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COVID-19 and the Loss of A Known Future

Working with students and clients during the Covid-19 Pandemic is a constant plunge into issues that seem to have no prior point of reference. However, I discovered that if we look at parallels to more ‘normal’ events in our lives, we can find out how to deal with the radical unknowns that come with an international viral pandemic.

This week, I had a conversation with a young client who has not been able to plan for any kind of a “known” future. He feels cut off from all of his former experience with planning for something that will make him happy, being able to carry out his plans, and then feel happy when they are carried out. In other words, during the global pandemic, he’s unable to spend time being happy about a planned future. He was afraid that if this continued, he would end up being miserable, and even spiraling into anxiety, depression and even possible hospitalization for suicidal thoughts (not that he was having any currently, thank goodness).

When we looked at his problem, it occurred to me that he’d probably had plenty of experience with planning something in the future, and then being disappointed when it didn’t occur. I reminded him that he often wouldn’t have known what the future held and he wouldn’t have known whether his plans would come to fruition. I asked him whether he’d been able to cope with that in the past, and he said he’d always managed to get over the disappointment. When I pointed out that he had learned the ability to get over disappointment, and could rely on that experience to help him with any future disappointments, he relaxed a lot.

What he and I discovered was that the Covid-19 Pandemic is a BIG unknown future, and has taken away all kinds of small certainties about ‘tomorrow’ that both us had been previously been able to assume would occur. However, this loss of a ‘known future’ and the disappointment of not being able to make plans that come to fruition, is no different than any other time we couldn’t plan for the future, or were disappointed in our plans.

In other words, thought the pandemic obscures a lot more of our plans, the disappointments can be coped with in the similar ways that we’ve already learned. For my client and me, that means that when we feel the sadness of the loss of our plans, or the sadness of the inability to make any plans, we can let go of the idea that “I will be happy in the future, if only I can make this plan and it can come true.” If we acknowledge our sadness at the loss of the idea that we can only be happy if this plan can be made and/or comes true, we can return to our condition in the present moment.

Without running to the future for happiness, or to the past for memories of past happiness, we return to the present moment. Without ideas that are making us unhappy or happy, what is our condition in the present moment? In my client’s case, he was living with his parents unexpectedly for the summer, his plans for the future were shredded but, he was at peace and content in his present moment.

In the perennial philosophy of most of the world’s wisdom traditions, it’s said that peace, contentment, love, freedom and truth are available to each of us if we will only learn to live in the present moment. When my client looked at the loss of his ability to make plans for a ‘happy future,’ and returned to his experience in the present moment, he found that he was already content and at peace with things the way they were in that moment.

In another session with a student, it was clear that she could deal with nearly any real experience that she faced. What she couldn’t deal with was imaginary circumstances that hadn’t occurred yet; they scared her to death. Covid-19 had created a world of possibilities that scared her to death but, they weren’t real, they hadn’t happened to her, and she was paradoxically confident that she could meet any real challenge that came her way.

With both clients, what became evident to all of us is that we can treat the Covid-19 Pandemic like any other challenge in our lives. In the present moment we can be content and at peace. Only in our insistence that we be happy ‘somewhere in the future, if only I can do this special thing,’ do we lose our contentment and peace. Or, if we start fantasizing about some catastrophic future, we lose our contentment and peace. Covid-19 is another big lesson in the importance of keeping our focus in the present moment: if you stay present, you stay serene. Move into the future to plan some ‘thing that makes me happy’ or start creating a future catastrophe, and you’re lost in fantasy and bad feeling. It’s always the choice that we can make in every moment.