Six Things I’m Doing to Stay Sane — and be a Better Human — During This Surreal and Tumultuous Time

The sparrow is so small that I nearly step on it before seeing it, lying sideways and still on the driveway, its mud color melding into the asphalt. I kneel down for a closer look at its dark feathers neatly folded, its threadlike legs rigid, its beak and glassy brown eyes open. For a moment, I wonder if it could be sleeping open-eyed and, if I stare hard enough, it will spring up and fly away. How crazy to think that I could will this dead bird to fly, or to feel like crying because it is dead.

It isn’t the dead bird, of course, that instills in me this brew of disbelief, hope and despair. These and other mismatched feelings have been colliding inside me for months, ever since Covid-19 began galloping across the country, killing more than a hundred thousand Americans, leaving millions unemployed and impoverished; exposing racial disparities in health and health care that have made Black and Latinx Americans the virus’s principal victims; and, drawing critical attention to systemic racism in education, employment and housing — the racism that undergirds the murders of Black Americans at the hands of white police officers.

It is too much to comprehend.

Covid-19, lost work, and the monotony of quarantine are awful enough, but their overlap with racial injustice and police brutality have so overloaded my emotional circuits that a dead sparrow moves me to tears.

Everyone I know is on edge. A colleague told me that one minute she thinks she’s doing okay, and the next she feels like pulling out her hair. How could it be otherwise, with the pandemic spiking and the country convulsing, and when we don’t know what to expect from one day to the next?

The curve flattens and our spirits soar; it rebounds, and they sink. We are buoyed when states and cities remove symbols of white supremacy, then devastated by Congress’s steadfast refusal to consider a 30-year-old reparations proposal. We hurtle from acceptance to anger, determination to dread, optimism to gloom. Daily, sometimes hourly, we ask: When will a vaccine arrive? How will our country reconcile racial injustice? When will safety no longer be a luxury?

Instead of driving myself crazy by continually asking questions that have no answers, I am capitalizing on my anxious energy by:

Helping others. Nothing squashes a personal pity party faster than buying or delivering groceries to people who cannot leave their homes, or calling or visiting someone — either six feet apart or over Zoom — who needs company.

Educating myself. Since the pandemic put the kibosh on my freelance workflow, I’m using my newfound free time to learn about our country’s legacy of racial oppression.

Extending warmth and good wishes to everyone I see. People not only return smiles and waves but also seem as grateful as I am for human contact.

Practicing self-compassion. These are extraordinary times and it’s human to feel stressed, sad, outraged or overwhelmed. Bashing myself for having these feelings only makes them worse. Acknowledging them gives them less power.

Feeling gratitude. Recognizing my privilege removes the blinders which, after I’m done wincing, empowers me to do my part in rejecting and dismantling racial inequality. The real privilege is participating in this historic moment.

Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. There is no knowing how or when the converging crises of the past several months will resolve. Events are ever-changing and unpredictable. A vaccine may arrive early next year, awareness of historic and systemic racism is growing, and efforts are underway in some cities to reassess and reallocate police department funding.

But scientific discoveries and social change evolve slowly, and permanent solutions are far off. I can become paralyzed with fear, keep mourning dead sparrows, or I can lean into the discomfort. I choose to lean in.

It turns out that there’s value in discomfort. It makes me less complacent and pushes me to notice my behaviors, whether by respecting others’ preferences that I wear a mask — even outdoors and six feet away — or by checking my implicit racial biases. In fact, paying closer attention to my attitudes, and taking greater responsibility for how I treat others and implicitly support structures of inequality may be the best outcomes of this surreal and tumultuous time.

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