All over the Internet, there is advice about how to cope with life during a pandemic. It is constructive and well-intentioned. But there has also been some heated pushback as well.
For example, one woman suggested a Marie Kondo approach. Decluttering your house of unwanted items might also help declutter your life of unwanted emotions. If you can successfully create order within your home then perhaps you might be able to feel that same control within your life. In response to this suggestion, another woman replied that she did not need a to-do list but time to grieve and deal with the enormity of our new “normal.”
Often in Buddhism two things can be true at the same time. The advice was sound but not for everyone. This is because we are all unique, as are our experiences. Cleaning for some might be a valuable distraction from a vague sense of unease, but for others it is a denial of our true feelings and pain.
The conflict between these two posts is a matter of timing. Each person is in a different stage as they try to deal with their lack of control. Where Buddhism is concerned, I often say that the answer to all questions is “both” or “and.” It is likely that decluttering also requires self-reflection and grief is made more palatable when we engage in activities. We do not want to obsessively clean or wallow in our grief. Both activities should be married so that we do not get stuck. This is the Middle Way.
There is also a secret to Marie Kondo that most in America are not aware of. In the East, we change who we are by the activities we practice. In the West, we change who we are by changing how we think. Both approaches are effective under normal circumstances, but these are no longer normal circumstances. This is a worldwide pandemic, the first since the 1918 flu. I am not confident we can think our way out of this one. The circumstances are overwhelming. I don’t know where we are on the timeline and I am not sure there is a timeline.
The events on the ground are changing faster than I can process them. It is beyond my ability to comprehend cause and effect. But I am still able to participate in the world. I can breathe. I can love. I can clean. I can connect with others. I can carefully choose the words I use and listen to others. I can also change the context of my life and find new meaning.
For example, you can practice physical distancing rather than social distancing. It is just a change of terms but words matter. What we name things changes how we think and feel about them.
It is this deep connection to others that I think can sustain us. We are social creatures and need contact. It may no longer be physical but it can still be deeply emotional. We can make phone calls, text, Facetime and send emails. Perhaps we can also begin to send letters via snail mail.
It is interesting to think that we use to communicate via letters in envelopes. It was a time where we were much more isolated from one another. We only had land-lines and eight TV channels, and yet somehow, we were very happy. Just as our grandparents and great-grandparents were during WWI, the Great Depression and WWII.
This is our defining moment in history. When we can help one another and care for one another, we also benefit. It is a paradox, but now is the time to reach out and connect to others. We are well aware now that we are all in this together. Each person is involved. Denial is no longer an option.
So please breathe, listen and send those cards and letters. In this way, by focusing on what is most important, we can all declutter negative emotions from “both” our home “and” ourselves.
Rev. Jon Turner is resident minister at Orange County Buddhist Church in Anaheim.