anybody who didn’t like it was an enemy,” he says. “It was all very romantic and it really repulsed civil society, which also gave me a kick.”
Michaelis saw himself as a warrior, which to him meant “being someone who would perpetrate violence at the drop of a hat. That’s what I embodied as a white power skinhead.”
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Michaelis became a powerful figure in the white power skinhead movement over the next seven years. He was a founder of the Northern Hammerskins, a regional branch of the largest racist skinhead organization in the world, Hammerskin Nation. He was the lead singer of Centurion, a white power metal band that sold over twenty thousand CDs. His whole identity was centered around the color of his skin and his race.
“As we radiated hate and violence into the world, the world handed it back to us,” he says, “often in multiples of the intensity. But rather than taking responsibility for the fact that we were the ones causing the hostility, we chose to see that as validation for our beliefs.”
As they banded together against society, often saving each other’s lives in street fights, gang members felt a sense of belonging and camaraderie they weren’t finding elsewhere. Yet there was also fighting within the group.
“It was a wolf-pack mentality,” Michaelis says. “Guys in leadership positions were constantly under threat from younger guys trying to take over. We had to fight to maintain our position at the top. It was constant violence, super dysfunctional, and codependent.” Women in the gang were usually in submissive roles—their place was taking care of the kids to repopulate the world with white people.
I practiced violence until it was natural, and the violence became who I was. I needed it like fuel.
Within a few months of starting the Northern Hammerskins, Michaelis’ best friend went to prison for a shooting. A couple of years later, another close friend was killed in a street fight. “Rather than take those things as a wake-up call, we just spun them to suit our narrative and cognitive dissonance,” he says. Music and literature that did not support white supremacist ideology was forbidden, isolating gang members from critical analysis of their actions.
The gang picked fights with those of a different skin color or sexual orientation. However, their favorite targets were white people they deemed “race traitors”—especially anti-racist skinheads, called “baldies,” whom they would drive hours to Chicago or Minneapolis to fight. “That was how much we needed that violent opposition to validate what we were doing,” Michaelis says.
In a racially-divided city like Milwaukee, the gang’s prime demographic for new recruits was white kids from schools that were predominantly Black and Latino, where they got beaten up because they were white. “That was ripe pickings for us to swoop in and place our narrative on this situation to explain it, and then offer protection and power if they joined us,” Michaelis says.
“I practiced violence until it was natural, and the violence became who I was,” he reflects. “I needed it like fuel, and I would beat other human beings to the point of hospitalization to get that hit of adrenaline.”
Yet amid the chaos and bloodshed, something within Michaelis was glimpsing something that didn’t fit his violent narrative—the kindness and compassion of people he considered enemies.
A young Arno Michaelis.
Somehow, the elderly Black female cashier at McDonald’s could see the potential for good in the tattoo-covered neo-Nazi standing in front of her. Spotting the swastika tattoo on Michaelis’ middle finger, she looked at him and said, “I know you’re a better person than that. That’s not who you are.”
Michaelis ran out of there and never went back. “The purpose of that tattoo was to flip my middle finger with the swastika at people so they’d be frozen like a deer in the headlights,” he says. “But when she met my hate with such compassion, I couldn’t fight back.”
This was one of many instances in which Michaelis’ Jewish boss, lesbian supervisor, or Black and Latino coworkers treated him with kindness and compassion when he least deserved it, even offering him sandwiches after he spoke with hate. His parents never gave up on him, even though Michaelis says he put them through hell. Maintaining his hate in the face of so many who refused to lower themselves to his level began to exhaust him.
“But I didn’t have the courage to answer that inner voice asking why I was doing this,” he remembers. “Even alcohol couldn’t distance me from the fact that I was beginning to be disgusted by my own behavior.” While none of those incidents changed Michaelis on the spot, he says they all planted seeds that highlighted how wrong his thinking was.
Michaelis’ schoolyard bullying escalated to feed his need for adrenaline. Alcoholism, vandalism, violence, and punk music led to a leadership position in the neo-Nazi movement.
Michaelis had a child because he wanted to bring more white people into the world. But in the end, it was because of his daughter that Michaelis left hate groups, and because of her that he found Buddhism.
He was in his early twenties when his daughter was born. But when he saw a second friend murdered in a street fight, and lost count of how many friends in the white power movement had been incarcerated, he began to wonder if death or prison would take him away from her.
The final realization came when he saw his daughter playing with children of different races at daycare. “It struck me that they were all children—not Black children or white children, but the sons and daughters of mothers and fathers,” he writes in his memoir, My Life After Hate.
“I thought of all the people I had hurt, whether with my own hands or by lighting some psychopath’s fuse… How did their loved ones feel when they saw this person who was so special to them battered and broken? How horrible would it be to have my daughter exposed to such violence in the slightest aspect? Love for my child thawed a dormant empathy for people that I was never aware of.”
When Michaelis became a father, he began to see the world he was creating for his daughter through his actions — one based in hate, instead of love — and his views started to change.
Slowly, Michaelis began to extricate himself from his identity as a white supremacist, putting together a new life by quitting drinking, getting a job as a computer service tech and IT consultant, repairing his relationship with his now-divorced parents, and attending university. And when his daughter was ten, she started reading books by the Dalai Lama and seeking solace in Buddhism.
“I didn’t really know what Buddhism was about, but just the fact that she was drawn to it interested me,” he says. He became so intrigued by his daughter’s interest in Buddhism that in 2009, fifteen years after leaving hate groups, Michaelis found himself on a cushion in a meditation class at a local Shambhala Buddhist center.
“I still had guilt for who I was, the mistakes I made, and I was resigned to never forgiving myself for what I had done,” he says. “I tried to convince myself I was at peace with that, but obviously no one can ever be at peace not loving themselves and holding that kind of a grudge against themselves.
“I don’t know that I’ll ever reach a point in my life where I’m like, ‘I’m forgiven, all’s cool,’” he says. “Even now, when something goes wrong, that part of me still says, ‘You deserve this.’ ” But through Buddhism, Michaelis could now meet this part of himself with compassion, sitting with it and even offering it words of love. “It’s easier for me to say those words now than it was even a year ago,” he says.
Self-forgiveness is a process, but one Michaelis says is part of the joy he feels in redefining his purpose in life. “I now know what the real definition of a warrior is,” he says. “A warrior is someone who is not subject to fear or aggression. That’s the kind of story I want for my life now.”
Michaelis greets Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, leader of the Shambhala Buddhist community. On August 5, 2012, a white supremacist named Wade Michael Page walked into a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin and turned a gun on the congregation. He killed six people and wounded four, then killed himself.
Michaelis was now a Buddhist leading a clean, steady lifestyle. He’d self-published an autobiography and was speaking at schools and colleges. But his past had just come back to deliver another blow. Wade Michael Page had been a member of the white power gang that Michaelis had started. He listened to Michaelis’ music. The son of one of the murdered men wanted Michaelis to help him understand why someone would do this.
So Pardeep Kaleka asked him, and Michaelis answered, “Practice. When you practice hate and violence, it makes your life so miserable that nothing but homicide followed by suicide seems to make sense. Things like love and compassion and forgiveness and kindness and all the most beautiful aspects of our human experience not only become unfamiliar but repulsive to you.”
The simplest and most powerful tool when you’re dealing with hateful ideology is to remember that hurt people hurt people. Violence stems from suffering.
Kaleka and Michaelis talked about their lives and their families, and as they got to know each other, they realized how much their different stories had in common, and how they both wanted to bring a message of shared humanity to the world. Kaleka invited Michaelis to be part of Serve 2 Unite.
Serve 2 Unite is a service organization that connects communities and young people with global mentors Michaelis describes as “superheroes of peace”—former violent extremists or survivors of violent extremism working to connect disparate groups. Serve 2 Unite’s students and educators have created community art projects, block parties, book drives for incarcerated people, and peace-themed PSAs on themes such as human trafficking, homelessness, veterans’ issues, homophobia, racism, Islamophobia, religious intolerance, environmental issues, and the rift between community and police.
“The idea is never giving up on the basic goodness of people, especially in challenging times,” says Michaelis. “I wouldn’t have been able to do it had I not taken on meditation practice. In Serve 2 Unite, interdependence and impermanence are central themes in everything we do. In Sikhism, the sense of interdependence is ik onkar, which means ‘God is one,’ and we’re all part of the same organism. I interpret that as the understanding that our actions affect everyone else and to be mindful of that with every step we take.”
Pardeep Kaleka and Arno Michaelis have written a book about their personal journeys and their work together. The Gift of Our Wounds will be released in April.
When Pardeep Kaleka’s father was killed by a neo-Nazi, he reached out to Michaelis for answers. The two bonded, and Kaleka invited him to help lead Serve 2 Unite, which connects former extremists and victims of extremism with young people to create projects to heal communities.
Arno Michaelis says he now defines hate as “the willful denial of compassion,” and says white supremacy thrives on violent opposition. “People who romanticize the violent opposition to neo-Nazis are playing right into the neo-Nazis’ hand,” he says. “They’re only helping them grow, recruit, and galvanize members.”
Michaelis says the only thing that reached him when he was so mired in hate was the demonstration of what was right. “Hate in the world will never be resolved by applying more hate,” he says. “The simplest and most powerful tool when you’re dealing with hateful ideology is to remember that hurt people hurt people. Violence stems from suffering, and people who perpetrate violence of any sort, whether it’s bullying in a classroom or a mean comment on Facebook or a world war, the people doing that are hurting. When we are mindful of that, we can respond with compassion, which interrupts the cycle of violence rather than fuels it.”
Michaelis says this doesn’t mean accepting or approving, or not trying to stop this harmful behavior: “But it does mean that we do it with compassion so we don’t exacerbate the problem by adding our own trauma and aggression in the mix.”
Michaelis says he reminds himself of this daily. “If someone cuts me off in traffic and I get angry, I tell myself I don’t know why they’re driving like that. Maybe their kid’s in the ER or they’re late and they’ll lose their job. That helps me stop the cycle of anger, and to have domain over my emotions, my mind, and my actions.”
He once lived a life steeped in extremism and violence, but today Arno Michaelis works to overcome hate through understanding, love, and compassion. And although he’s a Buddhist, his real teachers may be people like the cashier at McDonald’s, the woman who could see the goodness hidden behind the swastika.
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