The coronavirus pandemic is causing widespread anxiety worldwide. We get some coping advice from Steve Leder, Senior Rabbi of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, and author of “More Beautiful Than Before: How Suffering Transforms Us.”
Leder says there’s a lot of catastrophic (and thus unproductive) thinking among his congregants, and many feel they’ve never experienced anything like this. There’s the stock market drop, massive unemployment, and virtual standstill to the economy.
“We haven't seen it. But we have. Most of us have been in situations and had experiences in the past where we were deeply frightened about our future, where we felt the bottom was falling out of the world,” says Leder. “It's the feelings more than the specifics – that I think is important to remember we have had before, and we have survived before.”
Sharing fears, remembering that we get back up again
Leder says it’s important to let people articulate their fears.
“Then I do ask people, ‘Have you ever had these feelings before? What is the most difficult thing you've ever been through in your life? … How did you get through that? What helped you? Who helped you? And how can you summon those same resources again?’ And even when the worst happens, people survive it,” he says. “We grieve. We mourn. And then we get up and walk back out into life. And this will be no different.”
Focus on the present
“If you're dealing with someone who is extremely frightened, I think the best we can do is try to help them, not catastrophize the future, and pull them … more often into the present,” says Leder.
He gives an example: His daughter is living with her boyfriend in a small apartment in Hollywood, and he developed a sore throat today. In a phone call about an hour ago, she said, “Daddy, I'm so afraid I'm gonna get sick.”
Leder responded, “You're not sick right now. Do all the right things, and think about what you should be doing in the next hour that's meaningful and productive for you.”
Leder says that if people can catastrophize the future 10% less, this outbreak and quarantine will be a lot easier to manage. “Even living in the present 10% more will really change the way you go through this.”
Problem or inconvenience?
This is a good time to think deeply about the difference between a problem and an inconvenience, advises Leder.
“Is it inconvenient to be stuck in my house right now? Yes. But Anne Frank, who hid for more than two years with seven other people in 450 square feet, and then ended up going up a chimney in Auschwitz, she had a problem. I have an inconvenience.
Is it inconvenient that I can't go out to restaurants for a nice meal? Yeah, it's inconvenient. You know what’s a problem? The homeless person who's digging in the dumpster that's practically empty for a bite of food. That's a problem.
… You couldn't get your elective surgery? Fine. The person on a respirator in ICU, that's a problem. You have an inconvenience.
I'm saying perspective is extremely, extremely important.”
The importance of hope
Leder shares that his wife is immunosuppressed, and his family is being extremely careful, and he’s worried about her. But he says hope is crucial here.
“Right now we're hearing a lot of science. We're hearing a lot of politics. And we're hearing a lot of economics. We're not hearing a lot of hope. And we're not hearing a lot in the realm of the spirit. So I do think that there is a vacuum we need to fill with hope. We have all walked through shadows and darkness before,” he says.
Where there’s shadow, there’s light
Leder says he’s been talking to people a lot about the verse in the 23rd Psalm: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”
“I've pointed out two very important things about that verse in this moment. One, we walk through the Valley of Shadows. We don't stay there forever. We walk through these dark, narrow moments, putting one foot in front of the other somehow, some way. And we do get through.
And the second thing … a shadow is actually proof of light. You cannot have a shadow unless the light is somehow shining behind whatever is obstructing that light. So I urge all of us to realize that the shadows and fear and darkness, they really are a reflection of something much brighter. Our love for each other. Our love of life itself. Our love of the simple, ordinary pleasures we took for granted. And all of those things are still there. And they'll be waiting for us as we walk through this dark and narrow valley,” he says.
–Written by Amy Ta, produced by Sarah Sweeney and Alex Tryggvadottir