Recently, I received a newsletter from Marjorie Schuman, Ph.D., with some insightful reflections on existential shock. This is what we are all experiencing right now as COVID-19 has caused everything to change, upending our world and our lives.
In her newsletter, Dr. Schuman says, “I see that existential shock arises as a consequence of being dislodged from the ongoing-ness of life. We are psychologically reliant on what feels ordinary and routine, on the structures of meaning that define our lived experience. When this structure suddenly changes, our felt sense of the continuity of being is disrupted. And because, as the famed psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott was the first to emphasize, going-on-being is the subjective center of our human world, interruptions in our experience of going-on-being are traumatic.” Dr Schuman continues by saying, “The existential impact of such an experience can be profound. Crisis can be an important threshold experience and a portal to personal transformation. It poses an existential challenge: will we be broken down and defeated by our reactivity and resistance to change, or will we be broken open and transformed.?”
Two years ago, well before the existential shock of COVID-19, I experienced a traumatic disruption in my subjective world. A job that I loved ended in a way that challenged my identity and feelings of self-worth. I was shaken to my core and the old feelings of self-loathing and just plain not being good enough rushed back with a vengeance. I was experiencing an extreme existential crisis. As Dr. Schuman says, I stood at the thresholds of either personal collapse or transformational change.
With the help of others and knowing that I’d successfully weathered many other life crises, I chose the portal of transformational change and today, I can see clearly that my heart broke open. I went back to school, earning a Masters’ Degree in Psychology, became a Certified Life Coach and now I’m working with others who are navigating the change process in their lives.
Today, COVD-19 is forcing us all to take a break, to reevaluate, to appreciate what matters and to be present to what is instead of railing against the things we cannot change.
I’ll end with a poem that Dr. Schuman included in her newsletter and that has been making the rounds on the internet:
Yes there is fear.
Yes there is isolation.
Yes there is panic buying.
Yes there is sickness.
Yes there is even death.
They say that in Wuhan after so many years of noise, you can hear the birds again.
They say that after just a few weeks of quiet, the sky is no longer thick with fumes,
but blue and grey and clear.
They say that in the streets of Assisi, people are singing to each other across the
Keeping their windows open so that those who are alone may hear the sounds of family around them.
They say that a hotel in the West of Ireland is offering free meals and delivery to the housebound.
Today a young woman is busy spreading fliers with her number through the neighborhood, so that the elders may have someone to call on.
Today Churches, Synagogues, Mosques and Temples are preparing to welcome and shelter the homeless, the sick, the weary.
All over the world people are slowing down and reflecting. All over the world people are looking at their neighbors in a new way, with empathy and compassion. All over the world people are waking up to a new reality – To how big we really are. To how little control we really have. To what really matters. To love. So we pray and we remember that – Yes there is fear. But there does not have to be hate. Yes there is isolation. But there does not have to be loneliness. Yes there is panic buying. But there does not have to be selfishness. Yes there is sickness. But there does not have to be disease of the soul. Yes there is even death. But there can always be a rebirth of love. Wake to the choices you make as to how to live now. Today, breathe. Listen, behind the factory noises of your panic.
The birds are singing again, the sky is clearing, spring is coming. And we are always encompassed by love.
Open the windows of your soul. And though you may not be able to touch across the empty square, Sing.
– From Richard Hendrick (Brother Richard) in Ireland, March 13, 2020