Saturday, April 18, 2020

Adjusting Expectations

Note: What follows isn't for everyone. Written during the COVID-19 pandemic, the focus here is on dealing with disappointment and changing expectations that result from measures like voluntary isolation and physical distancing. There are those in far more challenging circumstances to whom this is not addressed. People who have lost jobs, loved ones, or even both have my greatest sympathy. My thoughts go as well to the ones in hospitals right now fighting for their lives, and the amazing medical professionals who are in the fight with them. Finally, the governmental leaders who are showing themselves responsible and capable in this crisis, depending on data and the best advice of medical experts, have my profound respect. 

It's become tiresome to me to hear people on television talk about how 'things sure have changed' since COVID-19 came on the scene, forcing all but 'essential workers' to stay home to reduce the spread of this deadly disease. We know things have changed. For some it's far worse than others. I know how fortunate I am, being able to work from home, having my 17 year old son here with me, and maintaining good health. As a natural introvert, I'm not climbing the walls with anxiety, wishing I could go clubbing or hang out with friends at a bar. Don't get me wrong, I do wish I could go hiking in a state park or attend church, but it's not troubling me as much as it does some people I know. That said, I've had a fair amount of disruption and disappointment as a result of our new reality.
"Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life." — Proverbs 13:12 NRSV
The first thing to get called off because of COVID-19 was my much-anticipated trip to Bucharest. I've been planning for a few years now, as I've studied Romanian on my own, the opportunity to get intensive tutoring and immersion in the language. In January I was finally able to schedule it, and in early March it was canceled. The airfare and hotel package were non-refundable, and although I had travel insurance and filed a claim, no action has been taken on it yet. I'm sure they're backed up. At the same time, I'm worried they'll find some way to weasel out of paying, and I will have simply lost a grand.

My son has already lost his 4th, and final, opportunity to be in his high school's annual musical. He's been in it since his freshman year, and it's always special for the seniors when they have their last hurrah. It was supposed to have happened a week or so ago, and it is very unlikely it will be rescheduled. At this point, it appears that he's also losing prom, and may not have commencement until later in the year, if at all. Really, what's the point in such a ceremony in the fall, assuming even that will be possible, so many months after finishing? This coming August was to be his final chance to go to camp as a youth, although in coming years he can apply to serve as staff. It hasn't been canceled yet, but I think it almost certainly will.

We're both losing the annual General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association, at least in-person. This past week it was announced that the event will be virtual only, meaning that everything is online. I'm signed up to take a UU Polity course through Starr King School for the Ministry at GA, and it would have been much more satisfying to have been with classmates and the professor in the same rom. My son's plans are up in the air, because there's doubt about how good the youth program will be without being able to engage in the person-to-person contact, games, and other activities. Also, this was to be the year he'd be bridging out of youth, since he's a senior. Whatever ceremony they might do online won't compare to what they could have had together, and that so many others in years past have enjoyed.

Maybe you had plans that are no longer relevant, or pushed back indefinitely. One co-worker I have was set to get married in September, and now without the possibility of scheduling a caterer, ordering a cake, and arranging the celebrant, and confirming a venue, the wedding will probably happen only next year. Another co-worker has a son in exactly the same situation. Whatever it is that you've had to let go of, it probably wasn't easy. So, I have some tips on how to manage adjusting expectations. I write this as someone who's had plenty of letdowns in life, and hope it is helpful for someone.

First be kind to yourself. Treat yourself as you would a dear friend, not being hard on yourself for losing something relatively minor compared to the lives being lost. Something was important to you, and that matters. Your feelings about that loss matter. You wouldn't lament about them to someone in a more difficult situation, but that doesn't mean that you have to feel bad about feeling bad.

Second, accept that this has happened. Dispense with what-ifs and wanna-bes. Understand that you are in good company, and your current state is perfectly normal in the circumstances. There's nothing to be done to change it.

Third, decide what you can handle in this new normal. You not only have lost things with this pandemic, you're having to deal with new and unexpected stress. Job insecurity, children at home rather than school, close quarters, difficulty getting groceries, etc. Evaluate the things that are stressing you out, whether new or old, and see what can be cut out of your life, at least temporarily. For things that can't just go away, look for ways to share the burden or in some fashion lessen the pressure. 

Fourth, once you have allowed yourself to accept that you're not alone in this, start the process of reframing. By this I mean to take a step back, perhaps journaling, but in some way capturing the experience in as much an objective fashion as you can. Try to separate the emotions from what happened and where you are now, because this can be helpful in getting a sense of personal power back. 
"Oft expectation fails, and most oft there / Where most it promises; and oft it hits / Where hope is coldest, and despair most fits." — All's Well That Ends Well Act 2, scene 1, line 155
Fifth, revisiting point one above in a slightly different way, take a look at your self-talk. Rather than tell yourself about how this is the worst thing that could have happened, or reminding yourself of what could have been, use your reframing and tell yourself some brighter truths. Things like 'it happened, so now for next steps,' 'I won't be made to wallow in this,' 'I can do something different now if I so choose,' and so forth. Any time you think you can't go on, have bad luck, or consider this the end of the world for you, use that as a trigger to start some positive self-talk.

Sixth, tell others your thoughts. Maybe not the people who live with you, who might just want a break like you do. We have myriads of different ways to talk to friends, from traditional phone to Zoom to Facetime and beyond. Use them. Or, if possible, talk to the therapist. I started speaking to one before this all began, as part of my (long) process for re-entering the ministry, and I'm especially glad now that I get to have a weekly phone conversation with him.

Seventh and finally, make a plan. Sure, there are limits to what you can do now, and doubts around when isolation guidelines will be relaxed, but you can do some small planning now. In fact, it's best to make modest plans, rather than something extravagant like 'I'm going to learn to play the fiddle and move to a farm in Appalachia.' Instead, set goals for this week, this month, before the still-unknown-end of quarantine, and for what you'd like to do afterwards. I've already heard of people making post-coronavirus to-do lists. Give yourself some structure, and with it, a little hope.

Maybe you'll find something here that's useful. On the other hand, perhaps you feel it doesn't fit your situation. That's fine too. The one thing above all that I'd like to leave with you, going back to the very first point, is be kind to yourself. With that, also be kind to others. Not just the strangers 6 feet away as you run errands, but especially the people you live with. It's often easiest to be cruel or inconsiderate to those closest to us. Don't let that be your novel coronavirus legacy.

Get Help

SUICIDE: If you’re thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or loved one, or would like emotional support, the Lifeline network is available 24/7 across the United States. 1-800-273-8255

DOMESTIC VIOLENCE: The National Domestic Violence Hotline provides lifesaving tools and immediate support to empower victims and survivors to find safety and live free of abuse. We also provide support to friends and family members who are concerned about a loved one. Resources and help can be found by calling 1-800-799-7233

CHILD ABUSE: If you are being hurt, know someone who might be hurting, or are afraid you might hurt another, call or text the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline. This is a 24-hour hotline with resources to aid in every child abuse situation. All calls are confidential. 1-800-422-4453