Friday, April 10, 2020

Stay Healthy!

Tom Sawyer applying some management skills to the whitewashing of Aunt Polly's fence. Not finding credit.

David Brooks got his readers to help out with a column on mental health in the year of plague ("The Pandemic of Fear and Agony"), sending out an appeal last week
to tell me about your mental health — how you are faring in this hard time. I don’t know what I expected; maybe some jaunty stories about families pulling together in a crisis. What you sent gutted me. There have been over 5,000 replies so far, and while many people are hanging in there, there is also a river of woe running through the world — a significant portion of our friends and neighbors are in agony.
The column he gets out of it, and a supplementary selection ("'I Feel Like I'm Finally Cracking and I Don't Even Know Why'"), is all agony, and I'm of two minds about it: on the one hand, better to devote space to real human voices than to another David Brooks column, and these barely edited  fragments of sorrow and anxiety are pretty real, but they're jumbled together in an awfully uncurated way, as if to emphasize the lack of a pattern in who's suffering: old people in isolation, old people saddled with family responsibilities, people with a history of anxiety and depression disorders, people who have always thought they were completely healthy, people who think they're doing something about it (some reading Victor Frankl on Brooks's recommendation) and and people who don't know what they're going to do.

One reader said this pandemic was causing “invisible stress” — a pervasive, ever-shifting, hard-to-define anxiety. Many people are experiencing shortness of breath, tightness in the chest, exhaustion.
One man from Placitas, N.M., said he used to have five things he wanted to accomplish in a day, but now it’s down to two — maybe baking bread or planting a small garden. A woman from Pennsylvania said the anxiety leaves her mentally drained, more irritable, unable to focus. “I think of it like having a few large apps on my phone that are running and draining the battery, even when I’m not using them,” she said.
At the end of the column Brooks briefly looks around "for the helpers" as Mr. Rogers says,
I’m reminded that this is a time to practice aggressive friendship with each other — to be the one who seeks out the lonely and the troubled.  
but in the end I don't know what it's about or who it's for. For people suffering from deep distress, the editors have tacked on an important pointer
[If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) or go to for a list of additional resources.]
but there's no resource for those who aren't all the way to despair—a good place to start would be the Covid site of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or the CDC's own site.

Or is it for a readership that isn't suffering at all? A putative Brooks readership that hasn't become aware of how stressful the situation is, as Brooks himself seems to have done? Just to let them know how bad others have it and how grateful they ought to be? They've made Brooks feel terrible, anyhow, and that was worth doing.

What emerges from Brooks's data for me, though not apparently for him, is something I think I got originally from the radio the other day—that we're all under a lot of emotional stress, some of us much more than we think, and probably need to acknowledge it, as 5000 of Brooks's readers have done.

Not just people who deny it out of hand because they think they're not that kind of person, but those who feel guilty, maybe, because their job is to stay home and stay out of trouble, while firefighters and nurses and mail carriers and grocery clerks are in the thick of it, not just those who are out there because they're heroes, but those who are there because they're poor, or don't have the option of working "from home".

Well, "Stay healthy!" we tell each other, because that really is our job, the rest of us. Don't make more work for the nurses and doctors! Don't stress our kids, if we've got kids with responsibilities! And that means acknowledging our own suffering, however minor it may be, practicing self-care as well as we can so we require minimal care from others, getting help quickly when we need it. For those of us who are so old and useless that that's pretty much all we can do, other than, if we're lucky, keeping a paycheck coming in, admitting to those bad feelings, of guilt and uselessness, is part of the job, because you can't stay healthy by hiding from your emotions, but. in the meantime staying healthy is what you're needed for.

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