My Dad calls me a “flatlander”. Here’s why. I was born in upstate New York in a small rural community where there are lovely green rolling foothills that are a tantalizing tease to the Allegheny Mountains and eventually the Appalachian Mountains. We even skied down those baby mountains! For the past 35 years I have lived in Wichita, KS – where the flatness allows you to see for miles and makes the sky look outsized at times. We don’t have oceans, mountains, hurricanes or big earthquakes. We have lots of wind, hot summers and sometimes flooding. Pretty predictable and boring, but it also feels pretty safe. Oh yeah, there is that tornado thing – but Dorothy and Toto don’t seem to take as many trips as they used to around these parts.

But…… at Thanksgiving in 2020, while taking a tasty bite of turkey, the house shook and shimmied and there was a strange loud boom. We all paused – what on Earth was that – we thought maybe a transformer had blown – but why did the ground move? In the midst of a worldwide pandemic not seen in over 100 years, Wichita experienced around 25 earthquakes in November and December. Not strong enough to destroy buildings, but strong enough to move the ground and knock ornaments off the Christmas tree, slide decorative items off of tables, and cause worry.

When would they stop, and would they get worse? What was it doing to my home’s foundation?! And what was the cause – debates ranged from fracking concerns to natural, periodic plate shifting along the Humboldt Faultline. We were all joking about bracing for a plague of locusts descending to destroy the wheat crops of Kansas!

So, most days I was sitting in my therapy office with a patient – with our masks on – doing our work and wondering when the next earthquake would be. And during most sessions, the therapeutic conversation was about how the ground was shifting metaphorically and that life felt very scary and unpredictable. One of the top reasons people come in to see me (in person or online) – is because their world has been shaking.

Sometimes it was a loss from death – and we have had way too much of that this past year. Sometimes it was a medical diagnosis like cancer or an autoimmune illness that cannot be cured. Often it was due to a relationship rupture – someone we have loved deeply for many years was now hurting us or we were hurting them. And neither person knows how to stop it or make it better.

The year of 2020 also brought riots, rage, confusion about what was truth and fact, job loss, history being re-evaluated, and divisions that were painful between friends, neighbors and family members. We have been separated from one another by masks and the inability to visit freely in person. Changes in our income and the inability to enjoy simple things like going to a park in some locales, forced us to recognize all we take for granted.

I have tried to be very intentional about learning from my patients this past year during this unprecedented world event. I wanted to learn about how people were coping and creating new paths that fostered resilience. Why were some feeling crushed and lost in despair, fear and hopelessness? And why were others stretching beyond their comfort zone and thriving in many ways?

The most common loss was loss of connection. Our ability to connect with one another became complicated and frustrating. Some people felt a loss of connection with God as they looked at the multiple changes in their life and struggled to make sense of the devastation. Some people disconnected from family or friends because of bitter fights about politics. Many children experienced a distortion in their developing sense of self because they could not see peers, teachers and coaches in person. We all lost simple yet profound connections when we could no longer see smiles or full facial expressions because of the need to wear a mask. Many were enduring ongoing physical symptoms from the virus that remind them daily how the world has turned upside down. And of course, death is the ultimate loss of connection.

Here is what I learned – not very fancy or complicated…..

Overall, the people who had “built in” connections – for example, they had to keep working because of income needs or they were essential workers – had some better outcomes. Not that they weren’t stressed, or worried about catching the virus, etc. – but they showed more signs of resilience overall. Those that were very intentional about creating new methods of connecting and made it a routine part of their lives – also did the best. Both groups were using their “mastery muscles” – being forced to engage with new and uncertain realities led to a decision to push through the anxiety to adapt.

They discovered new strengths and in some cases were surprised by their ability to adjust. I was frequently impressed and entertained by the stunning creative capacity people demonstrated. I had one patient who invented a new online game that he could play with extended family members on a weekly basis to help them stay connected and have a few laughs together. Another family ordered gingerbread houses online for all of the grandkids – and then in the weeks leading up to Christmas they would all join a Skype call and build the houses “together”. I had one friend who was a member of a Jewish choral group that somehow practiced together online, and then shared a “mini-concert” online. It was so beautiful it felt like you were sitting in the lap of pure awe. Delightful creativity on so many levels.

As we all join together to work on recovering and reorienting after 2020, I encourage the following:

  • Remember to nurture and treat yourself with respect and compassion. Don’t forget what it was like to slow down at times while we were living through a lockdown. Schedule time with yourself when you unplug from electronics and feel the mystery of being alive. Spend more time playing – it is a pathway to mystery.
  • Face the losses you and your loved ones have endured. Feel the grief and anger and then listen to yourself when you sense it has receded and when it is time to rebuild. Don’t do that alone – invite someone on that leg of your journey. Your grief is precious and meaningful and deserves to be witnessed.
  • And finally – the ground beneath us continues to move. None of us know what is around the corner with the pandemic, politics or our personal lives. This is the nature of our existence. Take heart – you belong to a large tribe that has existed for millennia and shown itself to be incredibly adaptive and resilient. We all do best when we stay connected relationally, look out for each other and intentionally invest in our present and future. It is good to have YOU on the journey.