The Third of July

It is almost two years now since I tested positive for COVID. The original COVID. Back when it was an unknown virus that came from bats and we didn’t have a real name for it and we didn’t really understand anything about it.

Two years before we all became epidemiologists, virologists, experts in transmission of diseases and public health policy makers without having had to go to school, take exams, or show actual expertise. Two years before the virus became a political cudgel used to elect people to public office or indict them in civil and criminal courts.

Two years before families were torn apart by differences of opinion based on information sources that may or may not be factually-based or just repeated, ad nauseum, by talking heads. Two years before we stopped going to work and began working from home. Before some of us became full-time caregivers, teachers, childhood care specialists, without any warning or training.

Two years ago, life was predictable. We had routines we followed. We attended sporting events and movies and ate out at restaurants without fearing for our lives. We shopped at stores that had everything we wanted on the shelves.

Two years ago, we got our annual flu shots. We made sure our children were immunized against measles, mumps, and chicken pox. We saw our primary care providers annually for check-ups. Most of us didn’t know what an ICU bed was for, much less know where it was located or how many hospital staff were needed to care for a patient in the ICU.

Pausing to Take it All In

So much has happened in the last two years. So much change. There really hasn’t been much chance to just pause and take it all in. There haven’t been many moments when we can just exhale without having to worry if it is safe or if we will be able to take our next breath.

I have come to appreciate how valuable pausing is. Especially in the midst of so much change that is out of my control!  And out of my realm of experience!  And incredibly overwhelming and frightening!

Each of those sentences is like taking a sharp breath in without ever exhaling! Try it! There is no room left in your lungs to fill. You have to exhale.

This simple fact has proven a lifesaver to me. I now try to focus on exhaling as much as possible during my day. Letting my breath out and lingering in the space between exhaling and inhaling. That is where I find my sanctuary. Over and over again. That is where I am in control, even if it is only for a moment.

COVID, Delta, Omicron . . . Doubt?

In thinking back over these past two years, I realized that there was another pandemic. It is a pandemic of doubt. It has become just as infectious as any variant of COVID and it spreads just as fast.

The problem is that there are no vaccines for doubt. Once it takes hold, eradication becomes a huge hurdle to overcome.

I am a licensed professional, with decades of experience. I am a persuasive speaker and motivator, but I am helpless in the face of someone’s doubt.

It matters little that I can spout facts and figures. All it takes is that internal voice saying, “Well, I’m not sure . . .”, or “Why should I believe you?”

I used to tell students, “For centuries, the best scientific minds of the time believed the earth was flat!”  My point was to teach them to use critical thinking before accepting what someone says as fact. Sad to say, the Flat-Earthers have taken over the planet once again.

Where There is Doubt, There is Anxiety

You would think (at least I would) that facts would provide reassurance and would lower anxiety. Based on what is happening currently, however, it seems that facts are negotiable and opinions carry more weight.

Credibility used to be based on education and experience. Nowadays, it appears to come from what “feels right” or rely on who shouts the loudest and says things that I agree with.

But, based on results, we don’t seem to be less anxious using these standards.

Rebuilding Trust in an Atmosphere of Doubt

Here are three things that I believe are essential if we are to rebuild trust and defeat the pandemic of doubt we are in.

  1. Don’t make promises you can’t keep.
  2. Be willing to say, “I’m sorry.”
  3. Be willing to say, “I don’t know.”

How will these tactics address the pandemic?  Reliability and predictability are both essential elements of trust. If I promise to meet you at a specific time and place and I don’t show, you have every right to conclude that I am not able to keep my promises. If I can’t be relied upon to do something as simple as show up on time, why would you trust me with things that are more important?

Similarly, if we have a weekly appointment at a specific time and you call to change the time each week or call at the last minute to say you can’t make it, I am going to wonder whether you are capable of sticking to a schedule. I could easily conclude that there are other things you would rather be doing or that you are not serious about keeping our appointment.

Keeping A Promise

So, what kind of promises should you make?  This is harder, because so often what we want to do is impress or reassure with our promise, even though we know that we can’t deliver. Promises require deliberation and intention. Ultimately, it is less about what you are promising than how you are going to guarantee results. Promising to be on time requires that you take into consideration things that may interfere with showing up, and some of those things may be out of your control.

So, rather than promise you will show up on time, promise that you will let the person you are meeting know if you are running late. Then work on creating a track record of always letting people know if you are going to be late. In the end, this will provide the evidence that you are a person who can be relied on and trusted.

A Sign of Strength

Sincerely apologizing and saying “I’m sorry,” is a sign of strength. It recognizes that part of being human is making mistakes and there are consequences when we make mistakes.

Taking responsibility for those mistakes starts with acknowledging the impact that mistake has on others. It can be as simple as unintentionally bumping into someone or it can be far more complex and intense. Either way, accepting responsibility for the consequences of a behavior (or action) that has emotionally or physically caused harm to someone else begins with an apology.

Relieving Unease

By definition, “not knowing” is a state of unease. Almost every one of us will feel relief from tension if we are given an answer (correct or not) to a dilemma. The challenge here is to increase our ability to “not know” instead of chasing the relief. This is surprisingly easy to do.

There are two ways of doing it. One is to distract yourself from the problem. You can do this by physically engaging in something else like exercising, dancing, or singing, or giving your mind a mindless task to accomplish like alphabetizing all 50 states. This works for a short period of time, and may become less effective if it is the only strategy you use.

The other way to do it is to practice mindful attention. This, too is surprisingly easy. Just get curious about where in your body the tension is. It may be in several different parts of your body. I notice it most often in my shoulders and my stomach.

Once I identify where the tension is, I determine how intense it is using a five-point scale. One is low and five is high. Then I focus my attention on that part of my body and say out loud or to myself, “relax”. As I do that, I gently exhale. I repeat this as many times as I need until I have lowered the intensity down to one or zero.

This works really well and doesn’t seem to lose its ability to relieve my unease.

There are other strategies that can address the pandemic of doubt, but these three don’t need money allocations or majority votes to implement. Just a willingness to take care of ourselves.

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