For those of us fortunate enough to have homes in which to self-quarantine and space enough in which to social-distance, these are the times that try men’s souls. Or people’s souls—I am amending that classic line from American patriot Thomas Paine to make it more inclusive.
These are the times that try people’s souls.
And the trials run from lighter to heavier. For example: a lighter trial could be considered that of the home haircut. I know—there’s plenty of angst at the thought of an ill-considered snip here and snip there and all of a sudden you’re wearing a hat or a head scarf all the time. But who’s going to see you, if you’re supposed to stay at home?
So: maybe that’s one of the lighter trials these days.
Another lighter trial could be the quest for jigsaw puzzles. We’re trying to find ways of entertaining ourselves, and there’s only so many Netflix shows you can consume. So: jigsaw puzzles. Ideal for these hunker-down times.
But good luck finding any if you don’t already have them. If you order one on Amazon, you’ll get it in late May, which is way too late.
Honestly, perhaps that could be a West Shore ministry in this time: for folks with an abundance of puzzles to be willing to donate to those who are without and are pulling their hair out in boredom (which, come to think of it, may just be fine because that might correct the mistakes made from the already-mentioned home hair cut).
There are lots of lighter trials in these times—and there’s lots of heavier ones too.
For example, I’m thinking about high school seniors who won’t get to experience their full Senior year—high schoolers robbed of experiences that they’ve been anticipating for years. My heart goes out to our West Shore high schoolers—Ryan Rosu and Julian Kieres. My heart goes out to high schoolers everywhere.
So many reasons for grieving these days.
Some days it just gets so heavy….
But now I want to say that there is a certain form of trial that is variable in difficulty, and can sometimes feel light, at other times feel heavy.
That is the trial of cabin fever. And here, I’m defining it as “forced isolation with the same people for weeks on end.” “When roommates, partners, families, or other groups of people are having to spend waaaay more time together than usual.”
Which is not to say that you can’t have a kind of cabin fever if happen to be living all by yourself. Of course. That’s when you come to learn that, even if you’re an introvert, you’re lonely for other people. Introvert or extrovert, you may wake up and wonder what day it is. Monday? Saturday? Shmoopday? The days blur together and why not wear the same sweat pants for the fourth day running?
But the particular cabin fever I want to focus on is the forced-isolation-with-the-same-humans type.
And, as I mentioned, the intensity of it can be variable. Sometimes, it’s not so bad.
Someone was telling me that for the first time in memory, their family is actually eating face-to-face meals together. Home-cooked meals—slow meals. Time for talking to each other at the table. Family-bonding time. This sort of thing happening in a way it wasn’t during life before coronavirus.
That’s a good thing. That’s a gift in the midst of the mess.
Roomies or partners or families finding positive bonding opportunities, whether around food or jigsaw puzzling or maybe good-humored jokes about a bad home haircut: cabin fever here is not so bad after all.
But then there are times when the scale tips the other way, and cabin fever trials are heavy indeed.
Especially when conflict hits.
There’s an Internet meme that goes like this: “My wife and I play this fun game during quarantine, and it’s called “Why are you doing it that way?” and there are no winners.
When conflict happens, and it’s intensified because of cabin fever: that’s specifically what I want to hone in on today. Offering some tools. Offering some perspective.
Perhaps one key to calming down cabin-fever conflicts is bringing awareness to a popular cultural ideal that too many people embrace uncritically. I call it the “myth of happiness”—the idea that genuine success in life is equivalent to an absence of difficult feelings. With regard to relationships, the myth of happiness says that successful relationships lack problems and they lack conflict.
So, right at the start, the first thing to do is bring awareness to and disidentify with this myth, which is so very wrong. If we define successful relationships like this, then success is always going to be off the table for we spiritual beings having a human experience.
I say it is better to define success as Christian theologian Frederick Buechner does. He invokes the Hebrew word for peace, which is shalom, which means “fullness–having everything you need to be wholly and happily yourself.” “Peace is not the absence of struggle but the presence of love.”
That last line in particular nails it. Peace—or successful relationships—is not about the absence of struggle but the presence of love.
Imagine this love as a way of seeing and empathizing. We are messy, imperfect beings. Specifically, we have parts within us that are two years old or four years old in emotional age and they fully co-exist in strange tension with our adult sense of self. Love here is a capacity to accept this and tolerate the discomfort of this, and to recognize when it’s playing out and go, “Oh! Yes, the inner four-year-old is activated. Ok, need to calm it and comfort it. Need to honor it but in a way that serves my true good and the true good of the relationship.”
Philosopher Alain de Botton illustrates this in his exploration of “sulking.” How many of you have gone through episodes of sulking, or you’ve witnessed it in others—and this, in even the best of times, forget about coronavirus cabin fever times?
“At the heart of a sulk,” Alain de Botton says, “lies a confusing mixture of intense anger and an equally intense desire not to communicate what one is angry about. The sulker both desperately needs the other person to understand and yet remains utterly committed to doing nothing to help them do so. The very need to explain forms the kernel of the insult: if the partner requires an explanation, he or she is clearly not worthy of one. We should add: it is a privilege to be the recipient of a sulk; it means the other person respects and trusts us enough to think we should understand their unspoken hurt. It is one of the odder gifts of love.”
He goes on to say, “We would ideally remain able to laugh, in the gentlest way, when we are made the special target of a sulker’s fury. We would recognize the touching paradox. The sulker may be six foot one and holding down adult employment, but the real message is poignantly retrogressive: ‘Deep inside, I remain an infant, and right now I need you to be my parent. I need you correctly to guess what is truly ailing me, as people did when I was a baby, when my ideas of love were first formed.’
Alain de Botton concludes: “We do our sulking lovers the greatest possible favor when we are able to regard their tantrums as we would those of an infant. We are so alive to the idea that it’s patronizing to be thought of as younger than we are; we forget that it is also, at times, the greatest privilege for someone to look beyond our adult self in order to engage with — and forgive — the disappointed, furious, inarticulate child within.”
Unless love is present in our families and relationships, and we can see with empathy the complexity underneath our conflicts, we can really get stuck in dysfunctional patterns, and we’re turning away rather than towards each other.
Another example of this, beyond sulking, has to do with different conflict styles. Each and every family has a unique style of conflict: sometimes it is loud and passionate and full-on; other times it is more emotionally-neutral but difficulties get addressed and talked about; and still other times it is sheer avoidance and the difficulties are swept under the rug.
So, let’s talk about what happens when two people come together to start building a shared world and their conflict styles don’t match. Let’s say that one person comes from a family that liked to lay into each other with sound and fury … and then make up. The other person comes from a family that practiced calm avoidance. These two people come together, they love each other in the deep way that Alain de Botton talks about, and therefore conflict happens. The Shouter steps up, and in response the Avoider steps way way back. Again and again it happens. And if it keeps happening, I guarantee you, they lose respect for each other. Worse, they can start to see each other as less-than-human, as a creature of maliciousness.
Have you ever seen that before? A relationship that started out with two people deeply in love, but it ends with two people treating each other like things to abuse and degrade?
The cause is because the two people fail to see beyond their adult exteriors to the powerful inner child needs that are repeatedly not being fulfilled, so that that inner child ends up feeling depressed, demoralized, and then lashes out in rage because it is trying to defend itself.
Here’s what’s really happening between the Shouter and the Avoider:
When the Shouter steps forward and does their thing, and the Avoider steps back, what happens is that the Shouter’s inner child is left alone with the problem. They are abandoned. They are unseen. It feels horrible.
As for the Avoider’s experience: they feel unsafe. They feel attacked by someone who’s supposed to love them. They want to flee. It feels horrible.
Again and again, the inner child needs of the one are not seen and understood by the other, and vice versa.
But the peace in the home that is love—that is a capacity to accept and empathize and allow space for complexity—would help the Shouter and the Avoider get to a better place. For each to know, first of all, that no one is truly trying to hurt the other. Both people are just trying to get deep needs met. One doesn’t want to be alone with their hurt. The other wants to feel safe.
If you are a Shouter, could you consider a way of expressing your pain with less explosiveness, and find ways to assure your partner that you wish to do them no harm?
If you are an Avoider, and you are feeling emotionally flooded and overwhelmed, could you find ways to ask for a time out so you can get to a calmer place—and in the same moment assure your partner that you will come back, you won’t leave them alone with their pain, you won’t leave them hanging?
Can this conflict happen in a way that both partners get their needs met?
I truly believe it can.
But it takes a love stronger than fear.
It also takes a village, where we talk about this stuff openly, we confess the times we have screwed up, we share with each other what has worked and what has not worked. Even in this time of social distancing, we can still talk to friends by text or phone or even ZOOM. This is not to triangulate them, which means to enlist them to take your side and take up your cause and fight your battle. That’s never fair—every story has several sides to it. This is simply to get a breath of fresh air. Opportunity to talk it out and hear yourself say things. Get some perspective. Let off some steam.
This takes us to the last thing I want to say.
There is a bit of advice that you have no doubt heard: “never go to bed angry.” But is that good advice? Does it serve us well in this time of cabin fever, or in any time?
I want to share with you what psychoanalyst Michael I. Bennet has to say about this. The title of his book is one I can’t really say in church space since there’s a cuss word involved, but I can tell you the subtitle: “One shrink’s sensible advice for finding a lasting relationship.”
What he says is refreshing and instructive: “Bad fights often happen in the hours before bed because, shockingly, it’s when most people are tired; at the end of a long day, people are often worn so thin that the slightest irritation sets them off. In the morning light, most of these disagreements are seen for what they are—meaningless, exhausted bickering—and naturally dissipate.
“Even if these fights are the culmination of long-running disagreements or if the fight takes place earlier but the resentment lingers until lights-out, the moments before going to sleep are not the ones when anyone’s in the best shape for conflict resolution. […] So aim instead to sleep on it and talk about it in the morning (if there is in fact anything substantial to talk about after you’ve had a chance to rest and think it through). It’s better to go to sleep mad than keep fighting for hours and barely get any sleep at all.”
That’s some of “one shrink’s sensible advice for finding a lasting relationship.” Good stuff. Lots to ponder. For me, the stuff to really ponder is this: that often the real problem at hand is that we’re just tired, we’re just stressed, our skin is just worn thin. And it’s no one’s fault. It is no one’s fault if you are feeling like this right before bed, and it is no one’s fault if you’re feeling like this because of cabin fever in this coronavirus time.
So, beloveds, I ask you: if and when you’re feeling like you want to blame someone for the bad feelings you’re having, please, create a little space to ask yourself: “What is the real problem here? Is the real problem them, or is it because of forced isolation and all the stress that that is causing? What is the real problem?”
Asking that question religiously can serve us so very well.
What is the real problem?
Peace in the home these days and any days is not a perfectionistic absence of struggle. It is the presence of love. It is responding to the struggles lovingly, empathetically, humanely, and maybe even with a sense of humor.
Reba McEntire–the great Reba McEntire–says, “To succeed in life, you need three things: a wishbone, a backbone and a funnybone.”
May you and yours have all three.