Let’s redeem the past year and make a new future

‘When will we get back to normal?’ While it’s a completely understandable question, I believe it’s not the best question for us to be asking.

Let’s face it, it’s been a rough year: COVID-19, politics, racial tensions, nontraditional instruction, weather. … Now, add whatever got dumped on you. It’s completely understandable if you’re feeling weary.

Good news! There are things you can do, things that are actually pretty easy to do that you’ll enjoy and will help.

Look for heroes

What can we learn from others who faced difficulties? What can we learn from Rosie the Riveter? The Great Depression? Spanish flu? COVID-19 is just the next in a long list of trials and tribulations imposed on human beings.

Here’s one thing for certain, through all the ups and downs, the heartaches and the awfulness, we humans have an amazing capacity to survive. We adapt, we hold on, we get through, we persevere. We have grit. In the lives of others we can see our own capacity for grit and determination Best case, we thrive, not just endure. I recently heard a speaker say that “the goal is not to bounce back, but to bounce forward.”

Look for ways these imposed crises have strengthened and can strengthen you. Force yourself to look at the half-full glass. This is not easy, and it should not be a denial of whatever is truly awful. In the best sense, perspective is a spiritual discipline, a form of mindfulness that settles that anxious soul.

“The goal is to redeem this moment, not merely to restore ourselves to the old one.”

— Rev. Ronald C. Oliver, Ph.D., BCC

Lean into others

While driving down Interstate 65 after an ice storm I took particular notice of all the trees the ice had pulled down. Notably, interestingly, not all the trees had fallen. It was mainly those at the edge of the forest. The forest stood while the poor trees at the edge were pulled down. When the icy weight pushed on a forest tree it leaned into its neighbor and that tree leaned into its neighbor, and so on. … When the cold winds pushed the ice-heavy trees at the edge of the forest away from the support of the forest, many fell. The forest could endure what an individual tree could not.

We survive when we lean in and allow ourselves to be leaned onto. Needing others and being needed by them is a gift of our humanness, not a weakness.

A case for awe and gratitude

Perry Wilson, M.D., an associate professor of medicine at Yale University, describes awe as “a positive emotion that people feel when they are in the presence of something bigger than themselves that they cannot immediately understand.” In his article, “‘Awe Walks’ Increase Prosocial Emotions, Make Smiles Bigger, and Selfies Smaller,” he cites the research of Virginia Strum, Ph.D., associate professor at the University of California San Francisco, who figured out a way to measure the impact of awe. Those who took regular “awe walks” seemed to enjoy an unexpected positive lift from the discipline. My advice, unplug from all your screens and spend time being awed by nature or art — anything that places your emotional focus outside yourself.

The second discipline: gratitude.

Brother David Steindl-Rast suggested, “It is not joy that makes us grateful. It is gratitude that makes us joyful.

Joy is not possible without gratitude. Here’s an invitation, start a gratitude journal and every day write down 10 or so things you are grateful for. Once a week, read through your journal. I’m quite sure that after a few weeks you’ll find yourself being changed in ways that you like.

Think about the ‘back to normal’ question

One last suggestion: We need to be asking a different question. During this past year a prominent recurring question has been, “When will we get back to normal?” While it’s a completely understandable question, I believe it’s not the best question for us to be asking.

We can’t focus backward and forward at the same time. I heard someone say, “When you’re looking back, you’ll likely trip over the future.” Truth is, when we’re really honest with ourselves, there’s a lot of the old normal that, well, wasn’t so great.

So here’s the key (that’s a pun that will make sense momentarily), a crisis can unlock things that likely would have been unavailable to us without the crisis. A crisis can force us to use new possibilities, new awareness, new ways. … The goal is to redeem this moment, not merely to restore ourselves to the old one. Certainly, while some of that old normal will become our future, if we don’t make use of what this past year plus has forced us into, we’ve wasted the crisis. And that my friends is making something bad even worse.

The Rev. Ronald C. Oliver, Ph.D., BCC, is Norton Healthcare’s system vice president for mission and outreach.

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