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Holding onto hope during a global pandemic

March 25, 2020

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette March 25, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic is all-consuming. Reports of the number of COVID-19 cases, the number of confirmed deaths and predictions of worsening conditions are terrifying. The widespread closures of schools, businesses and places of public accommodation are alarming. The short- and long-term economic impact is incomprehensible.

As the severity of our human predicament has become more apparent, I have found myself bogged down, emotionally drained and buzzing with persistent anxiousness. Starting, let alone completing, daily activities at home and work require extra effort, additional concentration and feel less fulfilling. And, as a father and husband, waves of panic blindside me with worse-case thoughts about how our family might be impacted in the coming weeks and months.

Sometimes I actively resist the full weight of my despair. This short-term tactic allows me to muddle through the task at hand, distracting myself with busyness. Other times I allow myself to feel the depth of this dark place, acknowledging the dire nature of the situation, and remembering that I am not my feelings and that feelings are temporary. This well-worn strategy, I have found, can bring a sense of emotional relief in difficult times.

But persistent despair, I believe, leads to a path of hopelessness and a world where fear and pessimism crowd out the greater possibilities that lay within each and all of us. As we adapt to this new coronavirus reality, it is essential that we hold on to hope. Whereas hopelessness leaves us powerless and disconnected from others, hope requires that we desire a better future and believe that it is possible.

Hope is not self-sustaining, it requires human connection. Today my hope might inspire others. Tomorrow when I am struggling, another’s hope can lift my spirits. We must hold onto hope for those who are currently unable, and in doing so, strengthen our own resolve. Leaning into hopes’ promise, I have been asking myself what are the practices that help me and our family feel hopeful, especially in time of great crisis.

Staying physically active helps us all feel more energized, less stressed and generally more positive. Our middle schooler Zoe does gymnastics workouts in our unfinished basement, fifth grader Adam enjoys the mountain bike jumps he built in our backyard, and Lori and I take turns doing workouts in the basement on a stationary bike. We’ve also been enjoying more walks and rides along the bike path near our home and weekend hikes in neighboring forests.

Maintaining simple rituals provides structure and predictability to our schedules. Friday night we make homemade pizza, celebrate highlights from our week, and then snuggle in the living room for a movie. Sunday evening we map the week ahead on the large white-board that hangs on our kitchen wall, including a calendar of activities, dinner menu, and a new addition — daily home school schedules for each Zoe and Adam.

Preparing our gardens keeps us grounded in the present moment. So, recently we pruned and fertilized our peach and apple trees, covered the hoops that line the garden in our side yard with plastic to warm the soil, and planted kale, chard and mixed greens, just as we do every spring.

Connecting with others helps us remember that we are not alone. We have initiated more phone and FaceTime conversations, and less text and email messaging, with far away friends and family. We’ve enjoyed walks and bike rides with neighbors, while maintaining a safe distance. At work, Lori and I have experienced meaningful conversations with colleagues and clients, who are also trying to make sense of these challenging times.

And in the evening, when others are in bed, I calm my racing mind and fidgeting body with yoga and meditation, leaving me restored, less reactive, more open to others — and ready for another day.

Hope will not bring an end to the coronavirus, nor prevent the great hardship we are just beginning to endure. Hand washing and social distancing are essential to keeping us healthy and curbing the spread of the virus. But with our clean hands, we must hold on to hope, and in our families, neighborhoods and communities, we must dedicate ourselves to engaging in practices that instill hope. For there are seeds of hope within each one of us, but hope is a garden we must tend together.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website

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