Essays & Confessions

Optimism In The Time Of Anxiety: A Letter From The CEO

By Sunday, March 15, 2020

Read more of Chelsea’s Letters from the CEO column here.

It’s become something like common wisdom to say that one should not offer platitudes or truisms in the face of real distress. The phrases our grandmothers loved — those other fish in the sea, that taking all kinds — are supposed to feel limp at best, insulting at worst. But I often find myself rather enjoying them, feeling the collective weight of their endurance and utility across generations as a kind of cross-stitched blanket. The one that I have been holding with me, in a time that has proven to be both ambiently distressful and personally trying, is when it rains, it pours. I find myself almost feeling that metaphorical rain on my face (not to be confused with the very literal tears which have had a surprisingly salutary effect on my complexion). I imagine myself turning my face upwards and laughing at the clouds, laughing at the almost-slapstick feeling that a cascade of bad news can tend to evoke. Right now it is pouring, and I do not have an umbrella, but very soon it will be sunny again.

For reasons both personal and pragmatic, I’d rather not get into the finer details of my individual distress. There are ongoing family concerns, there are unexpected immigration issues (being married to a Frenchman is not all chic, lingering dinners sitting on the same side of a restaurant table, though there is a good amount of that as well), there are the inevitable worries and painful decisions of being a business owner. Those things alone have proven more than enough to push me to a state of near-total panic, to which my only natural response (as someone who suffers from mild but persistent anxiety disorder) is to catastrophize, lose sleep, and run circles around my own brain. But as I’m sure you all assumed when viewing the title of this piece, all of this is happening against a backdrop of global uncertainty with the Coronavirus pandemic continuing to unfold and change our lives in increasingly-unavoidable ways (making things like that EU travel ban a confounding variable in my life I never could have anticipated). 

Purely by chance, I happen to be writing this from Vancouver, where I am concluding a small tour of Canadian cities for TFD that has unfolded over the course of the past two weeks. When we first left, this virus was scarcely being talked about as an issue in North America. Today, I was uncertain if I would even be able to board my flight home. The news around the issue has felt like a rising din of distressing, unintelligible noise in the background of life, a noxious fog of static clouding any vision of the immediate future. What will life look like for everyone in two weeks? We don’t know. What will the real human cost of this virus be? Hard to say, but best to prepare for the worst. When will this be something we can safely describe as treated? Probably not even relevant to think in those terms. This situation has all of the worst possible components for those who already struggle with mitigating anxiety: a high degree of uncertainty, an insufficient response from leadership, a profound lack of control, an utterly nonexistent timeline. There is an entire subreddit dedicated just to dealing with these feelings, and managing them as best one can so as not to further disrupt one’s own life. (For my part, the fact that I’ve been unable to isolate due to work demands until this point has been an exacerbating factor. I look forward to joining those doing the right thing by staying isolated unless truly necessary.) 

Interestingly, though, in all of this, I have found that so many unrelated yet interconnected bad things happening at once has resulted in an almost calming effect overall. (I’m brought to mind of the Simpsons gag wherein Mr. Burns’ doctor shows him all of the various diseases attempting to crowd in his body at once, which has temporarily rendered him healthy through a sheer traffic jam.) When I look at the details of some of my personal obstacles, I see their relative insignificance in the face of potentially millions of human beings dying unnecessarily from a poorly-managed viral outbreak. When I look at the bearings the virus has on my own life — canceled trips, social isolation, potential financial impacts for my business — I see that they are eminently manageable when compared to uncertain futures for my loved ones. In both cases, I can immediately see where my position is relatively lucky, and things could be much worse.

On the topic of the virus in particular, the timing happens to have coincided with a recent decision to stop using my Twitter (which was initially spurred on by the maddening in-fighting I saw over the Presidential primary, and my own inability to tune it out). A mere few days after I simply stopped using it (though I admit, I do still sometimes scroll my feed in a much more detached silence), what would have been my daily timeline was completely overtaken with panicked conversation about the virus. As with most big, bad things that the average person has a tenuous understanding of at best, the social media discourse around the pandemic has largely been the frantic sharing of disastrous headlines, arguing over to what extent individuals have responsibilities to isolate (we very much do), and hand-wringing over one’s own inability to manage their mental health in this time. In short, it’s a place where one goes to immediately feel less informed, more angry, and more anxious in very short order. 

And this feels almost reassuring, in some strange way. I largely removed myself from social media just before the virus discourse reached a fever pitch for an entirely different reason, but one which is underscored perfectly by this new situation. Just as social media scrolling and endless breaking alert reading made the primary (and my place in it) feel maddeningly pointless, so it does with something like a global pandemic. When I look back on the things that made me feel good and in some kind of control politically — phone banking, donating, speaking productively with loved ones, reading more historically-grounded information — I can see that these things are exactly what I need to recreate in this time of health crisis. There are tangible, measurable steps I must take both as an individual and a business owner to mitigate the damage. I will take them. There are loved ones I need to be in frequent and informative contact with about their health and choices in this time. I will reach out to them. There is reading I can do that is vetted, expert-sourced, and historically-grounded. I will read it. There is a fine line between making sure you are doing everything you can, and obsessing over areas in which you have no real control, and the points of sanity and optimism are all to be found on the former side of that line.

More importantly, perhaps, it is important in uncertain times to be as gracious and as cognizant as possible about your own privileges and advantages in these situations. I am neither immunocompromised nor senior, and therefore likely to be fine in terms of my own immediate health impacts. I am able to work from home, and have a digitally-based business which will undoubtedly take hits, but be spared the worst. I have savings to help my family through a complicated time. On many personal fronts, the situation I find myself in is drastically less catastrophic than it otherwise might have been. And in all of these situations, both because of my relative privilege and because of my personal faculties, I can do quite a lot to be of help and of service. I can make sure things are better for others, and focus on their outcomes over my own — not as a way of deflecting, but as a way of cultivating community in a time that can otherwise feel atomized. If you are lucky enough to be putting on your own mask, start helping others. Start looking for the many things that you can do, and at the very minimum you will be too busy doing things to really worry all that much about everything you cannot do. 

When it rains, it pours. And for all we can see with this viral situation, it will be pouring for some time to come. There will be others around you who have no rain coats, no rain boots, no umbrellas to speak of. And you should do everything in your power to help them as much as you help yourself, putting aside your own whims and desires for a collective vision of a well-weathered storm. Because the truth that we all know, even if we may obscure it in times of crisis, is that no rain will last forever. Our lives will be full of many times of sunshine, many times where the clouds break and you see a glimpse of normalcy over the horizon, and things begin to feel like home again. Sometime in the future — though I would never pretend to know exactly when — this will all be looked back upon as a brief, unsettling chapter in our collective story. I hope then that we, as well as I, will think of all that we learned in that time, and how we became better people as a result of it: more caring, more compassionate, and more well-stocked with umbrellas for the next time that it rains.

Image via Unsplash

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