Count your Blessings

We all face dark periods in our lives, often for years at a time. In my mid 30s I left my abusive marriage, my husband succumbed to cancer after a mere 10 months, I moved to a strange city for a year with two young children, and my mother died shortly after I started a new career. All of these hardships and life-altering changes happened in a five year span. Some days it felt as if it was more than I could bear, and for a while I repeatedly asked “Why me?” What I came to understand over time, however, is that the real question is “Why not me?” There is no intent, malevolent or otherwise, behind such trials – they are simply part of human existence. 

Overcoming difficulties is what forges our characters and teaches us skills like perseverance and resilience while hopefully increasing our compassion. I realize, when I look back on those trying years, that they are largely responsible for the person I have become – a person I rather like and whom many others seem to like as well. The only thing I would change about that harrowing time is my mindset while going through it. I’m not berating myself for anything I did (as that would be pointless and self-defeating) but due to the perspective I have gained over the past 20 years, I can’t help but wish I had occasionally taken a step back to recognize the many good things in my life even in my darkest hours. Good things, as it turned out, which outnumbered the bad by quite a bit: two wonderful children, a loving family, a wide circle of supportive friends, decent health, a roof over my head, abundant food, and the good fortune to live in a peaceful and orderly society.

I (along with pretty well everyone else on the planet) have found the past 10 months to be scary and trying, but rather than wallowing in sadness and uncertainty I have decided to shift my perspective. Some months ago I came across a quote by the American novelist Annie Dillard which perfectly sums up my thinking, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.” One cannot step in and out of one’s life, regardless of what is happening. We all have a limited run here on earth and time only moves in one direction. I can’t get these days back, so why spend them worrying about things I can’t control like the increase in Covid-19 cases, how long it will take to roll out the vaccine, or what life will be like after we reach herd immunity? Surely my time is better spent acknowledging all the wonderful things that are present in my life right now, and fully embracing the joy and gratitude such recognition brings.

The unstinting heroism of front line healthcare workers comes first to mind. Nurses, doctors, EMTs, and LTC facility workers have persevered through PPE shortages, extremely long shifts, and the trauma of watching good people suffer and die alone. These individuals are willing to put their own health and lives at risk to ensure the wellbeing of others, and words cannot express the debt we owe them. Many others have sacrificed to keep society humming along through this crisis as well. Employees of supermarkets and drug stores, everyone manning the lines in food processing and packaging plants, city transit drivers, and those working in education are also worthy of praise and gratitude. I used to get angry when I saw anti-maskers on the news, but now I simply remind myself of the thousands of people diligently working for the greater good through this pandemic and my anger goes away. I know these steadfast individuals far outnumber the selfish people moaning about their right not to wear a mask, and I am comforted. 

There are also countless doctors, scientists, and lab technicians who have worked tirelessly to create vaccines, get them properly tested, and make them available to the public as quickly as possible. It is nothing short of miraculous how rapidly these individuals have attained their goal, with vaccines rolling out a scant year after the virus was first identified. This indicates a massive and diligent sharing of information between labs on an international level, and we are all the beneficiaries of such dedicated and tireless work. The WHO deserves praise as well for orchestrating these efforts, and for continuing to inform the public about how the vaccines were developed and how to best contain the spread of the virus as we all wait for our shots. They are also working hard to ensure that even the poorest and furthest flung regions of the globe will have access to the vaccine in a timely fashion – a very worthy endeavour indeed. 

Our federal government deserves kudos as well. They recognized the extent of the problem with the first lockdown last March and immediately responded with financial aid to Canadians whose livelihoods were threatened. They got the CERB out in an orderly and timely fashion, and have recently made changes to EI requirements so individuals who are temporarily out of work due to the virus still have an income. Theresa Tam, Chief Public Health Officer of Canada, has been calm, informative, and unflagging throughout the crisis. She continues to keep us well informed about the virus, and is willing to make tough decisions for the care and safety of all Canadians.  I’m sure Dr. Tam, Mr. Trudeau, and his cabinet are all exhausted, and I’m endlessly appreciative of their steady leadership in this difficult time.

Many people have posted fabulous things on Facebook, Youtube, and other social media platforms over the past 10 months to help lift our spirits and remind us of all the good in the world. John Krasinski, known for playing Jim on The Office and more recently Jack Ryan in the Amazon series of the same name, presented several instalments on Youtube of a show he called SGN: Some Good News. SGN, which Krasinski hosted from his home office, showed amateur footage of regular people being good and kind to one another. Many of these individuals went above and beyond to cheer up and comfort people in complete isolation at the beginning of the lockdown. Krasinski always made sure to electronically contact and personally thank each one of the caring individuals featured in these clips. He hosted a virtual wedding and a virtual prom, and also facilitated the virtual meeting of several outstanding university students and their heroes. Krasinski’s actions and those of the people he featured on SGN were all tremendously up-lifting.

Various artists have also taken the time to post performances online for people to enjoy for free. Keith Urban hosted an hour long concert from his home studio, with his wife Nicole Kidman dancing in the background. Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood performed together in their studio, and YoYo Ma has filmed himself several times playing various movements from the Bach cello concerti. I’ve seen dancers from The Royal Ballet Company and The New York City Ballet online, and have enjoyed virtual performances by various choral groups. 

Choir! Choir! Choir! is a Toronto-based group made up of two men, Daveed Goldman and Nobu Adilman. In 2011 they began hosting a weekly sing-along at a local bar in Toronto, and it proved so popular that they decided to take the show on the road. They now visit locations all over the world, bringing celebrities and regular folks together in song. My sister and I saw them when they came to Peterborough a few years ago, and we really enjoyed ourselves. Every audience member is given a sheet containing the lyrics to several songs at the beginning of the evening, and then Daveed plays guitar and Nobu conducts while the whole audience sings. Daveed and Nobu (AKA “DaBu”) have hosted numerous virtual sing-alongs since last March, most of which I have attended. There is something enormously cheering about singing with others, and I am grateful to DaBu for their unbridled enthusiasm and willingness to repeatedly lead a virtual choir of strangers.

The board of my choir, The Peterborough Singers, has come up with an ingenious way to allow its members to continue singing through the pandemic. There is no way the entire choir of over 100 people could safely get together, so they’ve arranged for groups of 12 to 18 to meet once a week for a socially distanced sing. These gatherings include music from various genres and time periods ranging from the renaissance to the present day. So far I’ve sung in a jazz ensemble and a jazz Christmas group, and come February I will be singing Broadway tunes. We are all very far apart when we meet, making pitch and tempo a problem, and it is less than ideal to sing wearing a mask, but overall the experience has been very pleasant. This is my seventh year in the choir, and our weekly rehearsals have become a welcome ritual in my life. I am extremely appreciative that good people have organized these choral meetings, providing me with at least some normalcy in an otherwise very uncertain time.

I have noticed that people I encounter in my community are diligently following the Covid-19 precautions: everyone is masked in indoor spaces, people will stop and move to the side or thank me if I do so when passing on the sidewalk, and the outdoor spaces I enjoyed this summer were full of individuals rigidly ensuring they were at least two meters apart. My friends in education tell me that their students, regardless of age, are being cooperative and conscientious about wearing their masks. Sometimes they forget to maintain social distance from one another, but they seem to understand the risk to older people when they forget and gladly separate after a gentle reminder. All of this reminds me that apart from a few yahoos who always seem to make the headlines, the vast majority of people are really good and caring.

Stress and anxiety always manifest physically in my body. I’ll have gastro-intestinal problems, or my sleep will be disrupted, or I’ll feel a squeezing in my chest which makes me hyper aware of my heartbeat and impedes my ability to breath deeply. This past September, as the thought of a long, dark winter of Covid approached, I began to experience some of these problems. I mentioned my increasing symptoms to my son, Max, who is extremely logical and strong willed. He suggested that my physical problems were almost certainly due to pandemic stress and said I needed to exercise more to work out my anxiety. I was already walking every day, so he suggested I add yoga and weightlifting to my regimen, and when I balked he said, “What else do you have to do?” I really don’t have anything else on because I’m retired, so I then countered by saying that I don’t like lifting weights, to which he responded “What’s that got to do with anything?” Sometimes people say things that flip a virtual switch in one’s brain, and these two simple phrases did that for me. I added the extra exercise to my routine the day after our conversation, along with a daily meditation session, and my physical ailments all but disappeared within a few months. I am grateful for my plain speaking son, and that I naturally have a fair bit of will power.

I also greatly appreciate that I am retired and have therefore missed all the stress of teaching in these strange times. I have a good pension, adequate investments, and I own my house and car. I can safely stay home to limit the spread without having to worry about paying my bills. I’m also cognizant that this is a much better time to be isolated than any other in history. There are myriad electronic avenues to occupy my time, and several very good platforms which allow me to see and converse with people I love. Also, this virus is paltry in comparison to the Spanish Flu of 1918. Covid-19 has killed less than 2 million people to date with three viable vaccines already being distributed, while the Spanish Flu killed as many as 50 million by the time herd immunity was achieved some two years after it began. Old people have been by far the worst hit by the current virus, whereas the 1918 flu was particularly deadly in young adults and children. All in all this is a much less scary and lethal illness than any of its worldwide predecessors, and that’s a good thing to remember as well. 

Lots of knowledgable therapists are also posting insightful articles about the emotional and psychological side-effects we are all experiencing right now. I’ve found many of these essays extremely helpful, and I have only to make a simple search on my computer to access this whole world of useful information and advice. I read one article last week which suggested that what we are really feeling right now is grief – we are grieving for the lives we all knew, and lamenting that it is unclear when, if ever, they will return. I have experienced grief many times in my life, and this explanation makes sense to me. Of course we are all sad about losing normal interactions like meeting a friend for coffee, going to see a movie, or attending a baseball game. It is important to remember, however, that grief is an emotion, and emotions are transient. Yes we are facing an unprecedented time in our collective lives, but we will persevere and I am confident we will come out the other end with a new appreciation for everyday life and one another. As Friedrich Nietzsche said, “What does not kill me makes me stronger,” to which I would add, “…and happier and wiser, too.”

4 thoughts on “Count your Blessings

  1. Well stated! How to think about anti-maskers was greatly calming to me! They are few in number compared to those of us who stand strong against the pandemic!

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