Friday, April 10, 2020

Staying Sane during Social Isolation

When he was caring for his ailing wife, Harvard professor Arthur Kleinman developed habits, rituals and routines that are now serving him during social distancing. You see, his wife Joan was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. 

For ten years, he reconstructed their lives:

I had the opportunity—which, at the time, felt like a horrendous misfortune—to put that wisdom to the test as the primary family caregiver during my wife Joan’s 10-year struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. The long decline brought by a neurodegenerative disease creates a kind of slow-motion calamity. Life loses rhythm, direction, definition.

Joan and I banished the feeling that we had fallen into limbo by reconstructing our daily activities. By celebrating shared experiences and intensifying attention to mundane tasks, we filled those moments with passion and awareness. Exercise, cooking, eating, reading, work and even watching the news became more deliberate components of our daily ritual, giving us happy moments to look forward to, creating a mood of anticipation rather than paralysis. In a time of randomness and uncertainty, it made us feel proactive instead of reactive.

Kleinman gained a new understanding of the importance of habits. The theory of habits originated with Aristotle, in his writings about ethics. But, Kleinman uses a more modern version, that of psychologist William James:

William James, the great philosopher and psychologist, observed that people are collections of habits but that we can rid ourselves of those that don’t serve us well. He counseled us not to “sit all day in a moping posture, sigh and reply to everything with a dismal voice.” New habits can carry us ahead in an organized way, letting us heighten our sense of control over our days and nights and keep disabling feelings in check. 

As for his daily routines, he describes them thusly:

I rise early and work out for two hours. After making breakfast, washing up and doing household chores, I sit down to write—both my regular academic work and now a diary of this new plague. I slow down for lunch, preparing a proper meal that I enjoy at leisure—a ritual I learned while caring for Joan. After lunch, I take a short walk and return to my academic work. I reserve the end of the day for my deepest pleasure, reading.

In the evening, I catch up on chores, accompanied by the TV news—but I strictly limit how much I watch and read about the pandemic to only what seems most informative and personally useful. I prepare my dinner, which I again take time to enjoy. After a book, a movie or a TV show, I take myself off to bed, suffusing even washing up with an ordered, ritualized quality.

The habits I developed during Joan’s illness fundamentally changed me. They transform daily living into a chain of life-enhancing rituals that allow me to find and create joy, even when sheltering in place.

At a time when psycho professionals are telling you to get lost in your mind and to wallow in your feelings, Kleinman’s example shines a light into the darkness.

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