I am hearing this question over and over these days. It got me thinking about how I manage my need for instant gratification and how I manage things I have no control over. Things like the price of food or gas. Things like when friends or family die. Things like memory loss or exposure to an unseen threat.
I don’t know when this will end. I do know that waiting can be nerve-wracking. Think of all the times you have been waiting for something. Waiting for a bus. Waiting for a check to show up in the mail. Waiting for results from a medical test. The nature of the thing you are waiting for actually influences how long you perceive the wait is!
I remember waiting for Santa. That wait was filled with hopes, desires, and positive anticipation. I also remember waiting for my COVID results. Even though it only took five days (this was before things were more organized), each one of those days felt like a year. I can’t begin to imagine what waiting is like for people who have tested negative, realizing that they are still vulnerable. For myself, I felt relief from knowing. That certainty gave me a sense of control so that I was able to take steps to keep myself from getting worse. I could plan. I could anticipate my needs in the short-term, and make arrangements for things in the long-term.
I had an interesting epiphany around that also. I realized my definition of “short-term” had shrunk down to hours and days. My definition of “long-term” had expanded to years and decades. My short-term experiences were focused on getting my immediate needs met. “What do I need to do today or by what specific time?” My long term needs are focused on five-year plans. When I have the psychic and cognitive energy to dream about the future, it includes what my life will be like after I retire and after I am back in good physical shape. I am assuming that I have maybe 10 to 15 years left where I can still be active and contribute to the well-being of the planet.
I strongly suspect that there is great variability in how each of us defines short- and long-term based on how we are assessing our current physical state and the likelihood of threat around us. Until the pandemic hit, most people I know paid little heed to short- and long-term issues. Once we were required to shelter in place and once shortages began to appear, the capacity to be patient went down.
“Too soon” feels claustrophobic. “Too long” feels unmanageable. A vaccine may take two or three years to be developed. That is too long. Getting back to work and getting children back to school seems too soon. The disappointment when we were unable to return to “normal” after two or three weeks (which seemed an eternity) has now blossomed into what feels like sure suicide of re-opening too soon. The circumstances haven’t changed; just our ability to tolerate the delay.
Some of you may be familiar with the “Marshmallow Test”. Social psychologist Walter Mischel designed an experiment to observe how young children managed to control their impulses when presented with an incentive to delay gratification. Turns out that the skill of controlling our impulses arises from emotional triggers. If we are offered something desirable (a marshmallow), but told we will have to wait, some of us may not be able to wait at all and others of us may be able to wait forever.
This finding can be applied to the resistance so many people seem to have to being told they must wear a mask. Turns out, the promise of being COVID-free within a couple of years if we wear a mask all the time is too difficult for some folks to handle. They refuse to wear the mask and just take their chances. The children in Mischel’s experiment had it far easier. If they waited for 15 minutes and didn’t eat what was put in front of them, they got double the reward. But if they didn’t, they didn’t get any reward at all. In the pandemic, the outcomes are life and death with some people dying and others not suffering at all.
Over the years I have worked with many patients who would do the most amazing things to manage their distress over having to wait. Most described the wait as causing these intensely uncomfortable feelings that demanded that something be done right away! That “something” might include using substances, using avoidance behaviors, attempting to pray the feelings away, or other distraction strategies. Sometimes these strategies would work and sometimes they wouldn’t.
A wise and wonderful therapist, Marsha Linehan, coined the term “radical acceptance” to describe a strategy for managing the distress associated with these feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. In brief, Linehan suggests that instead of wishing things were different, we need to accept what is. This gives us the ultimate power of choosing. She suggests that the first step in freeing ourselves from suffering is choosing to accept what is. She is also clear that we don’t have to LIKE what is, but by making a commitment to accept something that is uncomfortable, terrifying, unpleasant, or distressful, we are exercising our willingness muscles instead of resisting or acting willfully.
How would this work for COVID? Accept that we will need to be wearing masks, washing our hands, and keeping physical distance for months or even years. (Radical Acceptance). Make a commitment to staying safe and helping others to stay safe (Turning the Mind). Take care NOT to refuse to make changes when what is needed is change. Don’t give up, don’t try to “fix” everybody or every situation by judging and calling them out, and don’t refuse to tolerate the moment (Willfulness). Instead, do just what is needed in each situation. If people aren’t wearing a mask, stay away from them or politely ask them to wear one in your presence. Act after reflecting rather than react out of fear. Seek to identify what is probable rather than be held hostage by what might be possible. If you are still feeling scared, accept that and soothe that part of you that needs soothing. Maybe give yourself a marshmallow!
I can’t answer the question I posed at the beginning of this blog. But I know that reaching out to others is a powerful balm for fear. Acts of kindness are helpful in all situations. I find it incredibly helpful to remember that while I may feel detached or isolated, I am actually connected to friends, family, the Earth, and something even greater.