In sum, if we want a life full of deep meaning, true love, and emotional strength, it’s going to involve the risk (and often the reality) of discomfort, conflict, and loss. This means there will be sadness, fear, anger, and disgust. If we eliminate negative emotions and experiences from our lives, we will be poorer and weaker for having done so.
Even if we are lucky enough to avoid catastrophic loss, the current pandemic is a psychological stress test for most of us. Many people reading this are experiencing anxiety about the future, disappointment about missed opportunities, and other negative feelings. And there are fewer distractions from these feelings, meaning that some are sitting with negative emotions in a way to which they are unaccustomed. To help us turn these moments into an opportunity for growth, we can learn from and emulate those who are experienced in managing discomfort: athletes, monks, and the elderly.
1. Be an athlete.
Some readers may remember the fitness legend Jack LaLanne, who lived to 96 and was both active and ripped to the very end. He must have loved working out, right? Wrong. In his immortal words, “I hate exercise.” This may be a bit extreme, but it betrays a truth about fitness so fundamental that it’s become a cliché: No pain, no gain. And so it can be with fear and disappointment. We can accept that avoiding them is the fast road to ill health, and that struggling through them can lead to progress. At first, it is painful. Little by little, however, we begin to lean in—to associate these negative feelings with the emotional strength that they can bring.
2. Be a monk.
In the ancient Buddhist text The Dhammapada, the Lord Buddha is quoted as saying, “He who has no attachment whatsoever for the mind and body, who does not grieve for what he has not —he is truly called a monk.” We can all gain insight from this. At present, almost all of us are separated from people, experiences, and things we ordinarily enjoy. Some of these losses—of lives and livelihoods—must be grieved. But through conscious detachment, we can lessen our suffering for the loss of worldly things that perhaps we don’t really need. Whether it is eating out, traveling, or going to the gym, this is an opportunity to examine each of our previous commitments. How much of our time and energy were they occupying? What is this separation teaching us about our priorities? By sitting with these uncomfortable feelings, we may be able to let go of some of the grief we feel for our old way of life, and become just a bit more monk-like in our approach to quarantine.
3. Be a sage.
The challenges we are facing during this period can give us a jump-start on a key element of wisdom that usually takes many years to develop. Psychologists have shown that one of the greatest consolations of old age is that while older people have negative emotions just like the rest of us, they suffer less from them. One reason for this is that they have learned that although negative events are inevitable, negative feelings are fleeting, unless we choose to hang on to them. They figure out that they get a head start on feeling well not by avoiding bad feelings, but by simply choosing to let these bad feelings pass through them. So to get a head start on this head start, imagine yourself in a few months, not feeling bad about this moment. You will be amazed at how well this works to give you perspective and relief in the present.