Officials from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) assert–with absolute certainty–that I and millions of others will experience soul-crushing losses within the next few weeks because of the coronavirus. Those of us who survive must wrestle with how to prepare for the empty spaces the disease will create in our lives.
Anger will do little to prepare us for the losses the coronavirus creates. The Tibetans have a saying, “You can throw hot coals at your enemies but you will burn your hands.” While anger can find an outlet for the immorality of national leaders on November 3rd, I and millions of others will need something more than a vote against Trump for the grief we will experience. There is little comfort in righteous indignation.
I found solace through lessons about living and loss from patients I served for ten years in hospice. Here are nine I found useful. Hopefully, you might also.
1. Ask for Forgiveness
How often have you said to yourself, “Boy, did I screw up, but I’ll have time to ask for forgiveness later?” For hundreds-of-thousands of people in the United States over the next three weeks, there may be few tomorrows for those infected by the coronavirus. In hospice, one of the most significant impediments to a peaceful death was harboring guilt for less than skillful acts. Ask now for forgiveness from those you have offended.
2. Let Go
Mizuta Masahide, a sixteenth-century samurai, returned home from a diplomatic mission for the emperor and found his house destroyed by a fire. It became the basis of his most famous haiku:
Barn’s burnt down-Now I can see the moon
For Masahide, grasping at what no longer exists made no sense. The world is in flux and will change in ways we can’t imagine, just as it did after 911. Now is not the time to fume because you can’t get your favorite organic 2% milk. Life is fleeting and nothing lasts forever—even the coronavirus. Appreciate what’s left and let go of what you can no longer grasp.
3. Rely on Heart Communications
When I was seven, I rejoiced in who I was. But with age and sophistication came a more complicated way of viewing life, guided by social rules and my ability to nuance honesty out of words. Like cataracts, my emotional defensiveness grew slowly, unnoticed until one day, I realized my view of the world was clouded. Express your feelings and emotions with unadorned honesty about the people you love and the coronavirus.
4. Be Compassionate
In hospice, I was often struck with the power of compassion, whether it transformed a dying person’s anger into love, changed the unpleasantness of cleaning a toilet into an act of kindness, or restructured analytic thinking into something softer and more humane.
To quote Shakespeare in The Merchant of Venice, “The quality of mercy is not strained; It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It is twice blest; It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.” The compassion you show to others will be multiplied in its effect upon you.
5. Limit Hope
Prehistoric people cowered in their caves at night, wondering if the sun would rise the next day. With no control over a phenomenon that was central to their lives, there was nothing else to do but hope. A modern version is a person who taps a nickel three times on her lucky bracelet before dropping it into a slot machine.
People often contrast hope with reality, as if the former is always positive and later consistently negative. Hope lives in a gray zone. Yes, keep hoping the coronavirus won’t affect you, your loved ones, or friends. But don’t invest so much energy into that belief you forget how to live. Hope for the best, but understand reality rarely mirrors expectations.
6. Give Undifferentiated Love
For eight years, I fell in love with the hospice patients I served—at least most of them—mindful of Thich Nhat Hanh’s admonition to treat every person as if she or he was my mother. With some, I was more successful than others.
While loving a vulnerable family member may seem “special,” compared to empathy for a homeless person, in some ways, they are similar to paints on a palate. Yellow and red can’t be ranked which is “better.” They’re just different. Don’t be afraid to express your love and appreciation for both the most intimate person in your life, and the person bagging your groceries.
7. Understand–If You Can’t Forgive
A hospice patient I served had ancestors who owned slaves and believed in the moral righteousness of the confederacy. My patient, like everyone else in his family, had a hostile view of anyone like me—Jewish, from the North, and a civil rights activist in the 1960s. When he shared his history with me near the end of his life, I realized if I had been born in the 1930s in Alabama, I probably would have beliefs similar to his.
While I will not be able to forgive national leaders who didn’t act in a way that might save the lives of people I love from the coronavirus, understanding is possible. Motivations for unskillful acts are complex. While many are unforgivable, they are understandable.
8. Be Creative
The mind is a strange animal. If you allow it to fixate on something negative, it will take your choice as permission to find a home in mind. At a workshop, the Tibetan monk, Sogyal Rinpoche, said people should spend a maximum of one hour listening to the news since it was mostly negative, and there was little you can do about it. Californians, he added, should spend only 20 minutes.
Turning on a “positivity” switch is not as easy as it sounds. However, being engaged in something creative does. Every day do something positive and inventive, whether that involves playing a musical instrument, carving wood, knitting, rearranging the furniture, or writing an article on loss.
9. Live as if the Coronavirus Will Take Your Life Tomorrow
Steven Levine wrote a book in which he asked readers to hypothesize what they would do with one year to live. I always felt the time frame was too long. In a past article, I asked the question, “What would you do if you knew you had only 24 hours to live?
With daily grim statistics, this question may not be theoretical, although the timeline is now in weeks or months. What should you say or do now if with certitude you knew you would be dead within weeks from the virus?
In a novel I wrote, the protagonist looks back on his long life—one that was harder than Job’s—and says, “I never learned anything important about life and death laying on a beach sipping Piña Coladas. It was from those dark, terrible times that I grew.”
Will any of these lessons stop the coronavirus? Of course not. There’s an old Buddhist adage that we can’t cover an entire road filled with thorns, but we can wear sandals with leather soles. Stay well, and if there is anything in this article, you believe might be useful to others, feel free to share. And as always, I welcome your comments and will respond to them.