COVID-19 is a wakeup call. It will return in some form if we do not learn the lessons from it and make the necessary changes. COVID-19 has turned the world upside down and shaken the very foundation of our civilization. But it has also provided a rare opportunity for self-transformation
Yes, things can never be the same again. It is impossible to turn back the clock and return to the old normal even with a widely available vaccine, as many experts have warned. Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, said the country is running out of time to prevent a large resurgence of COVID-19 (Bogart, 2020). According to Dr. Anthony Fauci, a vaccine alone isn’t going to solve this pandemic, at least not in the foreseeable future (McCarthy, 2020). It is really not good for us to think that we can continue to live as if the pandemic had never happened, because then all the death and suffering would have been in vain.
The silver lining is that in spite of all the gloomy predictions about the mental health crisis and economic fallout, something beautiful and good could emerge out of the devastation. Just witness the renewal of the good earth after a forest fire, or the rebuilding of nations after World War II.
I am so pleased that in an informal Twitter survey, Paul Coulson found that more than 70% of the participants were optimistic that life would be better after the pandemic. These people have demonstrated tragic optimism (TO), a concept coined by Victor Frankl (1985): “I speak of a tragic optimism, that is, an optimism in the face of tragedy.” It was expanded by Wong (2007).
Elements of Tragic Optimism
Wong’s psychological elements of TO, seen in Figure 1, simply says that enduring optimism is possible, if we have the courage to accept the harsh reality, have the faith in overcoming it, affirm the intrinsic meaning and value of life, and show self-transcendent altruism to help others in similar circumstances. In short, what makes hope indestructible is the golden triangle of meaning, faith, and love (Wong, 2020a). The remaining sections of this paper will explain how practicing TO in the era of COVID-19 will contribute to positive transformation.
There Are at Least Seven Reasons Why the New Normal May Be Good for You
1. Acceptance is the first step toward personal transformation. The world is full of dangers in the era of COVID-19, regardless of one’s rosy worldview. In fact, toxic positivity (Chiu, 2020) and unrealistic optimism (Tong, 2020) may be bad for you during the pandemic according to recent research.
A positivity bias (Enrich, 2018) is not always good for us. While such illusions may have some adaptive benefit in ordinary circumstances (Taylor & Brown, 1988; Taylor et al., 2000), it could be very risky in making light of a deadly contagious virus, because no one is immune from the virus, no matter how young and healthy one is. Therefore, it is much better to believe in science rather than positive illusions. Accepting the harsh reality is the first step towards personal transformation (Siegal, 2010).
That is why even when the economy and social life gradually starts up again with the vaccine, we need to still follow the health guidelines. Placing personal freedom and happiness above the common good and maintaining a sense of invulnerability may contribute to the spread of COVID-19 (Andrew, 2020). We can get through the pandemic, stronger and better, only when we assume the responsibility to stand together as a country and as a human family
2. The need for connections is at the heart of our loneliness epidemic. The prolonged lockdown and social isolation have made us feel all alone. Loneliness has already been an epidemic, adversely affecting so many people’s physical and mental health (See last month’s newsletter). The loneliness epidemic poses a health risk especially for seniors (HRSA, 2019; see figure 2).
The Loneliness Epidemic
The pandemic has only made a bad situation worse. But this painful experience from prolonged social isolation also has a upside—it makes us more aware of the fact that we were wired for connections (Banks & Hirschman, 2016; Siegal, 2008). In fact, to be mentally healthy, we need connections not just with others, but also with ourselves and with God (Rosmarin, 2021). We cannot experience wellbeing or positive mental health if we just live and die for and by ourselves.
To overcome loneliness, we can reach out to other lonely people and spending time to develop deeper relationships with people we already know. More importantly, we can show compassion and kindness to ourselves and to others. Yes, we can achieve a sense of connection that transcends physical isolation.
Vivek H. Murthy, (2020) the previous US surgeon general, points out that our feelings of loneliness stems from our innate desire to connect. Murthy emphasizes that we need to embrace our loneliness and solitude during mandatory lockdown, because the first step toward building stronger connections with others is to build a stronger connection with oneself. Meditation, prayer, art, music, and time spent with nature can all be sources of solitary comfort and joy. (2021) touches on the same theme; learning how to be at peace with ourselves serves as a foundation for maintaining harmonious relationships with others.
3. We need to learn emphatic attunement. When we are cooped up in the same place, without the opportunity to enjoy social gatherings with others, it is easy to flare up and get into arguments. With COVID-19 fatigue, many people are irritable. It does not take long to see a conversation degenerate into a heated argument. Sometimes, a single well-intended harmless statement can trigger an explosion. Worse still, there is a surge in domestic violence and divorce rates during COVID-19 (Liu, 2020; Taub, 2020).
In every marriage and family, there are always some unresolved issues. These issues do not go away even if there are swept under the rug; they simply fester and flare up from time to time. We need to confront these issues with professional help or learn new ways of relating. We can learn how to speak to each other with honesty and kindness. We need to practice a new language of harmony and empathy to replace the old language of accusation and anger. True love involves self-sacrifice (Wong, 2020b).
In sum, lockdown and social isolation provides a rare opportunity for couples to learn how talk to each other and listen to each other with empathetic attunement. Being attuned to each other consists of the following elements: (a) Be present for the other – focusing or pay full attention to each other in order to be fully aware of each other’s emotions (Goleman, 2005); (b) replace accusation with courteous questioning for clarification; (c) make sure to hold back unnecessary criticism or negative comments; and (d) whenever possible, show appreciation and offer sincere complements.
4. Self-awareness of your true self can silence the ruminating brain. During those long hours of social isolation, our ruminating brain tends to take over. We may feel tormented by shame and guilt because of our past mistakes. But this is also a time for cultivating self-awareness (Kay, 2018). When we listen to the better angels of human nature, we begin to realize that it is OK to be not OK, because we are all broken in some places in a broken world. Self-compassion (Neff, 2016) is needed to accept ourselves with the same kindness and forgiveness as we accept others.
During the old normal, we were so busy with people and external events, we have lost the art and skill of spending time with ourselves, to get to know our deepest spiritual needs as well as to listen to the wisdom of our body. Therefore, we need to use this time of solitude for self-reflection and inner dialogue to discover who we truly are and what really matters in life.
This self-awareness may be the best thing that can happen to us because it opens up the opportunity for us to connect with ourselves. Siegal (2010) emphasized three specific skills of self-reflection: Openness, Observation, and Objectivity. Openness means the ability to see things for what they are, not what we think they should be. Observation refers the ability to detach from yourself and watch yourself in the same way as you observe others. Objectivity is the ability to separate your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors from your sense of self and your biases. These skills are also used in mindfulness meditation (Mindful Schools, n.d.).
5. What does not kill you makes your stronger. Trauma and disasters have struck many families. Many have lost a loved one or lost their jobs. But life goes on and the sun rises. If we believe that that the pandemic is survivable, then we will survive it and become stronger. A key component of TO is faith or belief. Yes, things are not going well right now, but if we persevere and continue to move forward by faith, it will be alright at the end. We need to embrace TO.
Five key factors of Post-Traumatic Growth (PTG; Retrieved from Mehta, 2019)
Posttraumatic growth (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2004) is the experience of personal growth as shown in Figure 3. According to Prati & Pietrantoni (2009), optimism contributes to post-traumatic growth. No better how bad the situation, how painful the loss, as long as we maintain our TO, we can get through the crisis by reaching out to others, to God, and by changing our priorities. Yes, as long as we keep moving forward, we will gain strength and confidence each time we overcome an obstacle or recover from a setback. We don’t know how strong we are until we have overcome overwhelming odds and achieved the impossible dream.
6. Embrace uncertainty – it is never too late to start a new chapter. We are going through a time of great uncertainty and chaos. But nothing is permanent in this life. Clinging to what we cannot keep will only bring us sorrow and misery. Life is a complex system, always in flux; therefore, wellbeing is a matter of adapting to the changes and navigating a balance between order and chaos (Wong, 2020c).
Many have lost their jobs and savings. Their cherished businesses which took many years of toils and tears to build are now closed for good. To start over, we need to learn it to let go. It is never easy to let go of things we have cherished so much for so long. From the perspective of TO, if the old does not go, the new can not come. In a way, those who have lost their jobs can finally breathe again, without carrying the burden 7 days a week, 365 days a year.
Now they can dream again and explore all the possibilities. A new beginning awaits them. They can start all over again with all their heart and might, believing that if they keep on knocking, the right door will be opened. By venturing into the unknown, sooner or later, you will discover your true calling or new career. It takes courage to embrace uncertainty and suffering (Van Tongeren, & Van Tongeren, 2020). In addition, we also need to affirm our values (e.g., Ceary et al., 2019) and redefine success in terms of fulfilling a calling (e.g., Maxwell, 2019; Wong, et al., 2017). When we reorient ourselves and align our energy and time with our calling, then we can have the resilience and true grit (Wong, 2014) to move forward no matter how scary the future looks.
7. Discover joy in the midst of suffering. When the well trodden roads to happiness are no longer available, there is always a road less travelled (Peck, 1978/2012; Wong, 2020a). There are reasons to believe that there is a third type of happiness, which has been variably described as (a) deep happiness (Delle Fave et al., 2016) with its emphasis on harmony; (b) chaironic happiness (Wong, 2011) with its emphasis on blessings as a gift; (c) mature happiness (Wong & Bowers, 2018) with its emphasis on joy in suffering; and (d) authentic-durable happiness (Dambrun et al, 2012) with its emphasis on contentment and inner peace, defined by Ricard (2013) as the ability to accept and be content with changes in life.
I prefer to call this type of happiness as “mature” or “noetic” happiness because it is a positive mental state of inner piece, harmony, and contentment, resulting from disciplined self-cultivation of spiritual-existential capabilities. This positive mental state is based on a deep spiritual or philosophical understanding and accompanied by the positive affect of calmness, equanimity, and contentment (Powell, 1989). In order to achieve harmony and balance, one needs to learn how to manage a dynamic balance between opposite forces with wisdom, courage, and meaning/purpose as shown in Figure 4.
Dialectical Mandala Model of Mature Happiness
If we have learned the above seven lessons, we will be able to experience the joy or mature happiness in the midst of suffering. Inner peace is not only the defining characteristic of mature happiness, but also the heart and soul of the wellbeing, because it is the most durable and insensitive to circumstances.
According to Thich Nhat Hanh (2014), the secret to happiness is seeking peace, not excitement; to transform suffering, not running away from it. We need to learn how to face, accept, and embrace our suffering with mindfulness and equanimity. Then we can experience true joy or mature happiness in the midst of adversity. Here are seven ways to cultivate inner peace:
- Accept that life isn’t fair and get over it.
- Learn to endure and persevere with faith in a better future.
- Value solitude and practice self-reflection.
- Be content with what you already have, and do not compare with or envy others.
- Refuse to let other people adversely affect your emotions; don’t pay any attention to their offensive comments or behavior.
- Be attuned with yourself so that you are able to talk to different aspects of yourself.
- Cultivate emotional equilibrium by accepting your emotions and maintaining a dynamic dialectical balance.
In sum, if we learn any of the above lessons, we will become stronger and better people and there will be inner peace, balance, and harmony in our lives even in chaotic and dangerous times (Wong, 2020c). I want to conclude this essay with a brief description of the best Korean TV drama which illustrates tragic optimism: Misaeng – Incomplete life. This is a drama series about a group of interns in their twenties who started their job at a big multinational company.
In the corrupt and gloomy world of One International, people use, abuse, and betray each other in order to get ahead, and good and principled people are persecuted and pushed out.
The memorable line from Section Chief Oh, the tragic protagonist, is “enduring is winning”. He and his intern Geu Rae demonstrate the indominable human spirit of perseverance and striving to become all they could be, no matter how unfairly the world has treated them, and how many times their dreams have been crushed.
To me, the most lovable character is the young Geu Rae. He works harder than all the other interns, he makes more contributions in both quality and quantity, and he has such a good personality, always willing and cheerful. Yet, at the end, only he was let go because he did not have a college degree.
The drama ends with the two tragic heroes, having loss everything in spite of their best efforts, now travelling in a desert towards an unknown future. I can imagine them happy, because finally, they are able to embark on this new adventure with optimism in a better future and the joy of freely pursuing their dreams together.
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