[This is the fourth in a series of articles I have written in my cultural psychiatrist’s role since the start of the pandemic. It is bit more demanding than those previous, but important.]
The pandemic today confronts everyone with new complexities. Certainly this is the case if we are on the front lines battling a virus that easily overwhelms resources and too often acts in ways that we cannot fully understand. But we also face both practical and emotional complexities if we are now living our days in social isolation. And those who are doing so cooped up with partners and children can find themselves confronting relational complexities that they before could not have imagined.
A major contributor to making what we encounter feel complex and overwhelming is how often circumstance are confronting us with real limits. In the simple fact of the virus, we are all having to face limits to what we can control and to what we can know about what the future holds. If we are on the front lines, we are having to face limits to our skills and knowledge, and also limits to what we can yet understand about the virus. In social isolation, we confront limits in the loss of options that before we may have taken for granted. And parents at home with children are discovering limits to their ability to make everything right in relationships and new appreciation for the heroic work that teachers do with our children.
I’ve noted that the fact of real limits works to increase our experience of complexity and overwhelm. But there is also a way in which being conscious of real limits and choiceful in our relationship with them can have an opposite effect. It can make life decidedly simpler. In the process it can also make life more meaningful. This observation might seem contradictory, but when put into practice, it can come to feel like common sense
There is a limits-related formula for approaching life that I draw on extensively myself and sometimes share with clients confronting particularly challenging situations. I tend not to write about it because it can seem too stark and perhaps too philosophical. It can also sound too uncompromising, a bit too much like “tough love.” But it is powerful in its ability to make life simpler whatever the circumstances. And while it can feel abrupt on first encounter, ultimately it results in the ability to relate to both others and to oneself in the ways that are ultimately most loving.
The formula goes like this: 1) Observe what the real limitations are in your life situation, 2) Determine as best you can what the options and potential learnings are within those limits, and 3) Commit yourself to making the most powerful, creative, and purposeful choices given these circumstances.
I’ve been reminded with the pandemic of the writings of fellow psychiatrist Viktor Frankl. Frankl spent the second World War in a series of German concentration camps. With no escape and inhuman treatment, he decided that he would not let the situation defeat him. He looked at the very real constraints of his situation and asked himself how he might live that would be most significant, given these limitations. He asked what ways of engaging the situation could for him most create meaning. One result of this choice was a rich body of psychological thinking that would be a profound gift to others for years to come. We are not today prisoners, but at least metaphorically, the limits can feel similar.
This is a general approach that works whatever the circumstances. Notice that the limits we find at various times and places can be very different. For example, the real limits a thirty-three year old faces have little to with those faced by that same person as a three year old or at eighty-three. Notice, too, how deeply the approach changes our felt relationship to life. Most people expend a lot of time and energy struggling with limits. They focus on hopes and feel fear that these hopes may not be realized. And they bemoan constraints that could possibly restrict them. Fighting against limits can sometimes be the right approach, but it stops serving us if the limits are real.
The formula I have described keeps things simple by eliminating the use of attention and emotional energy in ways that don’t provide real benefit. This doesn’t mean that grieving the loss of certain freedoms or possibilities is not an important thing to do—particularly in these times when those losses might be considerable. But when experience is held from this more mature perspective, doing so doesn’t remain important for long. Soon we get on with asking what is possible given the circumstances that exist and opening ourselves to the surprises that can come from using our resources in the most creative and purpose-focused ways. Often we will then find what might seem a paradoxical result. The formula in a sense offers that limits might be transcended. But this is not because limits somehow go away (though if we have misperceived them they might). Rather it is because we come to understand the significance of limits in more useful and wise ways.
In my most recent book, Rethinking How We Think, I argue that our times are challenging us to realize a new maturity in relationship to limits. In the old story, our task when we encountered limits was to heroically defeat them. Today, in all parts of our lives, we are confronting situations where not only is this not an option, attempting to do so only leads to further complexity. The need to acknowledge environmental limits, such as with climate change and the extinction of species, provides the most obvious example. We are being challenged to more directly acknowledge limits and to engage limits in more creative and wise ways. I wrote the book before the pandemic, but certainly this recognition applies. Indeed, we could use the pandemic to make important strides in learning this new skill. The fact of real limits confronts us with the recognition that limits can be one of our greatest teachers, and not just with regard to what is possible, but also of new, more mature ways of thinking and acting that will become ever more important in times ahead.