The prison of your mind…

Living through a pandemic is challenging us all, in one way or another, especially in the days of lockdown when there were very few acceptable reasons for leaving our homes. In the midst of that, many were chafing at their loss of freedom even when they knew there were good reasons for this strategy. And even now, when we have more licence to be out and about, it’s a challenge to adapt to ongoing requirements for wearing masks and distancing.

Life has required some of us to adapt a lot more than others, even before we’d encountered COVID. Meet Dr. Sean Stephenson, motivational speaker, author, and therapist, speaking at TEDxIronwoodStatePrison in 2014. If the video doesn’t show up, watch it here.

His three lessons?

  1. Never believe a prediction that doesn’t empower you.
  2. You are not your condition.
  3. The real prison is your mind.

Why he was born?

To rid this world of insecurity.

His expertise?

“I am only an expert in one thing…and that’s how to be me.  And I do it well.”

His legacy?

Sean Stephenson died in 2019 at age 40. Here is how his friend and colleague, Rich Litvin, remembers him…

Maybe you’ve heard me talk about Sean Stephenson. He was born with a rare bone disorder and was expected to die at birth. He reached a height of only 3 feet and suffered more than 200 bone fractures by the time he was eighteen years old. Sean lived his whole life, confined to a wheelchair.

He faced so many reasons to give up, and he had endless opportunities to embrace self-pity.

Yet he become a motivational speaker and author. He taught countless people how to be more impactful from the stage. And his friends included Bill Clinton, Tony Robbins and Richard Branson.

Sean’s “Dance Party” video has had over a million views. I’ve played it so many times at my Intensives, over the years. It can get a crowd of hundreds of people moving their bodies, in seconds!

He is the smallest, yet most powerful man I have ever known. And over the years we’ve coached and guided and supported one another. We’ve shared deep secrets with one another. And we’ve challenged the heck out of one another.

As I write these words, I have tears in my eyes. I can’t believe he’s gone.

But I know Sean would never want me to leave things on a sad note. So, let me invite you to shake your booty, alongside my great friend, Sean Stephenson…

If the video doesn’t show up, you can watch it here.

The courage to see things differently…

As Brené Brown says, this is the time for courage over comfort.

That can be a challenge.

Comfort is so tempting.

Retreating to the familiar makes us feel safe. And that’s what our primal, survival brain wants above all, to keep us safe.

Where do we find comfort?

Comfort can be found in something as tangible as a food that your grandma used to make or as intangible as your viewpoint on how the world works.

Viewpoints are elusive because we often don’t know we have them. Like accents. I didn’t know there was a Canadian accent until i was 48 years old. I knew about accents and could recognize them when I heard others speaking accented English. But I spoke like all the people around me, so I didn’t have an accent as far as I knew.

The moment of awareness came when I made my first trip to Schumacher College in England. Students from several countries had arrived to study The Web of Life with Fritjof Capra. An American woman was next to me as we gathered for the first time. (I knew she was American because of her accent.) After a brief exchange of pleasantries, she asked me where I live in Canada.

Me: How do you know I’m from Canada?

Her:  Well, your accent, of course.

Me: I don’t have an accent. But you all do.

We all have blinders…

That experience was my first awareness of one of my mistaken beliefs. An accent is a trivial example, but the same is true of our mindsets and viewpoints. We tend to be so used to how we see things that we have no idea there is another point of view.

Image via Steemitimages.com

Why does changing our viewpoints take courage?

Changing our viewpoint challenges us to leave the comfort of the familiar, to step away from our current position and see how the world looks from another vantage point. If we go so far as to take the position of the other, we might see that what we saw to be true is no longer the case from that new viewpoint.

Then we have to deal with that new information. After all, our life and how we lived it was based on our original perception. Can we pretend we don’t know what we now know…and thus carry on as we had? Or will we have to integrate that new perspective because the knowledge will haunt us until we do? Faced with this dilemma, many of us dig in, entrenching ourselves in the position we know,to avoid having to make those hard decisions.

When we do take a new viewpoint, there’s also the risk it will disrupt relationships that have been forged over years. Your  tribe, the people you identify with, may not like it if you rock the boat. When you express a contrary view, they may feel challenged, as if you are being critical of them and their beliefs. The extreme result could be losing friends and estrangement from family. Not a comforting prospect!

And why is courage so hard?

According to Brené Brown, author of Daring Greatly,  you can’t get to courage without walking through vulnerability. Based on years of research, she says the elements of vulnerability are risk, uncertainty, and emotional exposure—exposure as being imperfect and therefore unlovable. All are things we try to protect ourselves from. Yet, the paradox is that pretending you are not vulnerable makes you the most vulnerable. But it is the willingness to show up that changes us. It makes us a little braver each time.

In this 2011 Ted Talk, Brené Brown shares what she had learned by then about vulnerability. It has had 3,750,575 views for good reason. If the video doesn’t show up, watch it here.

And in these days of the pandemic, vulnerability might look like asking for help when you need to. Do it. It’s good practice for getting used to being vulnerable. It will make you a little braver for the next time.

Moral fatigue…

When COVID hit my community, I first felt discombobulated. That seemed perfectly understandable.

But three months in, I was experiencing a deep sense of fatigue. That surprised me because I thought I should be feeling better, not worse, once I knew the protocols and developed new habits. But there I was—feeling out of sorts and profoundly tired of the whole thing.

Apparently I wasn’t the only one. In the midst of my wallowing in that unhappy place, I heard an episode of Tapestry that directly addressed what I was feeling. They were discussing the experience of moral fatigue that arises when we are faced with making decisions where there are no right answers and yet we can’t do nothing.

Moral disorientation…

Recently my Tasmanian friend Gill, now in her mid-80s, said that it seems the world has been turned upside down and back to front. I agree! As the pandemic has unfolded, it’s been deeply unsettling to discover that  things we thought were normal have been exposed as deeply flawed, eldercare being just one example.

The dilemma is that once we see something, we can’t un-see it. Not only that but, as decent human beings, we feel the desire to do something to make things better, without having any idea how one person can make a difference in such an enormous problem. This creates a high level of stress in the body, often resulting in a shutdown or freezing of the nervous system. On top of that, we are now recognizing that this predicament is not going away any time soon. No wonder we’re feeling moral fatigue!

And it’s not just these collective dilemmas that weigh on us. Our everyday decisions have taken on a new dimension. As I write this, the start of a new school year is looming. The government in my province has announced that a full in-school schedule will resume with COVID protocols in place, which some parents feel are inadequate. This re-opening is at a time when new cases are announced each day. Parents can choose to school their children at home, but that is fraught with another set of logistical challenges that have to do with family livelihood for many. How is a parent to decide what is best in a situation like this? The stress of trying to “get it right” must be enormous.

For further insight, I recommend listening to Tapestry with Mary Hynes, from June 28, 2020:  Navigating the moral maze of the pandemic. The program description says, “In our new COVID-19 world, decisions that were once easy — going to the park, visiting friends and family — are suddenly more complex and morally fraught. Philosopher Alice MacLaughlin and moral psychologist Azim Shariff offer some ethical guidance.”

And if any of this prompts you to share your thoughts, I’d love to hear them.

Unprecedented…

Unprecedented” must be the most over-used word in the English language right now. I’m tired of it. Especially because it’s used so often without thought.

Unprecedented means never done or known before; never having happened or existed in the past. True, the specific COVID variation of the coronavirus is new (hence the name novel coronavirus). But If we’re talking about pandemics, there’s nothing new there. Humans have experienced them throughout recorded history.

MPH Online is an independent online resource for public health students. In 10 of the Worst Pandemics in History, they say…

Scientists and medical researchers for years have differed over the exact definition of a pandemic (is it a pandemic, or an epidemic), but one thing everyone agrees on is that the word describes the widespread occurrence of disease, in excess of what might normally be expected in a geographical region.

Cholera, bubonic plague, smallpox, and influenza are some of the most brutal killers in human history. And outbreaks of these diseases across international borders are properly defined as pandemic, especially smallpox, which, throughout history, has killed between 300-500 million people in its 12,000 year existence.

It’s hard to get a sense of the relative magnitude of these diseases over the past 2,000 years. Here’s the best thing I found to give some perspective. Click on the image below to see the full pandemic timeline right up to COVID-19…

History of Pandemics

To bring this closer to home, here’s a photo of my maternal grandmother, who was born at the beginning of the twentieth century and lived until 1979. Click on her photo, taken in 1904, to see what she lived through…

My Grandma in 1904

And so…

If we still want to convey that we’re having an experience that has never occurred before, here are some synonyms to at least make our language more interesting and possibly more accurate. Take your pick…

What word best describes it for me? 

How about for you?