Friday, May 1, 2020

Coping Skills

From my quarantine hut to yours: I hope these words find you well and well-adjusted, under the circumstances.  There are many of us who are having a difficult time with all of this, even in situations where their external circumstances are not all that unfortunate, and then there are some people who sound as if they are having a very very very very very very bad time indeed.

One of these persons, a friend of a friend, confided to the Facebook universe recently that he moped around all day feeling like "the walking dead" and wondered what on earth was the point of even living the next 14 years until retirement given how cruel his circumstances currently were. His lengthy rant caused me to wonder how on earth this fellow could feel so bad about having to stay home from his job for a few weeks, especially as he provided little actually evidence that, apart from the anxiety of not having a paycheck for the time being, that his life was in complete disarray, though I imagined he is one of these persons who has been taught that he has no value outside of what job he does, and now that he is not allowed to do it, all of his self-worth has vanished. His routine is gone as well, and as he probably has no skills at directing his own activities, he kept going on in the most hyperbolic language about how there was nothing to do, sounding like a bored teenager. I kept thinking of the millions of entertainment options he could access, all of the things he could learn, the opportunities for self-improvement, the people he could catch up with by phone or internet. Surely this man is thirsty in the midst of a freshwater ocean.

I considered responding to this comment on my friend's thread, but I've never met the guy, and I imagined nothing good would come of it. He seems determined to feel put upon, I thought. It's not that he has no misfortune, but his response seemed totally out of proportion--is life not worth living because we are temporarily furloughed? Does he really think he lost everything because, through no fault of his one, he won't be allowed to report to work for a few weeks? (No sign that he actually lost his job, by the way) I realize we all are having a hard time adjusting to disrupted schedules and the threat of worse to come, but we do not need to succomb to our worst fears just because we have to stay home for a while. We need not compare it to slavery or imprisonment, either. Calamities come in different sizes. Most of us have not experienced the worst of our fellow beings, we have been merely set back a little. And while it may knock you back at first, life can go on.

But that depends on your ability to cope. I took a wild guess as to this fellow's age, education, and political affiliation, and turned out to be correct (clicking on his picture I was of course able to read his profile). He appears to have been only high school educated, older, white, pretty angry, and I think you can guess who he voted for in the last election. I was able to confirm this by some of his previous posts.

The reason I'm bringing all this up is because his patron saint has some pretty poor coping skills as well. In fact, the entire movement on which he rose to power is based mostly on the feelings of relatively well-off people who, old, cranky, and without having learned the kind of emotional intelligence that some of us take for granted, feel endlessly persecuted and put upon by everybody else--foreigners, the media, liberals, people who don't pay their elders enough respect, and so forth. There are people who have really suffered, and whose situation is being made worse by their leader's policies. But a great number of them whine about being constantly denied the good things in life while simultaneously rolling in those very things. Far from being grateful for life's gifts, they are always complaining about how someone is trying to take away the little they have, even in the midst of their plenty, and with no evidence that they will truly have to give any of it up. It is no wonder that neither they, nor their leader, know what to do with themselves when they are asked to make so great a sacrifice as to lie on their couch for a few days. (And no, I am not unaware that in some cases that can lead to financial issues as well. This is not that.)

The kind of directionlessness that I'm talking about has its roots in the domination of the mind by what has been come to be called "magical thinking." Imagine a four-year old in his room thinking about how great it would be to become President some day. How he would make the best rules, and say the wisest things, and how everybody would think he was wonderful. There isn't the slightest connection with the way the world actually works in this thinking, but there doesn't have to be. It's all in the mind, and the mind, in absolute control of the situation, can conveniently remove the inevitable opposition from the other party under practically any circumstances, good or bad, the difficultly of getting policies made and laws passed, rather than simply speaking (or tweeting) them into being. But when you are four, with no sense of the Constitution or human nature, what does it matter?

But suppose seven decades later you still see the world the same way. You haven't grown at all in understanding or emotional intelligence. Now you are at a press conference lapping up all the attention, and because you always assume that whatever occurs to you is worth sharing with everyone, you mention what you think is a potential cure for the disease that is plaguing the county. You expect praise from all of the medical professionals around you, wishing they had thought of something so brilliant. And instead, you get criticized. So you take your ball and go home. For a few days, anyway.

I'm sure he was gobsmacked. After all, he didn't actually command people to go and inject disinfectant. Contrary to our darkest opinions of his learning skills, he actually was listening after the last time he pedaled a quack cure, one which, to be absolutely fair, was the subject of a study (if shoddy and since unreplicated) and his unsolicited Presidential medical advice only killed a couple of his followers because, without asking a doctor, they took the drug in an improper form and dosage. Someone seems to have gotten through to him in the meantime about how it is necessary to do studies first to see if a drug really works before you just go randomly injecting them into people's veins en masse. So this time he added, well, I'm not a doctor, but I am brilliant, and you guys should go check it out. Do your scientific doctor thing and get back to us when you find out what a genius I am later.

And then they moved the chains on him. Because in this case, they don't need to do a study. We already know what happens when you put disinfectant into a human body that is still alive and it isn't good. That's what he could have found out by reading the warning label on the bottle.

But perhaps the sadder example of his narrow emotional capacity involved the question he was asked at another press conference. "What would you say to the millions of Americans who are scared right now?" And because he is always wired to start conflicts without cause, and because he has decided "The Media" is his enemy, he naturally tore into the person who asked the question. If you are a supporter of The Donald (tm), and have somehow read this far, you probably also assume that there was no other response he could reasonably offer. Let me show you one.

He could have made a speech in which he acknowledged that we were in for some difficult days and that he understood our anxiety. Then he could have talked about all of the brave Americans who would see us through this crises, the innovators who would find a cure, the thinkers who were putting their best ideas forward. Then he could tell us that America has been through tough times before and has had some of its finest hours in times of crises. He could have assured us, inspired us, filled us with hope, and had us, by the end, cheering like a football team at the end of a rousing half-time speech by a great coach. It could have been his FDR moment, his JFK moment, a phrase or two from it going down in history as the thing that galvanized America when we needed it most.

But he's not that kind of man. Instead, all he could see was a reporter he couldn't stand, and the voices in his head were telling him that now that he was President people were expected to be universally happy all the time and that this very bad man was telling him it wasn't so and bursting his bubble. Every president in his lifetime had their opponents but still four-year old Donald was sure that when he got in there it wouldn't happen to him because opposition is for losers. Nobody would be afraid on his watch. Not even so that he could have his finest moment and encourage the nation, not even so he could shine in history as the man who led us through a great crises. He can't see that far.

He could have hit a home run. The reporter gave him a belt-high fast ball with a full count, bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth, and instead of drilling it way over the center field fence, he whined to the umpire that the pitcher threw the ball too fast.

A few days later, Nancy Pelosi did a radio interview in which a reporter started off by saying that critics of her bailout measure said that it didn't include enough aid for states and localities, and how would she "defend [her]r=self." She told the reporter that she was a very rotten person.

I'm kidding. Of course Ms. Pelosi answered the question. She simply did as requested and defended herself. Whether you thought she sold her position or not, at least she kept her eye on the ball instead of yelling at the pitcher.

There are an awful lot of people who think the guy in the first two examples is a great guy and doing a wonderful job. Their ability to deal with real and perceived adversity is limited. They believed their leader when he told them that America in 2016 was a complete disaster, because they felt that way themselves. When he dropped gems about our airports being like third-world countries, these folks in no way found that ridiculous, in part because they'd never actually seen an airport in a third-world country, but mostly because they hated the man in charge and nothing was allowed to be better than awful because of it. These folks make political decisions in a democracry, and those decisions can lead to things like upwards of a hundred thousand people dying in a pandemic (so far). The last guy we put in charge dealt with an Ebola pandemic in which there were only three American cases and nobody died.

If this civilization collapses before we figure this problem out, then let us at least document it so the next one can work on the problem: in an advanced, partially educated society, what to do with the large number of people whose uncontrollable anxiety, distrust of and lack of education cause our country to make so many boneheaded decisions that so negatively effect all of us and may eventually spell real, rather than imagined, disaster for everyone. This is really part of an even larger problem: when some people choose not to quarantine, we all are at risk, just as, if some people have no clean drinking water, or live in poverty, or think violence is the answer to a problem, or feel alienated, opressed, and alone, and lash out at what they perceive as a cruel, uncaring society, or blame it all on a particular sector of it, we all suffer. Of course, teaching more people to widen their hearts and use their brains (from which so many useful things emerge, from coping skills in a pandemic to making the world a better place) is something that will always be difficult as long as it is not in the best interests of those in power to have independant thinkers who are harder to manipulate and perform repetitive tasks, or who think more for us is less for them. That is what makes this a conundrum for the ages. And maybe, someone reading this a thousand years from now will be shaking their head and muttering that they still haven't figured it out.

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