Conforming with chaos - lessons for surviving 2020

The first half of 2020 was like driving through a forest fire and we are not out of the woods yet. A disaster coping expert's advice. Op-ed.

Avi Tenenbaum ,

Pandemic isolation
Pandemic isolation
iStock

You don't need to be a genius to determine that the year 2020 has surpassed all of our expectations for being a terribly unmemorable year.

We are living in challenging times. The year started with a global pandemic accompanied by death, illness, fear, stress, social isolation, financial difficulties, and frantic hoarding in stores.

Bad evolved to worse in the United States with the death of George Floyd complete with arson, looting, statue-removing, twitter-censoring, and an extremely volatile atmosphere full of political vitriol and self-righteous bashing of everything by everyone. Whether you oppose BLM marches and Police-defunding chants or support them one thing is for sure-these things did not so far make the year 2020 any calmer.

In Israel the already unstable political situation that has been ongoing for a while didn't calm down when the Netanyahu-Ganz arrangement was finally reached. Israel's politicians then ushered in the sovereignty idea. Whether you like sovereignty or oppose it one thing is for sure-it did not so far make the year 2020 any calmer.

We've been starving for a little break from the action, but the world is currently on a manic vector, repeatedly escorting in endless movement & noise, contradictory medical claims and retractions about those claims concerning COVID-19, and political shootouts of attrition.

Can't we have just a little break from it all? It's like a cheaply directed action movie that has no down-time, just one explosion after another. No plot or substance, just things getting blown up non-stop without any time to develop a narrative or absorb what is happening. Stimulus, knee-jerking response, then another stimulus and another knee-jerking response. We have become mindless slaves to an ambiguous psychological master who does not ever let us rest and reflect on our plight.

We are all in a rocking boat on stormy seas with no respite in sight and we are getting nauseous. What can we do to find calm and stability during such a dragged-out ongoing storm? What we can do about uncertainty and the relentless torrenting manic world events that keep showing up uninvited on our doorstep? Do we just wait it out?

Luckily for us, we were not the first human beings in our species to experience world chaos and confronting challenges. The topic of world chaos and uncertainty for extended periods of time is an old topic that has been explored, sung, and preserved by various scholars and poets over the generations. Now would be an opportune time to discuss some of these timeless ideas with hopes of saving our sanity.

Without further ado, let's jump in.

Radical Acceptance and Flexibility

"Radical acceptance" is the skill of allowing reality to be exactly as it is without exerting great energy to fight with it or make futile attempts to change it.

Instead of being engaged in a wrestling match with reality and getting exhausted, angry, and unwilling to feel uncertainty, just try allowing yourself to stop and notice the emotional feeling of discontent that uncertainty causes you. Just let the uncomfortable feeling of uncertainty and chaos sit there inside of you. Just let this uncomfortable feeling of not knowing so many things at once run through you however it desires, at its own pace and by its own terms.

The old saying says "if you can't beat them, join them". In our context, if you haven't yet discovered the magical pill that makes all of your problems and anxiety evaporate like steam, then "join them" (your anxious feelings and thoughts) by letting yourself have these feelings and thoughts unconditionally. Host them inside of your body and relate to them like guests visiting your guesthouse, letting them come and go as they please (this isn't my analogy-see Rumi's 740-year old poem "The Guesthouse" for more).

The almost-miraculous paradigm shift happens when we stop rejecting the political or medical or financial (etc.) reality of things and choose instead to focus our attention on managing the problem at hand, on living with it or through it and being successful or wealthy or happy or calm despite it. We drop the futile energy spent on wishing things were different or how they ought to be-and we begin working with how things actually are.

Paradoxically, behavioral scientists have discovered that by accepting something that we cannot change we become more flexibly able to respond to it and change our situation for the better or at least manage our maladaptive reaction to it better than we were previously capable of doing.

Mindfulness meditation, for those unfamiliar, is an excellent and exceptionally easy way of developing these skills. Acceptance and Commitment therapy too is one of the many user-friendly models of psychotherapy that packages mindfulness in a neat way to teach practical tools for becoming more accepting and develop what is called "Psychological Flexibility". Translating the psychobabble expression in plain English it means: Learn how to dance more flexibly with your restricting emotional responses and thoughts, how to shift perspectives to those that serves you better at any given moment upon demand, and how to effectively adapt to your surroundings.

Don’t misunderstand-there is a time and place for advocacy or making the effort to change one's situation. If you can take some action that will be effective, do so. However, we will focus for the duration of this article on those all-too-common situations where larger-than-life problems arise and there is little action to take to make the problems go immediately away. For example, you can wear a mask with the hope of "stopping the spread", but you will still not have a job the next morning and need to adapt to figure out how to survive financially while unemployed.

Consider this: Global chaos and pandemics are not necessarily the only large problems in our lives right now but also the way in which we react to them. Our knee-jerk reactions to the pandemic and political upheaval by itself is a major problem, and it causes us to burn an unbelievable of time trying to complain and control things which we have little influence over. Stop struggling with what you can't just pause or wish away, and start accepting them unconditionally with willingness to live with these thoughts and feelings and world events, not stopping anymore to pointlessly mentally wrestle with them with hopes of making them go away.

In Israel when kids are afraid of a cat they stomp their foot loudly on the ground and often cause the cat to run away. Our negative feelings, aversive thoughts, and gloomy world events, however, don't work that way. We can't pout and stomp our foot on the ground to chase away unemployment or pandemics.

If we are waiting for negative feelings and political upheavals and pandemics to go away before we are willing to engage in life then we are causing ourselves to lose out. This is not the way to survive tough times like the ones we are currently in.

Political upheavals, plummeting economies, or global health emergencies like Coronavirus are undesirable yet we cannot simply wish them away. We may be in these circumstances for more months or years to come.

We can't press the pause button on controversial elections or the pandemic, but we can learn to adapt better while going through these things and to thrive despite them.

The concept of acceptance isn't exclusive to mindfulness meditation either-just peek into ancient spiritual texts and you will find teachings there like "Everything that happens to a person is for the best (so stop rejecting it and accept it!)" or "who is wealthy? The person that is happy with what they have (so stop fixating on what you don't have and move forward from anger towards gratitude!)", and so on.

I think that a lot of people know these timeless adages, but psychological flexibility evades them nonetheless. This is because it is not the technical fact that somebody once read these ideas in a book that liberates the mind. There's a little more to it than that. Just knowing that you should accept things as they are does not liberate human minds.

It is the act of choosing over and over (hundreds of times in a row) to allow undesirable things be exactly as they are without trying to change them that liberates humans minds from slavery. Mind-redemption is achieved by unconditionally experiencing life on life's terms repeatedly and consistently and having the willingness to live life even with this prime minister or this virus or this unemployment or this husband or whatever challenge that presents itself.

The less we fight our realities the more mental resources we will discover available inside of ourselves that can be utilized to enjoy life and make do with whatever it is that we have. Strangely enough, accepting what you cannot change often seems to facilitate change more than anything else!

In my relief work with natural disasters, war, and tragedy, the number one skill that has helped people cope with challenges is flexibility or adaptation. Families somehow learn to move on without a deceased parent or child, organizations learn to make comebacks from big financial losses, and so on. Japan was nuked twice at the end of World War Two and now seem to be doing okay, ranking as one of the world's superpowers. Millions of Jews were murdered in the holocaust and the survivors somehow rebuilt themselves from the ashes. So many examples can be given.

Human beings are incredibly resilient and able to bounce back from challenges and loss. By adapting to flexibly fit into our surroundings or circumstances we survive and thrive.

When I was a kid there was a popular toy named Gumby, a green clay figure that was extraordinarily flexible and able to morph into an endless variety of shapes. Aside from being a toy, Gumby also was a children's TV series (episodes can still be found today on YouTube). Gumby's ability to be so flexible enabled him to fulfill any need and solve any problem.

While the United States Marine Corps originally adopted the motto "Semper Fi", meaning "always faithful", the soldiers eventually updated their motto to "Semper Gumby". The Marines were saying via their updated motto that the more a soldier is flexible in combat, the more likely it is that he will survive and be victorious. Winning in combat not only requires adequate firepower but also superior flexibility, just like Gumby, the clay figure who could morph into any shape to solve any problem that he stumbled upon. Soldiers well versed in flexibility will somehow find a way to tackle superior armor, overcome outnumbering enemies, make up somehow for a lack of air support or ammunition, and so on.

The key then to surviving and adapting to an unstable violent world rife with uncertainty, riots, illness, unemployment, and fake news is to adapt as best as you can to your harsh reality. Seek to be like Gumby. Do not wait for things to change and put your life's plans on hold, sitting idle for months in a row. Do not sit in a puddle of pity bemoaning the evils of this political leader or that incompetent public health official because that will not help to survive and thrive.

The strategy that truly helps for survival when things are chaotic is acting like the Marine's motto of "Semper Gumby", developing adaptability and flexibility when confronting the challenges that lie in our path to success.

Practically speaking, create a plan B, and then create a plan C. Keep moving. Be resourceful, make do with whatever emotional, financial, or social capital you've got. Be creative, coming up with new ways to solve old problems, like how to make money during an economic depression or how to stay fit while your gym is closed due to COVID-19 restrictions.

The more flexible you can be and the better you can roll with life's punches, the farther you will go and the more you'll succeed.

Rationalizations and Excuses

We human beings are blinded by bias. A few months ago in the height of quarantine measures in Israel, I found myself in my bedroom noticing an unsightly pile of my clothing that was not hung up on hangers and returned to the closet. In the blink of an eye my subconscious mind explained why my wife's clothing was neatly hanging in the closet while mine was in a heap on a small table. My mind rationalized as follows: I work more hours a day than my wife does and I am at home less often than she, therefore I have less time to put away my clothing in the closet and consequently it remains in a pile on the small table in my room. What a brilliant explanation!

I had overlooked a simple fact: For two months straight both my wife and I were unemployed and locked up at home due to COVID-19 restrictions. I had hundreds of hours to hang up my suit and pants and put them away. You know the real reason why my suit was crumpled in a pile? It is because I am lazy and disorganized!

I was blown away, truly stunned at how easily my mind had offered me a seemingly brilliant answer to my question that had no connection to reality. It sounded so convincing at first, until I realized that my answer was merely a bogus rationalization conveniently conjured in a split second with zero conscious thought to explain away my egoistic errant behavior and let me feel good about myself.

How many rationalizations and cobwebs of half-truths are we entangled in that prevent us from surviving and moving forward when faced with adversity? These lies run so deep and there's nobody but ourselves to even blame for them! Its unbelievable if you stop to think about it.

The more we are concerned with our egos or trapped by our fears and seek only convenient truths, the less we can successfully adapt to our environment and do what it takes to succeed. Conversely, the more we check into our present reality and try to fit ourselves into it as much as possible, the more we can survive and be successful in overcoming the challenges that stand in our way. This can help greatly with uncertainty, the topic we started with. We must confront our worries full throttle and seek the whole, occasionally ugly and inconvenient, truth of the matters at hand. Only then will we be able to competently plan how to navigate our real reality, not a hopeful convenient version of our reality.


Creativity and Resourcefulness

Aside from completely confronting reality without using a "convenience" filter, another element of surviving chaos is to use our imagination to create new possibilities or to use old things in new ways. The less enmeshed and entangled we are with our old ways of thinking and old business or study plans, the more room we have for new possibilities.

Our expertly thought-out business plan for 2020 may not be serving us well any longer. Our study plans to accomplish certain educational achievements may no longer be possible using old plans that we made last year in the pre-COVID era.

Quick! Adapt! Be like Gumby and use your imagination to be creative and resourceful. Make do with what you have, working within the confines of your reality and seeking to create new possibilities no matter what. Necessity is the mother of invention. It sure is necessary right now to reinvent our ways of making money, of studying, of living, so let's get to work and invent!

I read an article recently about how the Xerox company started producing Hand-Sanitizer. What does Hand-Sanitizer have to do with photocopy machines? The company claims they want to do whatever is in their power to fight COVID-19, hence their surprising production shift. It may be true. However, business experts speculate that Xerox is employing a brilliant timeless strategy for surviving an economic depression: They are adapting to their reality. They are making use of what they have to accomplish their goal, which is presumably to make money. They realize that right now it is easier to sell hand-sanitizer than copy machines and are conforming with their reality.

Chaotic Times Help Reveal our Inner-Strengths

I was talking to a young friend of mine the other day. He is a student and bemoaned that due to COVID-19 restrictions he is stuck at home, his school is closed, his teachers are no longer available for consultation like previously, and he is all on his own. He exclaimed "I'm all on my own now" in a gloomy tone reflecting despair, to which I replied "Wow-that's incredible! What a priceless opportunity!"

I explained that all the while until now he was simply studying in a conveniently arranged educational cocoon. Within the confines of his school he had only exploited some of his potential. His meals were prepared by somebody else, class attendance was taken to ensure he showed up, strict behavioral rules and bedtime were enforced in his dormitory, and he was told what to learn and how quickly to learn it and for how long to learn it.

Highly structured businesses or educational environments are important-but can you be a student or good worker despite nobody taking your attendance? Can you use this opportunity to learn how to learn or work autonomously? Can you practice using your free-will and self-control to dictate for yourself by yourself and to yourself when it is wise and healthy for you to go to sleep and get up?

My young friend bemoaned his lack of structure, but I just saw opportunity!

Your goal is to learn, isn't it? Go ahead now and learn more about yourself and life than you ever could have hoped for while in your carefully planned school or educational cocoon.

You will now learn that you exist as a separate individual entity independent of schools and schedules and teachers! You will now discover your inner strengths because by an unforeseen matter of God's will your school is closed and your teachers are currently unavailable to think for you!

You will learn how to be studious no matter what is going on around you, or no matter whether or not people are taking your attendance.

You will learn that life has ups and downs.

You will learn that as much as you flex to meet the challenges in your path that is how successful you will be despite 2020, despite pandemics and political upheaval and economic depression and closed schools and whatever else may or may not be in store for us in these next few months.

Make use of whatever you've got to be successful! Be resourceful, be creative, be imaginative, be adaptive, and milk COVID-19 and all the challenges that you'll ever face for all that you can learn from them or profit from them.

COVID-19 is simply a microcosm of life. It can be seen as a special type of school where attendees learn, if they pay good attention, how to surf life's ups and downs. How to adapt. How to go to sleep on time. How to make money selling hand-sanitizer with machinery designed to make photocopy machines. How to make good choices while thinking for themselves all by themselves, while carefully examining their realities and confronting them full throttle and Gumby-ing their way through the hurdles.

Will sovereignty be the best or the worst thing that ever happened to Israel? Will Trump win or Biden? Will COVID-19 stick around or fade away? I honestly have no idea and predicting the answer to any of these questions is way above my paygrade, but I am willing to face the music and adapt to whatever outcome we are led to either way, which is our topic of discussion. I will try my best to be like one of those punching bags that bounce back each time it is struck

It is the shift from our inflexible automatic way of thinking over to flexible realistic workable thinking that saves us from calamity and earns us the title of survivor.

Untangle from loony rationalizations and convenient truths & stop talking so much about what you wish was happening or should be happening>See now what is actually happening>Adapt to your real reality & make a viable plan that better fits your situation>Use whatever you have available to accomplish whatever it is that you need to get done.

This is the recipe for survival in a nutshell.

I remember once reading about Alcoholic American soldiers during World War 2 who were trying to stay sober from drinking. They were not only fighting the enemy-they were fighting their addictive urges to drink and wash away their trauma, homesickness, boredom, and fear with lots of alcohol.

Under normal circumstances back at home these alcoholics would have (courageously) attended 12 step meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous. They would have a sponsor (sort of like a peer-coach) to help them apply the 12 steps. But in the European and Pacific theatres of war there were no 12 step meetings or sponsors available to the Alcoholic soldiers in their foxholes or B-17 Bomber cockpits or in their Submarines down below.

How then could these soldiers hope to stay sober from alcohol?

It is easy to rationalize and say "I have no possible way to stay sober from alcohol during the war, I'll just drink my way through until the war is over and work on this when I return home". It is easy to fall prey to rigid thinking "there's no way I can stay sober here-I don't have any resources here to help me!"

Yet, many of these soldiers didn't say that. They penned letters home asking their family and friends to send them copies of AA's "Big Book". They read the book in their foxholes and cockpits and below the sea on their submarines and this helped them to stay sober.

These soldiers untangled themselves from rationalizations and rigid thinking. They tried to adapt and be creative and give sobriety a fair chance utilizing what ever they managed to get their hands on and to make it work. Adapting to one's environment opens the mind and creates new possibilities, like staying sober from alcohol during a world war with nothing but a book.

In case you doubt the veracity of this historical account I made sure to verify it with arguably the world's biggest Addiction historian Mr. William White just yesterday so no worries, it really happened. We are tempted to disbelieve such a story because we are so over-reliant today on therapists and rehabs and medications and 12 step meetings to the point where we don't allow ourselves to believe it is even possible to stay sober from alcoholism using just a book while in a foxhole.

This is just like how we don’t believe we can possibly study or go to bed on time or get up on time and be disciplined without the neatly planned schedules that our schools generally provide for us.

Suddenly, with schools closed, students got to learn that one can be studious even when not in school and get up on time even with nobody taking attendance.

COVID-19 has helped us see our own strengths, our ability to make good choices, and our capacity for resilience. COVID-19 forced us to re-examine our rigid ways of thinking and to adapt.

I remember seeing a video a few years ago of a woman driving in her car surrounded by massive Californian forest fires on all sides, trapped by the flames. The only way she could possibly survive was to muster her courage up and drive through plumes of smoke and fire and a dark scary tunnel, which she did. If she had given up and not even tried, she'd be dead now. But she survived. She adapted and drove through plumes of smoke and fire, which is a crazy thing to do, unless it is adaptive and serves you well. In her case, it saved her life. She very quickly fit herself into her reality and not the other way around, so she lived to share her story.

So far the year 2020 is like a massive forest fire surrounding us on all sides. Let's resolve to adapt better to it and drive straight through its plumes of smoke, until we come out the other side. Let's creatively problem-solve any challenges that come our way. Let's resolve to wake up and adapt with the changing turbulent times, to stop should-ing about what things should be like and start making do with what we have because that's the reality and it might even be more than enough. If we do so, we will survive and hopefully even thrive, despite 2020.

Avi Tenenbaum is an expert in Disaster Behavioral Health and Psychological First Aid. His experience includes providing aid for communities coping in the wake of large and small-scale disasters and war including the Second Lebanon War, Hurricane Harvey, Pittsburg Tree-of-Life massacre, Haifa 2016 Fires, Operation Cast-Lead, and more. He is currently on the front lines battling the effects of Covid-19 on the soul. He can be found at https://www.facebook.com/avitenenbaumPFA.




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