9 Practices for Protecting and Rebuilding Your Energy

In a recent post, I wrote about how we’re not individually well-equipped or collectively prepared to live in a long-term crisis with multiple ongoing disasters.

That isn’t to say that there we are helpless, even now. Today, I share some practices I’ve been enacting during the pandemic, mostly learned through research on trauma, critical perspectives on resilience (short version: we should make life easier, not make people tougher), and disaster.

Live with the Stockdale Paradox. Commander Jim Stockdale was a POW in Vietnam for 7 1/2 years. When he was later asked what traits distinguished those who survived and those who did not, he gave an answer that might surprise you: The optimists were far worse off.

Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart … This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.

That’s the Stockdale Paradox: to have faith that, in the end, you will survive but to recognize all the forces trying to kill you.

The pandemic has been hardest for my friends who thought that last March’s school closures would be for a few weeks. That they could have been relatively short–had we taken decisive action back then–they would have felt good about their prediction. But they didn’t account for what were clear facts even then: we lack the cultural solidarity to work together to fight this, trust in science, or effective government, and we’re so enamored with the idea of “the economy” and afraid of the only strategies that are working elsewhere (contact tracing, which many Americans see as a violation of privacy; supplying people with state-of-the-art masks; supporting a successful shift to online learning and work; narrowly defining “essential” workers and tasks; presenting a unified government front; free and frequent testing; and, most importantly, a UBI sufficient to support people staying at home) that we were in trouble from the start. Looking at the facts on the ground, there was no reason to be optimistic, even as many colleges refused to plan for an online 2020-21.*

Living with the Stockdale Paradox means trusting that, in the end, this will be over; in the meantime, we will make better choices about how to live today if we stop hoping for the best. Plan on an online spring commencement. Plan for summer courses to be online. Plan for an online fall. Planning for reality doesn’t diminish joy should better times come, but it does make living in this moment easier.

Choose new ways of being and doing that meet old needs but don’t repeat old ways bound to fail now. As you’ve probably learned by now, online teaching isn’t just taking your in-person teaching and putting it online. It offers a lot that in-person teaching can’t do (and, yes, of course, it can’t do everything that in-person teaching can.) Instead of trying to re-create your old ways of doing things in an online environment where they are likely to fail (or at least not feel as fulfilling as in-person), choose new ways of doing things that can work well in our new environment. For example, recording yourself in front of a whiteboard as you deliver a lecture might feel like it’s the closest thing that you can get to an in-person lecture–but it’s going to be a disappointment. Instead, use screencapture tools like Tegrity, OBS, and Screencastify to show your computer screen to students and lecture that way. (Or embrace the chance to try some other new techniques and tools!)

Take breaks from the pandemic. Like a goldfish, worry about our current crisis and disasters will grow to the size of the container you put it in. You deserve areas of your life where it’s not intruding. That can be a time of day or an activity. Maybe you keep one social media account that’s just for sharing pictures of baby animals. Maybe you knit blankets for babies in the NICU. Maybe you cook your way through In Bibi’s Kitchen. None of this makes the pandemic go away, but a focused, intentional, dedicated practice–one that begins with me hanging a mental sign up that says “The Pandemic is On Pause”–helps me. This can include your classroom. One way to do this is to invite your students to show up 10 minutes early to class to talk pandemic, then beginning class by thanking them for their contributions and stating that you’re moving on to other topics now. (Allowing but also limiting pandemic talk was vital for me in Spring 2020, as I was teaching Sociology of Disaster during the pandemic. Some students wanted to apply what they were learning to the immediate moment, but others, especially nurses, prison guards, and students with COVID or with loved ones with it, really didn’t want another part of their life focusing on it.)

Accept that life is different now and that it will be different for the rest of your life because of the pandemic. I don’t just mean that we’ll be wearing masks even after a vaccination is widely available and widely used. I mean that you will know and love and teach people with life-long losses, including loss of loved ones and disability, because of COVID. In my county, nearly 10% of the population has tested positive since the pandemic began. Likely many more have had COVID but not been tested. There is much we don’t know about post-viral life, including the effects on the body. We don’t know how a COVID infection today might affect a person 50 years from now. Acceptance may involve grief, so permit that rather than fighting it.

Discern what you don’t have control over. You might be familiar with the finding that people with an internal locus of control (think that they are in control of the outcomes of their lives) report higher level of happiness than those who have an external one. It’s almost common knowledge in self-help literature, and it handily reinforces our American love of blaming people for their problems and crediting them for what really just might be good luck. This just-world theory is a fallacy, because all the time, people who took great caution around COVID become ill and die, whereas others who took–and imposed on others–great risk live. It’s terrible and I hate it. For me, it’s more helpful to see the boundaries of where I have control (how I teach), where I have influence (our campus policies around COVID), and where I have no control (my state’s response to COVID). Like most educators I know, I’m competent and used to being able achieve what I want. The pandemic is a reminder that there are limits to that. This can make it especially frustrating to problem-solvers and action-takers, but here we are, and it’s best for me if I limit my energy to those things I can change.

Make something. When we see ourselves creating something, we gain confidence in our agency. Besides that, it feels good to use our bodies to create. If you see creating something as especially foreign to you (as it might be for many of us used to using our brains, not our hands), give it a try. Try intuitive painting. Roll out some dough to play with. Use a YouTube tutorial to draw a silly animal on a card and send it to a child. Bake a cake, even if it’s ugly. Sing a song you loved as a child. In your classroom, invite students to create, too. Start a Zoom session by asking them to share something they’ve made. Or give them an assignment to doodle a concept from class, imagine a scenario in fiction where someone would use something you’re learning in class, or write a poem about the course content.

Repair something. Again, this gives you control over your world. Pick up trash in your neighborhood. Sew on a missing button. Call a friend you haven’t spoken to in some time. Take just 5 minutes to do something that makes your world better. Again, as your students to participate. Given what they’ve learned so far, what can they do with it to make the world better? It might be as simple as emailing or calling a legislator.

Refuse to call this time a tragedy. The pandemic is a long-lasting crisis, not just of health but of leadership and community. It is breaking the US, even as it shows how broken we already were. There is no silver lining in this, even as some things are better for some of us than before. (I like having my children learning at home, for example.) Yet the (preventable) tragedies of the pandemic does not mean that this time is a tragedy. Jokes about 2020 being a “bad” year shift the blame for our problems to something beyond our control (“time”), which justifies continuing inaction, as if the passage of time alone will solve this. And seeing this time as a tragedy is also unfair to the good things in our lives. For example, many of our students will spend the majority of their college years in remote emergency, online, or hybrid classes, which they did not expect or plan for. These years are not a tragedy. Their internships and student teaching will be online rather than in-person, as they hoped. Yet not what I wanted or expected is not the same thing as a tragedy. We can recognize that many students will not have the experiences that they hoped for or that were familiar to them, from courses to dorm life to spring break trips to service learning opportunities to sporting events to commencement, but that doesn’t mean that the reality they are experiencing is tragic. We can be sad for what we are missing out on without exaggerating the loss or dismissing what is working well or even better. When I speak positively about this time, I feel better, and my students have more hope.

Rest. I know it sounds trite–or, worse, impossible. But not getting sufficient rest makes it impossible to restore your surplus capacity. Reduce your workload, do an adequate but not fantastic job on some things, cancel some commitments that don’t fill your cup, and go to bed earlier, even if it’s just to relax your body for a bit until you learn to fall asleep earlier. In your teaching, consider if every assignment needs to be done by every student. Can they pretest and, if they already know the material, skip some practice? Can you provide them with meaningful feedback in a faster way–like by offering them recorded video comments summarizing your thoughts on their paper rather than line edits? Can early drafts get feedback from peers rather than from you? Is your course set up to help students rest, too?

*For those who insist that there was reason to be optimistic or who claim that we have been able to safely reopen, please stop and hear your words in the ears of those who have lost loved ones. More than 500,000 Americans are dead. Our plan of action wasn’t safe; if it were, we wouldn’t have lost more Americans to COVID than to any of our wars except the US Civil War–and that is only so far). When you insist that it was, you disregard those lost lives. When you insist that it is, you are telling those dying now that their lives were an acceptable loss.

Above, George Frederic Watt’s Hope (1886) shows a blindfolded women sitting atop a globe, half submerged in water or perhaps surrounded by clouds. She holds a lyre, her head bent forward. The background behind her is ambiguous. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of the painting in his sermon “Shattered Dreams,” asking “Who has not had to face the agony of blasted hopes and shattered dreams?”

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