by Liz Covey, LMHC
I’m anything but a historian, but this whopper of a year has me thinking like one. I find myself pondering what it means to have lived through 2020, a year that was full of so much and also so little. A year so unique that it will be talked about for decades to come, if not forever, just as we swap stories about where we were when the Towers fell or when Kennedy was shot. But however alike in terms of before-and-after comparisons, those events were mere instances, specific moments in time. Questions to which there is a simple answer.
What about the momentous phenomena that occurs over a long period of time? The flash points of history that seem to unfold in slow-motion, or more accurately, in regular motion — that which occurs at the pace of day to day life? What do we make of events that happen amidst the laundry and the bill paying and which will span enough time for some to have two birthdays come and go?
The kind of experience that allows one to answer the where were you question is distinctly different from the one that asks how. How were you the year that everything happened, beauty and terror, to loosely quote Rilke.
Long-lived experiences of historical importance are made especially strange by being clearly extraordinary but also by being long enough to become, to those who live through it, ordinary. I’ve been stunned by 2020 but also bored by it. My therapy clients have been ravaged by the work, relationship, health, and economic impacts of this year. But they have also suffered excesses of ennui and listlessness. They, like I, have been electrified by the zeitgeist of protests and election buzz that seemed to actually have some relevance to them, their lives, their passions, or their struggles. But they, like I, have also been driven to the brink of madness with COVID-era sameness. With cancellations and restrictions. With desperation of one kind or another to be with a loved one. To not be with one. To be heartbroken about missing this or that, or him or her or them. Or to just sit in witness of the year’s reeling numbers, the ticker tape from hell, counting high death tolls, rising numbers of unemployed, and, even though it ended with the right outcome, a ghastly quotient of votes cast to re-elect an unstable and disgraceful individual to lead the nation, one who not only threatened to but proved that he could take us down a decidedly frightening, anti-democratic path. And at record speed.
How were you the year that everything happened?
As anyone reading this at the time of publication knows, it’s unfair to ask that at the close of 2020, because this chapter of history is not yet over. The end of this year may turn out to be the half-way marker on the way back to something like normal now that the vaccine is not only within sight but already coursing through the veins of many of our venerable frontline health care workers.
We’ve been wizened by this year but not with wisdom. Not yet. (In fact, when I looked up the word “wizened” I learned that it doesn’t make reference to wisdom at all — it refers to the ill-effects of aging or a more general decline. Touché.) If we’re honest, I believe that most of us would say that we have toughened up due to hardship, not health. We’ve learned some new skills, but are they ones we want? Or ones we want to keep? (Leaving aside the handwashing one, that’s a genuinely good idea.) We’ve learned to put up with considerable strain (or much worse) and to adjust to life with face coverings and job losses. With cancelled plans and few rituals. Other than our families, and then only if we are in proximity to them, we have had to learn to live, largely, without each other.
This brand of suffering alongside the daily and mundane is probably not entirely unlike other long-term cycles of devastation in this country such as the period of Reconstruction, the Dust Bowl Years, or the Great Depression. There isn’t much ink spilled over the psychological toll from these times, since this is a relatively new way of thinking about major events and how people survive them. Still, the history of a people isn’t primarily told by social scientists but rather by those who are left to pass down the family stories.
Ardyth Ann Stull, in a Ph.D dissertation for the University of Iowa about her own family during the Great Depression wrote that one of the “nearly universal beliefs [of this time] was bearing hardship without complaint.” The lore of that time indicates that people became sturdy through hard work, being inventive with much less, and not talking about their problems. When more serious mental health problems arose in Stull’s family, they were simply ignored or denied, even when a family member went missing for long stretches of time, hospitalized for months in a sanitorium, the only treatment for serious mental maladies in those days which predated psychotropic medications and other therapeutic treatments for common conditions.
There is much talk still today about how we are made hardier or more resilient simply by going without. But when it comes to our psychological lives, this does not hold up to scrutiny. The reality is that, while we are often able to rise to the occasion, it is not without considerable cost. One that can be long-lasting, and which can be as detrimental as the hardiness is helpful. The legacy of the stoic person who learned as a child to be thrifty both financially as well as emotionally during the Great Depression is not one that any therapist today would promote as a picture of health. Nor is it the case today that all our focus should be on re-opening for business, school, or what have you, without careful consideration of the human, emotional, and relational costs of this year of beauty and terror.
The lesson that we can take away from the experiences of our forebears who have lived through long-term hardships is that we can rise again. In each case named above, the nation as a whole recovered, if unevenly (always unevenly, until we reach Martin Luther King’s Promised Land). As we do so today, let’s consider rebuilding with more psychological savvy than in years past. With more reconciliation of what this time has done to us, especially those who were at the fringes of privilege. Or who lacked it altogether. A more psychologically responsible society would have us considering how to best do that, with eyes wide-open to the fact that we did not bear the strain of this crisis equally. Many professionals found themselves self-improving or remodeling homes while their less-secure neighbors risked their lives to get to low-paying jobs with insufficient PPE.
As we march onward toward 2021, continuing on in the tragedy and the malaise that is this precarious time, let us remember that we are in the main beings who feel and who need one another with complete interdependence. And let us also remember that we will have the best chance at a thorough Recovery if both of these aspects of our individual and collective lives are included in the project of rebuilding our nation. Our selves. Inclusion of questions related to mental health and social well-being are crucial following this momentous collapse, a notion that is as true as it is untried.
And a thing that could turn the narrative of this era around from disaster to inspiration.
Counselors Roy Fisher and Liz Covey answer readers’ questions for the South Seattle Emerald’s “Ask a Therapist.” Have a question about a relationship? Wondering about the struggles of being a parent? Others likely have the same questions and Covey and Fisher bring years of professional experience to provide their insights.
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Featured image: “Walking The Ledge Part IV” by StarMama is licensed under CC BY 2.0. View a copy of this license here.
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