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OP-ED: Our tears are the calculus

  • Published at 01:04 pm June 19th, 2020
China airport
We have to get used to a new world / REUTERS

There’s no going back at this point, we can only try to push forward

It has been 100 days since the World Health Organization declared coronavirus as a debilitating pandemic. 

The aftermath of the initial shock, followed by denial, had but given way to coping with humour: There were a plethora of jokes on social media about introverts thriving and extroverts languishing under these dystopian conditions. And, there had been wistful reminiscence of “the last time” that we had hugged a friend, or sat down to eat at a restaurant, or planned for what we’d do when things went back to normal. 

Returning to normal

Like so many Americans, I had thought that the coronavirus would quickly run its course, that after a month or so, things would likely return to normal. Of course, that assumption had led us to think there is a “normal” that awaits us somewhere, someday and sometime ahead! 

Yet as the days turned to weeks and the weeks turned to months, the novelty of staying home had worn off. The partisan wave of anti-lockdown protests sprang up all over the US (and in many other countries on the planet) to have reflected the desire for normalcy at its extreme, but even those who had responsibly limited contact with others, had been constrained to feel the frustration. 

Students are growing weary of online instruction and have longed to see their teachers and classmates in person, both elements represented in the essentials of everyday learning! Many of those who were gainfully employed before the pandemic are now unemployed and anxious as their bills pile up. 

Essential workers have risked exposure to the virus when they clocked in at workplaces. In the quest to return to normal, many states have reopened, despite cautions given by scientific experts who had warned of a second wave of outbreaks, which was once seen in the horizon, but has again stepped down to debilitate this planet, another time. 

Perhaps all this was a direct consequence to the premature reopening of states in the US, and countries around our planet. 

It is a hard truth to swallow.

Was the past really ‘normal’?

Regardless, I am certain there won’t be a return to “normal.” I would argue that much about our former life was actually abnormal -- its frenetic pace, its inequalities, and its injustices.

And, while we had remained quarantined at our homes, police had taken the liberty to invade the home of Breonna Taylor, an EMT and essential worker, and shot her eight times while she was lying in bed. A couple of months later, as the pandemic still raged on, another police officer killed George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for nearly nine minutes. 

Floyd’s and Taylor’s final breaths fanned the flames of the Black Lives Matter movement. Protesters nationwide and around the globe are risking their lives to demand an end to police violence, because they have become maladjusted to black death.

The only way forward

In this movement, I had witnessed signs that parts of society were inclined to look more to the future and less to reclaiming their old ways of life. In thinking about the tension between the past, the present, and the future, I have come to believe that the only way to move forward is to grieve the life we once knew, and to shift our mindsets to radical acceptance of our present reality in order to create a new normal that is better than our pre-pandemic life.

The term radical acceptance was coined by America’s psychologist Marsha Linehan. She believes: Radical acceptance is an act of the total person that allows (acceptance) of “this moment,” or of “this reality” in this moment. One does not choose parts of reality to accept and parts to reject.

I’m a person who simply loves to write and share life experiences with others. 

In talking with a friend recently about my work, I found myself painstakingly catching my words and rearranging these parts of speech from present to past tense. The past tense has become a constant companion in the present moment, as every facet of our lives have changed due to the pandemic. Some scientists project that may not happen, perhaps until 2021. That’s also my assessment of “reality.”

I must share with you that I have formed a new ritual: Every day, I take to my laptop with my phone in hand, say a prayer, and call unemployment and log on to the website simultaneously, hoping to finally get through and join the 38.0 million unemployed Americans who also had applied for benefits since March. 

Thus far, I’ve been unsuccessful. The fear that I may have to live like this for a year or more has sent me into a tailspin of profound uncertainty and self-doubt, which causes me to question my value. 

The crucible of capitalism

Like many, I have been socialized in the crucible of capitalism, which binds our worth to our production.

My personal faith teaches me that I am not what I produce. I am valuable because I am a human being endowed by my Creator with intrinsic dignity and worth. I have found solace in that truth. My faith teaches me that my value is not contingent on my circumstances. Radical acceptance, which can be practised regardless of one’s faith or worldview, is a complementary concept. It teaches me to release what I cannot control so that I can focus on what I can change.

I feel that in dialectical behavioural therapy, radical acceptance is often used to help people come to terms with circumstances they can’t change. It requires us to give up the elusive idea that we are in control and instead accept reality as it is. Linehan and her co-authors write: “Another way of thinking about it is that radical acceptance is radical truth. In other words, acceptance is experiencing something without the haze of what one wants and does not want it to be.” 

The reality to accept

So without the haze, here is the reality we must accept: We are in the midst of a pandemic. Several states in the US have required that face masks be worn in public. Are we not in a recession? Have we not been in our homes and social distancing for more than two months, and this will continue intermittently until a vaccine or an effective treatment is available? I must confess that one does not make the timeline -- it is the virus that chooses to do it.

Thirty-eight million Americans are unemployed, and that number is expected to climb. America today, has boasted of the highest number of coronavirus cases in the world, and the virus is likely to spread further due to the reopening of state and local economies, as well as the Black Lives Matter protests (though public-health officials have endorsed them). 

We cannot bury our departed loved ones in the traditional ways we are accustomed to, and many cannot be at the bedside of their loved ones to say final goodbyes. 

Better believe it: Prolonged quarantine is affecting our collective mental health, and those who live alone are experiencing acute isolation. On top of all of this, black people are forced to process yet more black deaths at the hands of police. Presently, the toll on our mental health is unquantifiable, but the tears we cry, and the tears we cannot bring ourselves to cry, are the calculus. This is the reality.

Acceptance not approval

Radical acceptance of this reality is not to be confused with approval of it. Linehan has thus reasoned: Radical acceptance doesn’t mean you don’t try to change things ... You can’t change anything if you don’t accept it, because if you don’t accept it, you’ll try to change something else that you think is reality.

Additionally, radical acceptance is not a call to stoicism. An array of emotions (anger, fear, anxiety, grief, etc) may arise within you in response to reality. Suppressing these emotions can be tempting, but allowing yourself to feel whatever you feel without judgment is also a kind of radical acceptance. And I have found that radical acceptance can be freeing -- accepting what you cannot change enables you to focus on what you can. 

I see a sense of that freedom in these protests; indeed, if radical acceptance is radical truth, as Linehan has said, then white supremacy and police brutality are the truths we must see to change reality. Letting ourselves feel the anger and grief that come with those truths shall free us.

Striving to return to an old “normal” would ensure that the mechanisms of oppression keep turning. We are not going back to normal; we are pushing toward a new normal --one that is more sustainable and equitable than the one we left behind, one in which everyone might flourish. However, the new normal is contingent upon our willingness to learn the practice of letting go of gone things, of our past. Grieve we must

We will not be the same when this pandemic and this revolution ends. How can we be, when nearly half a million have perished globally from the coronavirus, with over 100,000 in the US? And when so many black women and men have been reduced to hashtags? The collective grief is exhausting and disorienting, but grieve we must. This is the work our souls require.

Though we can’t go back, there’s nothing wrong with grieving our collective tragedy. 

Even as we work to accept it, we can’t but help lament what is. Let’s offer our tears to our dreams which were obviously deferred and decimated by this pandemic. And the reason: We can be numbered among those who are working toward tomorrow’s new normal. 

Nazarul Islam is an educator based in Chicago.

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