Back when zombies were new again and watching post-apocalyptic dramas seemed like entertaining escapism, I convinced my husband Mat that it would be fun to take a class through Salt Lake continuing education called “In Case of Zombies: Plans, Provisions and Preparedness for Darker Days.” Living in Utah, where the LDS church has a robust End Days industry, I underestimated how seriously the teacher and other students in the class were taking this disaster preparedness stuff. Thank Moroni they did take it seriously! Even though the workbook sat untouched for years when the class was over, (“we’ll get to those preparedness checklists someday”) you’d better believe I pulled it off the shelf and spread it out all over the living room when I realized they weren’t shitting us about this covid-19 pandemic.
In this disaster preparedness workbook, there’s a quote something like “the will to survive is important, but the will to prepare to survive is even more vital.” Yes, preparation is necessary! I was raised a girl scout after all. And besides, only dead fish go with the flow. The book is full of an overwhelming number of helpful checklists to prepare for everything from a power outage to a pandemic. And we’re making good use of it now.
But there are somethings you just will not be able to anticipate with a check list. Tucked in a tiny section in the middle of the workbook are the words “trauma resilience.” I know from a training I did through the Unitarian Universalist Trauma Ministrythat no disaster, catastrophe or crisis can’t be objectively categorized as “traumatic.” Trauma isn’t inherent in the event, it’s one possible result of an individual or community’s reaction to the event. Whether or not we’re traumatized by an event is not a matter of being a good or bad person, being weak or strong, prepared or unprepared. It’s simply a matter of whether or not the event overwhelmed your capacity and resources to get back to baseline. The disaster workbook mentions three components for trauma resilience:
By self-reliance, I think the teacher might have meant it’s better to be independent and self-sufficient instead of relying on others to survive. But, if nothing else, this pandemic has already made us painfully aware of how inextricably linked and interdependent we are. So, I’d reframe self-reliance as being able to tap into the deep-seated truth that you can figure this out, you can be resourceful, you can count on yourself and that you are enough. It’s not necessarily true that you can face hard stuff all alone and overcome challenges all by yourself, but it is true that you are already equipped with the capacity to ask for help, learn skills from others and share what you know and have.
Pre-pandemic, I was in a phase at work of discerning how to let go of the need to be flawlessly prepared to facilitate a workshop or presentation or leadership school because it was exhausting and ineffective. I realized it was more important to be centered and grounded than perfectly prepared. Author of Emergent Strategy adrienne maree brown calls it “less prep, more presence.” Attending to grounding and centering practices as part of my preparation provides me with the capacity to respond with grace and clarity to the elements that simply cannot be planned for.
Centering provides me with an amount of confidence in myself that no matter what comes up, I will be there for myself. It boosts my knowledge that I am reliable and that I will not desert or betray or abandon myself when things get hard. Basically, it reminds me that I can count on myself and breathe through whatever challenge I’m faced with.
A sense of purpose is much larger than the list of skills you have, what titles you had or have, what your job was or is, or how much money or resources you’ve accumulated. Purpose is the awareness that it’s not just about you, that you are part of something bigger. Purpose means knowing you have a role to play, that you matter and are important. Some folks like the thought of destiny or fate, that your purpose in this life is predetermined, maybe by a god, and you just have to find it. Others believe you can craft your own purpose and that it might change or evolve over time. It doesn’t matter your personal belief on purpose. What matters is that we all have at least one purpose. No one is purposeless. Even if you don’t currently know what your purpose is, you still have one.
Here’s what purpose looks like for me: some days I wake up with a strong urge to knock on all my neighbors’ doors, let them know I care about them, ask them if they need anything, remind them they can help others and that we’re all in this together. When I have those days, I feel impactful, powerful, necessary. And when people tell me how grateful they are that I stopped by, I feel important, special, appreciated. Those are easily recognizable as purposeful days.
Oh, but those days are rare! That takes a lot of planning, energy and will. With depression, some days my purpose is as simple as a promise to try again tomorrow. Some days it feels like my only purpose is to keep my animals fed and clean up their poop.
On days when my purpose seems basic, I do not feel special or powerful at all. On the days when I literally do nothing but eat, shit, breath and stare out the window, I do not feel impactful or appreciated at all. But I have purpose still, even on those days. In fact, these the days it’s most important to remember that I am a spiritual being having a human experience and that my purpose does not rely on constant doing.
On these days my purpose is to be present for the world around me, to take in all the information of the present moment and transform some of it into meaning. I eat food and turn it into muscle mass to help my neighbors later. I breathe in oxygen and turn it into vital life force. I observe the world around me and can sometimes make sense of it. I am consciousness aware of itself. It’s enough to survive so that the world can be known through my experience.
Basically, agency is the knowledge of what you have control over and what you don’t, and the ability to make your own choices. There is a ton we do not have control over and trying to maintain control over things and people is untenable, just ask our criminal injustice system and the prison industrial complex. Those of us with a social location (status, identity and/or privilege) that allows for the false sense of security through control find it particularly disillusioning to learn we don’t have the kind of control we were promised. And those of us with identities on the margins who are all too familiar with a lack of control or the terror of being controlled know we have access to a power stronger than the will to have power over other people. And that is the power of choice.
You may not get to control if others are social distancing, if you lose your job or have to move back in with your parents, if someone you know dies or if you get sick. It doesn’t mean that attempts at influencing outcomes are futile but tapping into your own agency means you get to choose how your respond to the things you don’t have control over.
You can make choices about whether you latch on to the catastrophic thoughts that pop into your head or develop strategies to let them go. The most important choice we get to make is where we put our attention. This is different from avoidance or willful denial, which I feel I’m just barely coming out of. Avoidance is a totally rational survival strategy if you subconsciously know you don’t yet have the means to face it something challenging head on. adrienne maree brown says “what we pay attention to grows.” Choosing what gets our energy and attention is an act of self-determination and acceptance that you – not someone else – are the agent of your own livelihood. Choosing what to attend to is in part an act of faith. You have to trust that the many other important things you will not be attending to will be attend to by others. It’s also a radical act of honesty by admitting what is truly a priority for you and what you just can’t put your energy toward.
Agency, purpose and self-reliance are life-long projects that if you make it to an old age you may feel lucky enough to have grasped at times. These are not tasks to have accomplished or goals to have achieved. They’re orientations to practice moment by moment. They’re muscles to build little by little. They’re plants to water and move into the sunshine and feed.
I probably wrote this thinking it was for you but as it turns out I really needed to hear it too. While it mostly still seems hard but not unmanageable, I’m going to practice building the muscles of agency, purpose and self-reliance in preparations for the moments verging on traumatic.
I’m good at a lot of things, but I admit self-discipline is just not one of them. I am, however, pretty good at mutual accountability (I am Unitarian Universalist after all.) So, what do you say? Accountabilibuddies? I’ll hold you to it if you hold me to it. Since I simply cannot do one more zoom meeting, let’s stay connected through a hashtag, shall we? Follow and share your moments of practicing agency, purpose and self-reliance with #PandemicResilience.