Sunday, April 26, 2020

Coronavirus: Suffering is optional

In NY/NJ COVID Week 6, we are all suffering, as evidenced by irritation, depression, anxiety and undefined moodiness.  It is time to ponder the concept that suffering is optional, the mental training that teaches us to see the glass as "half-full."  In psychiatric circles, we think of this as the remarkable tool of cognitive therapy.

Aaron T. Beck, MD, developed this therapy which is based on the concept that we can control our emotions by controlling our thinking.  Specifically, by avoiding all-or-nothing thinking we can manage depression.  It turns out that this powerful cognitive intervention is now used for the treatment of many psychiatric disorders and is one of the most powerful tools that mental health providers have.  Dr. Beck is widely lionized for his work.

Eleanor H. Porter had the same insight half a century earlier.  She wrote a young adult book called, Pollyanna, in which the young heroine is taught by her father how to bear poverty with good cheer by turning her gaze from she didn't have to what she did have.  Porter called this "the glad game."  Nobody knows her name, and "Pollyanna" has become a term of derision for someone inappropriately optimistic.  As a friend of mine said the other day with pride, "I'm no Pollyanna."

Well, I suggest that in NY/NJ Covid Week 6, we need to revisit the legacy of Pollyanna, both because the Glad Game helped her and because, using the game, she helped a whole town.  With the whole of the metro area becoming cranky, verging on despondent, and ready to throw ourselves out of the house and rush to sea, we need some mass therapy.  Pollyanna has what we need.

So first, let's redeem the Glad Game from disrepute.  Pollyanna was being raised by her father, a missionary, and they relied on missionary barrels for much of what they needed.  Pollyanna longed for a doll, but the barrel only contained a pair of crutches.  She was heartbroken.  Her father then invented the game.  "What," he asked, is there to be glad about a pair of crutches?"

Pollyanna was intrigued and could think of nothing.  "We can be glad we don't have to use them," he said.  She was awed by this discovery and the Glad Game became a great source of comfort to her.  After her father's death, she went to live with her Aunt Polly, who forbade her to speak of her father.  She turned to others with troubles around town and taught them to play the Glad Game with her, lifting her mourning and their spirits.  She, unfortunately, fell and broke her back, which brought the whole town to Aunt Polly's door.  Each of the townspeople said, "Tell the little girl I'm playing the Glad Game."  Aunt Polly had no idea what they were talking about.  Someone clued her in, and she finally was able to express her love for her little niece and to let go of her resentment of Pollyanna's father.  [See PBS' Pollyanna tell the story of the Glad Game.]

Two things: first, Porter's Glad Game shares a principle element with Beck's highly regarded therapy, so let's stop casting aspersions.  Let's, instead, start to celebrate Eleanor Porter, a woman who made a great psychological discovery and helped generations of people manage hard times. 

Second, it is a game and people need to play together.  As we are all in some mental state other than perfect happiness, we need to play it together.  We need to find what we can be glad about in our situation.  We need help with this.  It is easy to say, "I can't feel better because I'm ____ [poor, ill, alone, frightened, etc]." Yet there is no one among us -- and I say that without exception -- who has not got something for which to be glad.  A friend or family member can push -- as Pollyanna did -- to find that something in the face of all kinds of deprivation and suffering.  Shifting our thinking doesn't take away the material problems, but it does lessen our suffering about them.  As Haruki Murakami pointed out, "Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional."

In my case, I'm getting cranky because I've been alone for weeks.  Yet during that time I've been watching the lilac in my front yard bloom.  I take a photo of it every day.  Google photos reminds me of the pictures I took "on this day, so-and-so many years ago."  In general, in past years, there is one photo of the lilac.  This year there are 40 so far.  I am glad that I've had time to watch the blossoms unfold.  I would never have taken time to smell the lilacs, so to speak, but time has been given to me by coronavirus and opened a new world I'm glad to visit.

In The New York Times today there were some really fascinating examples of what people were finding to be glad about.  Just one example: the great Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, who is writing a novel about plague in Istanbul, has found that his fear of the coronavirus has taught him humility and solidarity.  He wrote,
For a better world to emerge after this pandemic, we must embrace and nourish the feelings of humility and solidarity engendered by the current moment.
Ready to get started? Here's your homework, and my "movie of the week" recommendation: watch Disney's Pollyanna, starring Hayley Mills.  And streaming services: Contribute to the world's mental health.  Take the movie out from behind any paywalls so that everyone can see it!  And, for those of you who prefer the book, dive in!  It's old-fashioned young adult lit, not as thrilling as a vampire series, but very rewarding.  You'll meet the real Pollyanna, and her cheer in the face of being poor, orphaned, and paralyzed will enrich your life.


Unknown said...

Yes! Thank you! We love you! O'Linda Watkins-McSurely and Al McSurely, Carthage, NC

Wolf Gurl said...

Mindy, such great advice! Thank you! I've also never seen the movie, so will add that to my list. I have some lilacs on my desk now and my friend and I have found and been following the blooming of the lilacs in our neighborhood this month. - YG