One of my new hobbies is checking out the latest chalk art around my neighborhood on my multiple daily dog walks that are keeping me sane during this strange and monotonous time of quarantine. Some of the artwork gets pretty sophisticated, more and more so as the days stretch on. Then there are the sweet little drawings on the sidewalk in front of a house about a mile away, obviously done by very little ones. I don’t know this family, but I tend to walk this particular route in the 5 o’clock hour when I can usually hear some whines and cries coming from the window as I walk just beside the cars parked on the side of the street, keeping my appropriate physical distance. The sounds bring back that familiar “witching hour” I remember when my own kids were little. When it was time to get dinner prepared after a long day of keeping them entertained, and we were all at about the end of our day’s energy (and patience) reserves. When I walk by this particular house most days, there is always new evidence turning up of the great efforts taken to keep the smallest of this home’s occupants busy and happy all day: small starter scooters strewn about the lawn, a balance beam, painted rocks, adorable homemade Easter decorations, sweet notes of thanks to essential workers hung on the house, and always new additions to the chalk drawings. God bless those parents giving it their all each day. God bless us all doing our best to keep on keeping on in these most unusual and often distressing circumstances.
On another block in front of another stranger’s home, I saw this message late last week:
It first got my attention because when I was still quite a distance down the opposite side of the street, I saw another dog walker, an older gentleman, glance at it and continue on his way. Then he turned back and stopped to read the message again. Curious me needed to cross the street to see what prompted him to look twice. Turns out this one really got me thinking, too. I’ve certainly heard the term before, but it did give me pause to come upon it during an early morning walk, as it clearly had the gentleman who saw it first. I mean, a month ago this wouldn’t have been a very likely message for someone to write with the old sidewalk chalk. Outside of organizational leaders, business minds, or self-help/motivational speakers, your average lay person may not have been thinking much about nor seeking ways to “leverage adversity” a few short weeks ago. We sure weren’t on a broad collective scale at any rate. The way my mind works, I had to go home and look up the phrase and its applications. I quickly came upon an online continuing education course for healthcare professionals, psychologists, educators, social workers, etc. with this term in the course title: “Leveraging Adversity: Turning Setbacks into Springboards.” The course description explained how clinicians could help their clients face various kinds of adversity and provided this working explanation of the term:
“Leveraging adversity, that is, using it to make critical reconsiderations, align values with behavior, and face challenges with a growth mindset…. five core strengths of leveraging adversity are gratitude, openness, personal strength, connection, and belief.” Claire Dorotik-Nana, LMFT
That course explanation got me thinking. The parts about making “critical reconsiderations,” acting on our values, practicing gratitude stood out. All of these things resonated. Then I started wondering about the word leverage all on its own. I don’t often associate that word with positive connotations. I usually associate it with manipulation. When used as a noun, leverage is first defined as “the exertion of force by means of a lever or an object used in the manner of a lever.” Clearly, in the case of leveraging adversity, the term would be used as a verb. These definitions came up:
1. use borrowed capital for(an investment), expecting the profits made to be greater than the interest payable.
2. use (something) to maximum advantage.
I became dismayed at the notion of force and the idea of “using” the adverse situations in which we find ourselves for some kind of personal gain or profit. I went from having a positive feeling about this innocuous neighborhood message, to finding myself annoyed and put off by it. “Force” and “use” implied a type of productivity that has been elusive for me and so many others in these days of physical distancing. I write this post on day 23 of being mostly inside, in my home, with these neighborhood walks being my only outlet. Back in the first few days of sheltering in place, memes about Shakespeare writing King Lear during the plague, and Isaac Newton inventing calculus among other things, struck me as funny. I’d share them with quips like, “The pressure is on, folks!” One of my most dear and respected friends wrote me privately in response to one of those posts, sharing how stressful those kinds of messages felt right then. How what was meant to be funny just wasn’t. The demand to be productive was just too much. My flimsy attempt at being humorous didn’t strike some as funny at all, right from the start. As the days dragged on, I began to share the sentiment my friend had expressed to me. The notion of “leveraging the adversity” felt like another means of productivity shaming during a time when many (including myself) are finding it very challenging to be productive in many ways. For a couple of days, I avoided that block with the consternating message entirely.
Even this blog became a point of stress. I had embarked upon it pre-pandemic with so many ideas and several posts in progress, ready to throw out some thoughts and stories without being overly concerned about having a filter. I was ready and excited. It felt like a joy to sit down and write, not a chore at all. Then the world changed on all of us, and suddenly I felt the burden of needing to be especially mindful about any words or ideas I’m putting out in the world right now. I also felt any sense of creativity being sucked dry by my new reality of needing to learn how to teach my 4th grade class remotely. That old “learning to fly the plane while in flight” totally applies here. Not much energy left for free flowing thought when my day job has been totally redefined.
Eventually, I passed the message on the sidewalk again.
Each time I read it, I am first thrown by how the cursive looks almost identical to my own when I am being very conscientious with my penmanship. We evidently learned the same D’Nealian writing style way back when. So it almost feels like a message I have written to myself somehow. And it has obviously gotten under my skin.
This morning on my walk, I started thinking about the word leverage in terms of balance. When I read the message this time it conjured the image of being a child on a teeter totter. I recalled how fun that particular piece of playground equipment was when I’d be on it with a friend of similar height and weight, when we could bounce each other into the air with similar force and exertion, neither of us overpowering the other resulting in one of us dangling in the air with the other planted in the sand. The ability to balance is what made it enjoyable.
It struck me that it is the ability to find mental and emotional balance that is making this current time (while not exactly always enjoyable) tolerable for me. And I say ability to find it, because it is not always readily seen.
On a purely selfish level, I am so thankful COVID-19 didn’t hit 4 or 5 years ago. If it had, I would be attempting to face these tough circumstances with a mostly empty toolbox. Previous blog posts have touched upon some of the struggles I experienced and how cognitive behavioral therapy (among other things) helped me come through a very dark time. Strategies I learned during that painful period are incredibly helpful right now. For one, I am much more comfortable sitting with discomfort. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t eagerly invite it or want it. But I no longer feel afraid of it or become overly concerned that it is going to overwhelm me.
I’m pretty sure I have never witnessed such widespread sadness and discomfort before. Some of the funniest, most upbeat authors/bloggers I enjoy reading are regularly in tears on social media being very honest in their struggles these days. I appreciate their vulnerability. People are hurting for so many different reasons right now: illness, financial loss, physical isolation, lack of connection, loss of social outlets/ entertainment, you name it. It’s all so hard. And don’t get me started on comparative suffering. If you are hurting right now, you are hurting. No one saying “it could be worse” or anything along those lines is the least bit helpful right now. Pain is pain. Discomfort is discomfort. If you are feeling it, you are feeling it. Minimizing someone else’s pain is not the least bit helpful.
What can be beneficial, I think, is having an idea of what to do with difficult feelings when they come.
Probably the single most useful tool I took with me from my experience 4 years ago, was learning how to not over-identify with emotions. Learning how to recognize an uncomfortable feeling when it comes, to name it and acknowledge it and not immediately resist it, was a huge breakthrough. Some of you may also already know the benefits of this practice. If not, I’d love to possibly save you hundreds of dollars in therapy by sharing just this little nugget. Being able to say, “I am feeling really sad right this minute,” and to just sit with it, while affirming that it is a temporary feeling that doesn’t need to live in me permanently, is very freeing. (You can substitute sad with any and all negative emotions you’d rather just avoid or deny.) I had previously been so distressed by feelings of sadness, first resisting, then when that wasn’t successful, I would subconsciously over-attach myself to negative emotions. I would then go on to criticize myself for not being a more positive person in general (which is ironic because I did a pretty good job faking that for a long time, at least to the less discerning eye). It was a vicious cycle from which I couldn’t extract myself. When I stood back and observed the cycle, it was the initial resistance followed by over-attachment to feelings that got me so stuck.
Allowing myself to feel a feeling means taking the time to name the negative emotion passing through me. My therapist had me think of the undesired feeling as something outside of myself just passing by. It’s just a feeling; temporary; nothing more, nothing less. I would practice noticing it, acknowledging it, giving it a moment, then I would allow it to be on its way, not taking it on to become a part of me. This took practice, but in time it became very effective. Finding something satisfying that I could turn my attention to after that initial acknowledgment was a necessary next step. For each of us that thing will be different. For me it can be making my bed or something as simple as that. Everything just feels a little better when my bed is made. Reading has also long been a positive diversion for me. When I discovered early in the quaratine days that reading was proving difficult and my attention would not hold, puzzles did the trick. Other times it could be washing my face, or hugging my dog. Walks and getting outside is always a move that will have me feeling better quickly. Once I engage in the positive activity, I notice my emotions have begun to change as well.
But first acknowledging the undesired feeling is really important. I can’t get past a negative emotion if I am trying to resist it or pretend it’s not there. Those negative feelings have a way of building up and exploding on us if we try to suppress them or ignore them too long. Likewise, it is harmful if we sink too far into the feeling without acknowledging it then letting it move along (or other times more actively pushing it along). If we set up camp with those negative feelings, they can destroy us.
There is a place for positivity, and I do believe that looking for silver linings is part of a meaningful life. Recognizing blessings and practicing gratitude is powerful and life changing. But positivity at all costs, in and of itself, for its own sake, without regard for genuine human emotion and experience is pretty empty. Those who have a capacity for the greatest joy are often those who have been the most well acquainted with grief. There’s a lot to grieve these days. And I don’t think it’s indulgent to do so. I think it’s necessary.
I’ll leave you with some links to articles/posts that have been the most encouraging and validating to me in recent weeks:
One bit of progress, I was able to finish reading not one, but two books in the past four days. My attention seems to be improving. That’s a definite plus!
How about you? How are you leveraging the adversity?