I’ve wanted to write something for a while, aware that words can only do so much. But the written word has given me comfort in my darkest times. And the last month has certainly been dark and fearful for most of us, filled with uncertainty and the dissolution of routines and activities that give us meaning and purpose. I’ve heard life since the crisis referred to as “the new normal.” The term seems accurate, but from a broader perspective, maybe not so much. It has only been in the last one hundred years that our ancestors have brought a small percentage of the earth’s population to a place where the struggle for daily survival is not at the forefront of our minds. In the year 1900, the average life expectancy in the United States was around 50 years old. That same year, 30% of deaths that occurred in the United States were children under the age of five. Today the percentage is around 1.5%. That means that when my great-grandmother was a child, a plethora of diseases and infections could have killed her at any time, the discovery of penicillin and antibiotics still a couple of decades away. I remember talking with my great-grandmother when she was in her eighties. I wish we had her generation around to tell us what the great depression was like, maybe reassure us that difficult times are nothing new, remind us that all things pass eventually.
I have always looked to secular and spiritual saints to help me cope with negative emotions and trying times, finding inspiration from those who have walked through the fire without becoming fully engulfed in the flame. One of the men who I turn to in dark times is Victor Frankl: holocaust survivor, psychiatrist, physician, writer, and reluctant optimist. Frankl observed the effects of the concentration camp on his fellow prisoners and discovered that those who survived with their dignity and humanity intact were the ones who managed to cling to their purpose. Frankl watched people slowly allow the horrors of the concentration camp strip them of their humanity, a fact which he never faulted them for, understanding that the tortures they endured could turn anyone into a self which was unrecognizable. But Frankl refused to allow the Nazi’s to determine how he would conduct himself. In his book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning,’ Frankl summed up his awakening with these words: “Everything can be taken away from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.” If Victor Frankl can make such a statement after enduring one of the greatest atrocities in human history, then I can choose the way that I deal with events like this one, or the death of a loved one, or the removal of my conveniences, or financial insecurity. “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves,” he stated. For me, this is the calling when faced with a dilemma that causes me to feel powerless and afraid.
I’ve thought a lot about our current situation and talked to many people as they try to make sense of it all. I keep coming back to my experiences working in a state prison for six months back in 2016. The anxiety, the fear, the isolation, the lack of resources, the greed. All these things were normal life for the men and employees in the prison. Everybody was afraid of everyone else, looking over their shoulders and telling people to get away from them. Survival, for the most part, was all that mattered. And in order to survive, positive emotions like compassion, humility, love, and intimacy were sacrificed or tossed away. One day I was talking to an inmate whom I had become friendly with while he attended my group therapy sessions. He’d discovered Islam while in prison and had used this spiritual path to help him find purpose and hope. He would bring me verses from the Koran to read, while I brought him quotes from the Buddha and Thomas Merton. As we were talking on that particular day his expression suddenly became pensive and sad.
“I’ve got to tell you something that I think is important,” he told me. “If anything bad ever goes down in here, you have to understand that you are on your own.” Confused, I asked him what he meant. “Look, the prisoners in here like you-I like you. But if there’s ever a riot in here or things get crazy, nobody is going to help you. You’re on your own. In prison it’s us against them. And your not one of us.”
One week later, there was a riot in one of the pods. Inmates kidnapped three guards and stabbed them in the head, beating them almost to death. Had it not been a weekend, I easily could have been in that building. One month later I was no longer working at the prison. The environment, saturated with paranoia, violence, racism, and corruption was just too much for me. To this day, I still feel guilty for having to leave my job at the prison, feeling that I never accomplished my goal of bringing drug and alcohol treatment to a population that will probably never get it.
My fear of our current situation is this: I don’t want to fall prey to the belief that it is every man and woman for themselves. I don’t want to convince myself that a digital image of a human being is the same as looking at them face to face, soul to soul. I don’t want to think that my comfort is more important than someone’s life, nor do I want to lose touch with the truth of the human condition. Life is fraught with illness, death, uncertainty, and feelings of powerlessness. But it is also imbued with beauty, kindness, love, wonder, friendship, joy, and rich, textured experiences that create a full and happy life. For now, I’ll make the choice to stay focused on the positive.
**The disease of addiction does not take a break. Mental health is equally important as physical health and right now support groups are temporarily unable to meet. I’m still counseling during this crisis, taking new clients in my private practice and doing Telehealth sessions when appropriate.