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Cultural Butterfly


We’ve all hit a wall. Here’s a way through.

This surprised me. It might surprise you, too.

The New York Times recently published an article, We Have All Hit a Wall, and a companion article with the research they had done for that, Here’s What Readers Told Us About Feeling Burned Out. They say:

At this point in the pandemic, it feels that we have, all, collectively, hit a wall. Call it a late-pandemic crisis of productivity, of will, of enthusiasm, of purpose. Call it a bout of existential work-related ennui provoked partly by the realization that sitting in the same chair in the same room staring at the same computer for 12 straight months (and counting!) has left many of us feeling like burned-out husks, dimwitted approximations of our once-productive selves.”

Here are just a few of the readers’ poignant quotes:

  • “I feel like I’m in quicksand . . .I’m just so exhausted all the time. I’m doing so much less than I normally do — I’m not traveling, I’m not entertaining, I’m just sitting in front of my computer — but I am accomplishing way less. It’s like a whole new math. I have more time and fewer obligations, yet I’m getting so much less done.”

  • “I feel fried . . . I’m out of ideas and have zero motivation to even get to a point where I feel inspired.”

  • “My brain simply cannot focus long enough to form full sentences.”

  • “I’m so burnt out that even this form is way, way too long.”

  • “Logging off at the end of the day. It’s nearly impossible. Once the world went into lockdown a year ago, I felt like I logged onto work and I’m still waiting to log off.”

  • “Waking up and realizing, ‘I am going to stare at my laptop for 8 hours, maybe 9, maybe 10, log off, feel utterly unaccomplished because I have not left my small office/bedroom/yoga studio for the entire day, and do it all again for who knows how long.’ At this point I don’t know who is going to crack first, me or the pandemic.”

  • “I can’t focus at all. Every day is Groundhog Day. I get up, I drink tea, I spend 8-12 hours in front of the computer, I listen to podcasts all day while I work, I spend too much time on social media, and then I go to bed. We’ve barely left the flat in over a year now. I’m lucky to have a job, but I fantasize about quitting all the time.”

  • “How do I log the hours I spent crying or staring out my window? (Spoiler: I can’t, because those things aren’t monetizable.)”

The article continues:

“Resilience does seem in short supply, especially as basic things like exercising, getting dressed and making an effort to appear enthusiastic on Zoom have fallen by the wayside. . . . the longevity of the pandemic — endless monotony laced with acute anxiety — had contributed to a sense that time was moving differently, as if this past year were a long, hazy, exhausting experience lasting forever and no time at all. . . a year of uncertainty, of being whipsawed between anxiety and depression, of seeing expert predictions wither away and goal posts shift, has left many people feeling that they are existing in a kind of fog, the world shaded in gray.”

These articles talk about “burnout” and “stress”. However, I see that they are actually talking about grief—unacknowledged and unprocessed grief.

The wall we’ve all hit is our unconscious grief, and these articles are clear expressions of that.

The typical advice is to “deal with this problem” with various strategies to do. Those can be helpful to a certain degree, but that paradigm won’t get us where we really want to go because this is not something “wrong” to be fixed or a problem to be solved. Here’s an example from my personal experience.

In 1999 I changed my life significantly. I let go of my career and work that had been my passion and livelihood for 25 years and moved several hundred miles away to create a different life. I was following my “IGS” (my “inner guidance system”) and felt inspired and enthusiastic about that choice.

Recently, though, I became aware that I’ve been carrying some very old, deep grief about that event for all these years. I experienced important losses that I hadn’t even realized:

  • hopes, dreams, and expectations for my future,

  • identity, calling, meaning and purpose,

  • a fulfilling way to express myself, contribute and make a difference in the world,

  • a sense of competence and agency,

  • beliefs (what I thought I “knew”) about how the world worked,

  • a sense of certainty, predictability, and security (financial and otherwise),

  • familiar, comfortable structures of time, activities, social connection and sense of belonging.

Not small things!

Those losses were as significant to me as if someone I loved had died. Yet since they were not visible or obvious, I had no way to name them, claim them, or “own” them, and there was no ritual, ceremony or community support for me. They were “under the radar” for both me and everyone else.

So I unconsciously buried that experience and grief, and with that I unwittingly locked up a significant amount of my creative energy.

I believe that many people are having a similar experience now with the pandemic and lockdown.

Since I was not aware of it, I kept trying to override, overcome or sidestep its effects and “create over the top of it”, which basically short-circuited my energy system. That hasn’t worked in spite of all my best efforts. And trust me, I gave it a lot of very good effort because I don’t like failing! Can you relate?

The truth is, that approach doesn’t work and can’t work. Trying to make an electrical circuit function when it is short-circuited is a recipe for frustration and failure, right? I see now that that unacknowledged grief has been a significant stumbling block as I’ve followed new dreams in my life. I have essentially been in (at least partially) an energetic “lockdown” for these 22 years. I say it’s been more than long enough! Wouldn’t you say?

I just recently became aware of this because I’m feeling some current grief, which helped unlock the old, buried grief.

The first step in going through this wall of grief is to acknowledge it, own it, honor it, and integrate it and the real power it contains. As I “unpacked” and consciously grieved my losses, I unlocked my energy.

This is a necessary and life-giving process, and yet it’s something our culture doesn’t readily recognize. It can take some support to deal with it effectively in order to get the gifts that are available in it.

It is also an organic process, not just a series of strategies to “fix” what seems “broken”, and not just a “one-and-done,” as much as we might want that. I can tell you, I really wanted that!

As Elizabeth Lesser, author of Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow, writes about her experience of the pandemic lockdown in this excerpt from an article:

“Maybe you have been feeling . . . how the repetitious, groundhog-day experience of pandemic existence feels as if life has ground to a near halt, yet simultaneously, time seems to have sped up. . .

“. . . Grief. I’ve been in touch with my anxiety and my anger and my irritation—but not my grief. . .

“I came upon the magnitude of the loss. . . Some of the losses are more subtle: routines that keep us grounded, predictability, companionship, pleasure.

“The disruptions pile up so that we don’t even know how much we have lost, what we are feeling, how much grief is gathering in our hearts. . .

“It may sound like a counterintuitive strategy to turn and face the grief. . .

“Grief can feel scary. If we enter its gates, will we drown in tears for all sorts of losses? Will we wallow around in self-pity or blame? Will we find our way out?

“Yes, you may cry, but tears are healing. Yes, you may go through valleys of self-pity and blame, but you will also climb up above all that, and your heart will grow in gratitude and peace. And you will indeed find your way out.

“Grief is a simple and humble practice. . . I promise you that on the other side of a loss well-grieved, is new life. . .

The best way forward is to let ourselves mourn what has been lost, to feel our very human vulnerability, to be kind and gentle and patient with ourselves and others, so that when the time comes, we can welcome the new, unexplored areas of life (emphasis mine). . .

“It’s one of life’s great mysteries how grief is a steppingstone out of the mind-maze and into a bigger, brighter world.”

We’ve all lost so much during this last year! In order to access creative energy for new life, I strongly recommend that our faith/religious/spiritual/wisdom communities create ceremonies bringing us together to honor all the individual and collective losses we’ve experienced with this pandemic:

  • physical (deaths, illnesses, homes, livelihood/jobs, community),

  • hopes, dreams, and identity,

  • familiar, comfortable rituals, community, and ways of being together,

  • beliefs about what we thought we “knew” and “how the world works”,

  • expectations for our future,

  • meaning and purpose,

  • sense of certainty and predictability,

  • sense of safety and security (physical, financial, psychological, emotional).

I see these ceremonies as memorial services of the kind we typically have when someone physically passes on. And I believe it’s important to engage with this process now because things won’t be, and can’t be, the same. Have you noticed?

After allowing and honoring our losses and grief, another step I find useful is to discover and ask expansive, empowering questions from a larger perspective. This can give the clarity and creative energy that we need for moving through this transformational time so we have real, new life coming out of it.

For example, Dr. Joe Dispenza’s March 29, 2021 newsletter offers “Five Questions”:

1. What is the challenge in your life you would like to untangle and turn into a solution?

2. What might be the lesson behind what is masquerading as the challenge?

3. How would you think, act, and feel if this challenge did not exist and how would your life be different?

Other examples of expansive questions are:

“How am I different now? How are we different now?”

“What’s possible here and who cares?”

“What’s the question we should be asking?”

“What are the gifts, dilemmas and/or opportunities you can see for your personal situation? For our collective situation?”

“What’s emerging here for you? What new connections are you making?”

“What question, if answered, could make the most difference to the future of your personal situation? To our collective future situation?”

“Who are we becoming as people, individually and as a culture? Who do we want to be?”

The World Café also has a number of excellent resources for stimulating evocative questions.

This is a creative inquiry that needs a spirit of curiosity plus appreciation for the journey. Having someone else participate with you in this can be helpful because, as I say, “You can’t see the picture when you’re inside the frame.” You’ll want to get out of your usual frame or “box” for this.

I can tell you that there is real, new life available on the other side of this experience. However, it won’t “just happen”. We will have to consciously create it. Grieving our losses is a way to “clear our space”.

After we have cleared out the “underbrush” of unconscious grief, then we have open ground for “planting new seeds” to create new lives. Identifying expansive, empowering questions is a good way to do this, along with other processes.

I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts, feelings, or experiences about the pandemic lockdown and about this blog. Feel free to reply to this post or email me, and please share it with others who would be interested in reading it.

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