“Take nothing for granted. It’s great to be alive.” I’ve heard those words uttered by Chicago disk jockey Lin Brehmer dozens of times. The phrase has been his mantra for years. And, every time I’d hear it I’d tell myself he’s absolutely right. We have all taken so much for granted every day of our lives. Too often it takes some sort of crisis or an all-out cataclysm to get our attention. Sadly, sometimes we have to lose something to finally get the message.
We’ve all taken the people in our lives for granted: family members, friends, partners, colleagues, waiters, bartenders, clerks, first responders, and most certainly medical professionals. We’ve taken our freedom for granted. Who could have imagined being stymied from going to a restaurant or bar, the lakefront trail, or the mall? Hell, most of us can’t even go to work, let alone hit up TJ Maxx to buy poop bags for the dog.
We’re cut-off from personal human connection with people we love. And, now we face a grand paradox. We have been ordered into isolation when being isolated is the last thing we need. We were psycho-neurobiologically created for connection and belonging. But now, too many of us have neither. Maybe we get an artificial fix now and again using FaceTime or Zoom, text messages or an old-fashioned phone call, but technology is no replacement for face-to-face human connection and touch. We long to be hugged. Even a handshake would be nice. Yes, touch is that underrated sense we never even think about until we don’t have it.
Some of us are forced to be alone with ourselves even though we don’t really like ourselves very much. We’ve constructed elaborate distractions to limit our time with self. We’re afraid of what we might discover deep down below the surface, underneath the masks and armor behind which we hide. We’re afraid to see and acknowledge what’s inside our personal Pandora’s box. It’s safer to mute our true colors and remain an enigma to ourselves and everyone else. But now, we’re out of options.
Others are quarantined inside four walls with loved ones… or liked ones. And, that can tend to get problematic as any family therapist will tell you. Being with other people 24/7 gets old quickly. Here’s the second paradox: we need time alone. Without it, we develop short fuses. We’re easily triggered by each and every little thing we dislike about the people with whom we’re encapsulated. And, families with young kids, well, that’s another ballgame entirely.
This is a scenario in which parents have to remember that kids are just kids. Their brains aren’t developed. They’re going to annoy you and do stupid things. They’re going to spill milk, color on the walls, fight with their siblings, have temper tantrums, spend too much time in front of screens, and yes, regress. They’re out of sorts too, just like those of us who are adults.
We’re all overwhelmed by fear, kids and adults alike. Our worst fear is this: am I or someone I love going to become infected and die? And, that fear launches us into catastrophic thoughts in which we dress-rehearse tragedy just in case it does happen. We also fear less lethal but nonetheless significant worries like the future of our jobs, careers, and financial security. When are we going to be able to go back to work and school? When will we be able to go to a restaurant, a music concert, or Kohl’s for Christ’s sake?
We want and expect answers and yet there none to be had. Purgatory sucks but that’s exactly where we find ourselves now. It feels like time is standing still. Tick, tick, tick. Waiting. Waiting for good news that is real and true and not wishful thinking or political posturing. Waiting to return to some sort of normalcy or at least familiarity.
Our capacity is depleted. Sometimes there’s very little in the tank. If we’re only operating at forty percent, we’re trying to function with a sixty-point deficit. That means there’s a gap so we’re going to slip up, make mistakes, say and do things we may regret. Our sense of agency is diminished. We’re exhausted and sometimes it all feels so hopeless.
It may be of little solace, but all of these feelings are to be both expected and experienced. We’re all in the same boat, albeit in different depths of water.
So, how do we endure, survive, and maintain our loving relationships and at least some sense of hope? Patience, patience, and more patience. And, let’s add kindness, thoughtfulness, compassion, and true empathy — not just for others but for ourselves as well. Grace is another word that comes to mind. It is incumbent on us as human beings to show each other grace. That doesn’t mean we don’t set boundaries. That doesn’t mean we can’t confront someone. But, words and body language matter. Empathy and kindness must prevail, not anger.
“It seems that human nature is such that we balk at changing until things get really bad and we’re so uncomfortable that we can no longer go on with business as usual,” writes neuroscientist Dr. Joe Dispenza. “We wait for crisis, trauma, loss, disease, and tragedy before we get down to look at who we are, what we are doing, how we are living, what we are feeling, and what we believe or know, in order to embrace true change.”
Change. Most of us have an innate fear of change. We thrive in the safety of our routines, habits, and patterns. But, that was then. Now it’s about discovering new opportunities. It’s about doing those things we’ve been putting off.
Read, write, think, imagine, paint, play music, complete projects, tend to our gardens, and tend to ourselves. Look beyond the tempest to the clearing in the distance. Long ago, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote, “The best thing one can do when it is raining, is to let it rain.” But today, Brené Brown, a more contemporary author, adds an important addendum: “The dark does not destroy the light; it defines it. It’s our fear of the dark that casts our joy into the shadows.”
Existential psychology theory believes we are the authors of our own stories. Thus, we may have no control over what happens in our lives but we can control how we react and respond to what happens. How do we do that? Gratitude and appreciation are good places to start. Embrace the meaning of the phrase, “stop and smell the roses.” Oh, and let’s try our very best to stop taking people and things for granted. Let’s be grateful for what we do have. And, let’s not forget Lin Brehmer’s mantra. Let’s try to take nothing for granted and acknowledge that it really is great to be alive.
Roger M. Cahak is a writer and graduate student studying clinical mental health counseling.