As the coronavirus pandemic becomes an ever-increasing public health threat in our country, we are confronted with unprecedented realities that defy the scope of what we define as normal. Schools are closing, workplaces have gone remote, travel has come to a staggering halt, and gyms, bar, and restaurants are shuttering their doors. Social distancing and quarantine have become our best approach to curtailing the spread of this virus. The world as we have known it no longer exists and what remains is a bleak uncertainty as to when it will return.
For many, the joy of living and the affirmation of who one is, exist in the external. I feel a sense of happiness when I can travel the world. At my job, I feel appreciated and valued. At school, my friends are a respite from the loneliness I feel with my family. Going to the gym or socializing at a local bar’s happy hour is part of my routine. Predictability, affirmation, and identity attach themselves to things and people. So, when all of this goes away at a screeching halt, what is left of a person? Where does one find joy when the things and people that created joy are no longer available? How does one know who they are when there is nothing left to mirror back one’s identity?
It is no surprise that so many are in a state of panic. Supermarket shelves are now empty and toilet paper has become more precious than gold. Although preparation is important, the degree to which people have stockpiled brings to the surface a deeper pandemic. As the façade of the external fades away, a deep sense of emptiness takes form—an emptiness that confronts us with the existential questions of who we are and what is our purpose in life? In confronting these questions, we can sense the starvation of self and the unpleasant, dirty feelings that we have worked so hard not to feel. To the dismay of many, food and toilet paper cannot take these away. The external world we have worked so hard to build can never withstand the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Rather, it is only through the discovery of our true self that one can find solace and comfort in troubled seas.
Who are you? What is it that you truly want from life? Such questions form the bedrock of one’s true self. And, for many, the opportunity to reflect on these questions and dive deeply into knowing one’s needs and wants have been foreclosed due to life circumstances. In my experience as a psychologist in private practice, I have seen many people begin treatment with a sense of depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, or difficulty in relationships. For all, what eventually became known is that these people, for important reasons, formed and lived a life that was never truly their own. They built a life on the external rather than anchoring in their internal, true self. A sense of inauthenticity pervaded their life and the thought of mattering as a person with their own needs, wants, and desires felt unattainable or wrong.
Quarantine can seem like an apocalyptic nightmare, but perspective is everything. Yes, the life you have lived is on pause for the time being, but what do you want to make of this brave new world? What a gift to be given the time and space to find out what makes you tick and what gives you a deep sense of joy. What a blessing to have more time with your significant other or family and deepen your love and commitment to each other. But what if you don’t like what you see? What if you start to feel uncomfortable, unhappy, or lonely? You now possess the conscious knowledge that you are not fully living into your true self.
Rather than run from these feelings, which were once so easy to do, you can think your way through and feel your way into a path that will eventually provide you with the joy, connection, and sense of identity, which you have always searched for but could never find in the external. As an individual who continues to walk down this path myself and helps my patients find their path each day, I can tell you that the discovery of one’s true self is not necessarily easy. We stumble, we get stuck, we feel scared, yet we move forward. Anything worth doing rarely comes easy. However, it is always worth it. In this time of quarantine, will you take the risk to be you?