On March 15th, two days after the declaration of a national emergency concerning the COVID-19 virus outbreak, the line of cars filing into my local grocery store parking lot telegraphed the buzz of desperation inside. But something else surfaced amid the controlled chaos, where carts stuffed with toilet paper and cases of water maneuvered up and down eerily sparsely-stocked aisles—something both unexpected and impossible to ignore.
People were smiling.
Not “isn’t this awesome” or “I feel lucky” kinds of smiles, but slightly upturned mouth corners on faces awash with kindness and peace–a sort of “we’re all in this together” vibe.
It was unexpected. Surprising. And a realization that not only dampened my blood pressure but also instilled hope.
Briefly, a jaded inner voice suggested it might all be posturing, folks feigning calm so they could deftly grab the last sack of flour or gallon of bleach. But it was a fleeting thought that evaporated when an elderly man holding a dog-eared piece of paper asked me to help him find a certain brand of cracker that his wife wanted.
The store was out of them, but together we found an acceptable substitute. He was grateful for the help. “I don’t usually shop,” he said, he weathered, lined face looking tired and confused. Our exchange–plus a few more minutes of strolling the glutted aisles– told me that he, like the rest of my little town, was choosing to put a calm foot forward, to use its energy to do the best it could under unprecedented circumstances, to accept this soberingly real and new normal. To buy a different kind of cracker.
They were choosing acceptance instead of resistance.
Acceptance isn’t just a good plan, it’s also the concept behind a therapy modality called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, ACT for short. ACT guides patients to sit with unpleasant feelings, even invite them, rather than battle against them, and suggests that negative feelings are an okay and inevitable part of the human experience that we can both accept and learn from. It’s been around for a long time (developed in the 1980s) but its relevance in today’s unsettling climate is especially profound.
In a New York Times editorial published that same Sunday, Laura Turner, author of a forthcoming book about the cultural history of anxiety and herself a sufferer, writes,
“So, we have two choices: We can fight the anxiety, getting caught up in a cycle of trying to answer our fearful thoughts with a rationality we may never be able to truly attain—or we can simply accept our anxiety as a fact of life, no more good or bad than the weather. It comes and goes, and for many of us, the more we try to make it go away, the stronger it comes back and oozes its way around our rational arguments.”
Maybe everyone at the grocery store had already seen the article, but I doubt it. The more likely option is that acceptance just works better at times like these. None of us are happy with the conditions on the ground right now—being stuck at home, juggling work obligations or being out of work while navigating stir-crazy children, worrying about health and safety and what on earth will happen next. And while I normally have an aversion to the seemingly autological phrase it is what it is, I can’t help but embrace it now. Because the barrage of negative feelings we’re all experiencing are more than understandable and deserving of our attention, and accepting those feelings seems a much better choice than expending untold amounts of energy trying to ignore, fight or judge them.
We can all be focused, smart and careful to keep ourselves and our families safe while also accepting the feelings of fear, disruption and uncertainty that this pandemic have delivered. We can also use this experience as an opportunity to elevate our awareness, to notice how the interruption of our typical daily movements underscores our dependence on them—and maybe even be grateful for the lesson.
This article was published in Living The Second Act on March 26, 2020.