In the weeks since “sheltering at home” began, we seem to be living in an eternal present. Because our most recent memories of anything different – or “out of the new ordinary” – are weeks old, we have a funny sensation that early March was only a moment ago. There are no experiential memories to track time mentally. Each day feels the same as the previous one to the point where it is difficult to remember if a new day has even begun or not. It is almost as if we have adopted the mindset of Ben Zoma, the young but expert scholar in the Talmud, who sees “all the days of your life” simply as one long day rather than as an expression of a life trajectory over time.
This is a dangerous mindset to maintain, and it can cause us to fall into obsessive thinking and feelings of helplessness. It can shrink our perceived range of possibilities as well as our ability to connect with others. In the end, this type of obsessive thinking played a role in Ben Zoma’s mental decline. We should find ways to protect ourselves from allowing the COVID-19 pandemic to similarly take over all of our mental energy.
Here are two suggestions to create a break from the repetitive cycle of daily stresses that are brought on by our current situation. Of course, each person should take the details below the suggestions simply as my ideas so that the suggestions themselves speak to you personally, but I will give you my process and experience with them, simply to show how these suggestions could work.
Tip #1 – Take a moment every day to reflect on something bigger than the current moment.
In order to break the daily repetition, force yourself schedule time to think about something different. Don’t just take this time haphazardly; if you do, you will never actually do it. Establish a moment or two every day that is set aside without distractions.
In this time, I ask myself if I still want to become the person I thought I did and whether my actions (both small and large) in this moment demonstrate that desire. Have my values changed, and, if not, am I still acting on them? Am I making room in my life for the people and beliefs that I cherish or am I closing myself off by allowing new – and bad habits – to form? What small thing can I do today to make my life, and the lives of those around me, a bit different? Can I add some fun into the day?
Many of us are living with spouses and children, so this may seem impossible, but it is not. My time is early in the morning before everyone in the house wakes up. This works for me for two important reasons. First, it forces me to go to bed at a reasonable hour so that I don’t waste time at night with distractions and waste time during the day because I am overtired. Second, the scheduled time serves as a way to start my day thoughtfully and with purpose. It makes the upcoming frenzy that I must ultimately face secondary to the main goals and purposes to which I want to dedicate my life. (Truth be told; I actually take a second scheduled time after the work day as a reward for finishing the day, like spraying Febreze after cleaning a room. This time allows me to reset my priorities and my mood before having dinner and spending time with my family.)
Whatever time works for you and whatever questions you ask yourself, the important thing is that we expand the ever-narrowing worldview we risk acquiring when our movements and options become limited. The bigger you make the life around you, the less the pandemic’s social and psychological consequences will bear on you.
Tip #2 – Take a day each week and make it wholly different from the rest.
Days turn into weeks very quickly when there is nothing that marks a beginning and an end. In order to impose a structure on your weeks, as well as give you respite from the daily anxiety onslaught of the current situation, take a day and make it different. We all have heard about taking a “mental health day” which is specifically meant to relieve stress and prevent burnout. In normal times, 40% of workers in the U.S. say they find their jobs stressful; just imagine what the percentage is today. Mental health days are not simply days off. They are meant to help clear and heal a person’s mind so that he or she can return to work more relaxed and productive.
In order to use a day to reset your perspective, you need to change what you do, how you talk, and even what you think about on that day. The importance of making a day separate and distinct is proclaimed by the prophet Isaiah, who emphasizes that one “restrain from your normal goings for the sake of the Sabbath, from pursuing your affairs on My holy day; and call the Sabbath a delight, the Lord’s holy day honored,” by not continuing our usual daily activities or even speaking in our usual ways. While the prophet demands that the Jewish people engage in distinguishing the Sabbath day for the sake of honoring God, there is no doubt that making such distinctions benefits the Sabbath observer as well. As Achad Ha’am famously said: “More than Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews.”
Both of these suggestions share the same idea. We need to find ways to hold onto the bigger picture before losing sight of it due to the overload of the everyday. Happiness is elusive even in times of relative calm, and when you aim for it directly you always miss the mark. “It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness,” says Viktor Frankl. However, if you search for meaning and purpose, and take steps every day to reinforce your values, happiness may just come along for the ride.
Ira Bedzow, Ph.D. is Director of Biomedical Ethics & Humanities Program at New York Medical College, a member of the Touro College & University System