One thing that I have learned over my life, and nearly 35 years in the legal profession, is that when things are going badly and you feel like you are barely hanging on, something else unplanned and unexpected will happen, and your coping skills will be put to the test. Our eleven months with COVID has confirmed this principle.
This morning, as I read my newspaper with my coffee and breakfast, I saw articles about a failure of safety protocols leading to a COVID outbreak, the closure of yet another fitness institution, and the stress that the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team is under. We’ve talked about this before—the fact that news media produce stories about negative events because this is what consumers want to read—so I monitored how long it took me to get to a positive article. It wasn’t too bad today: I found an article celebrating Perseverance’s arrival on Mars on page A5. But we need happy news about Percy, as the rover is being nicknamed, to counteract the negativity of the ongoing pandemic, financial woes and political ineptitude.
The field of positive psychology explores thriving and the practices and actions that help us stay well. While the number of positive emotions that we need probably cannot be mathematically defined with certainty, it is clear that we need many positives to outweigh the negatives.
Stress is going to happen. I would modify the old axiom that the only two things that are certain in life are death and taxes. I would add stress. Being in a prolonged state of stress has physical as well as emotional implications, particularly for our cardiac system. There are very tangible, physical reasons for engaging in practices that help our bodies recover from the highly engaged stress response and experiencing positive emotions can hasten our physiological return to normal.
I experienced this phenomenon last week. I was in Edmonton after a family emergency and was heading back to Calgary on the Friday afternoon of the long weekend. I wanted to get away early enough that I would have daylight for as much of the drive as possible, and I was anxious to get home to my beloved canine companion, who had to remain at home with my sons since I was going straight to the hospital. Some friends have asked if I have ever considered whether Tessa could be my emotional support animal and I suppose it could look like that, but the reality is that I am her emotional support person which wouldn’t get us through the hospital doors! She was on a hunger strike, as my kids call it, as she does whenever I am away.
But, of course, I got away later than I intended and was then cursing the Friday-before-a-long-weekend traffic. As I inched down Whyte Avenue, where every light seemed to be red, I was getting frustrated and a negative funk was settling in—it was easier to be irritated by everyone and everything than to take responsibility for trying to do too much in too short a period of time. Sitting at a light, fuming, I glanced to my right and saw a sign on the side of a commercial building. It read “God Bless the World.”
I was touched by this simple message of warmth and unity, and I felt my bad mood lifting. I smiled as I contemplated the sign, wishing good for all of us. I wondered what type of a business would post this banner above its side entrance so, as traffic began to move again, I looked at the front of the business, expecting to see a religious bookstore or a faith-based organization. Imagine my surprise when I saw that it was a law firm.
Now I was smiling even more. People rarely go to a lawyer’s office when times are good and they are happy. They may be probating a will in the aftermath of a death or are contemplating their own mortality. They may be having a dispute, going through a divorce, or facing criminal charges. Even buying a house, for all its positives and excitement, involves a lot of stress. Going to see a lawyer may rank only slightly ahead of going to the dentist.
A few years ago, I attended LESA’s Family Law Refresher. Assist and the Law Society had booths in the exhibitor’s hall to provide information about supportive programs, and we decided to bring in rescue puppies as a de-stress strategy. This led to many conversations about dogs and pets. Several lawyers with their own firms told me that they bring their dogs (and some cats) to the office as clients are often distressed and petting a friendly and loving dog calms them.
Like the sign wishing the world well, interacting with animals (or watching funny animal videos!) can evoke positive feelings.
In my three-hour drive, I thought about blessings and the many forms they can take. When I got home, I googled definitions of “blessing” and YourDictionary had 18 definitions of both the noun and verb form including
- Good wishes or approval
- The act of one who blesses
- A short prayer said before or after a meal
- A thing one is glad of
- A group of unicorns
The theme that they all feature (except for the unicorn group which is just plain fun) is that they are small acts that can change our outlooks. We are all busy, and we are physically isolated by our lockdown restrictions, so what can we do?
I remembered that when I was expecting my second child, I had an appointment for an ultrasound—it was a complicated pregnancy and they were monitoring the fetus to ensure growth was normal. The instructions for a prenatal ultrasound are that you are to drink 4 glasses of water one hour before the exam. Fortunately, this wasn’t my first ultrasound and I had learned that I could drink less water than this less than an hour before my appointment, but I was in the lobby of my office building waiting for my husband to pick me for this appointment (driving with a full bladder has its own challenges!). He wasn’t the most punctual person at the best of times, and I stood, waiting, for quite some time. While I was waiting, three lawyers from another firm in the building emerged from the elevator bank and headed out to get coffee. I didn’t know them, and they didn’t know me, but I knew who one of them was. When they returned with their coffees, heading back to their elevator bank, one of them spoke to me. He said “I hope that whoever you are waiting for comes soon. You look like too nice a person to be kept waiting long.”
I could have cried at this kindness from a stranger. Ironically, that lawyer bought a house on my cul-de-sac a couple of years later and I was able to tell him how much that had meant to me. I resolved to try to emulate this kindness, although I am actually quite shy about talking to strangers, but I have learned that saying a thoughtful word—a compliment or wishing someone a good day (and meaning it)—enriches both the blesser and the blessed one.
I also remembered a suggestion about reducing stress when driving. Let’s face it: many people drive as if the world revolves around them and that any manoeuvre, no matter how it inconveniences others, is fair game if it jockeys them a few car lengths ahead. All of us who drive have experienced this—getting cut off by rudeness and arrogance—and we are outraged. We cultivate our outrage, carefully marinating in it, until we get to our destination and can share, in exquisite detail, the affront inflicted on us. Sometimes we keep that outrage alive for hours or days, so wounded is our pride.
The suggestion is counter intuitive. It is that when someone cuts you off, instead of swearing or responding with a hand gesture, you say aloud “and blessings on you.” And it works. The first time I tried it, I was surprised at how much better I felt. I had let go of the outrage and instead felt benevolence.
It is not a panacea. I ultimately changed my commute route to avoid a bottleneck where selfish driving is almost de rigour, even though this was the shortest route. But as I approached this road, I could feel my blood pressure rising in anticipation of the rudeness I would experience. I recognize that we all have our own issues and that my triggers may not be your triggers, but when a driver who is behind me consciously pulls into the adjacent lane only to pull in front of me, I feel like my boundaries have been violated. I also feel like I need to stop them from being able to do this by accelerating as fast as I can—you can see where the stress comes from. Extending blessings in lieu of curses may not be enough for the intensity of this situation!
There are three great strategies for reducing stress: avoidance, adaptation, and acceptance. I use avoidance (my route change), adaptation (being prepared to be magnanimous and offer a blessing) and acceptance (knowing that I can’t make everyone behave the way I think they should behave.)
But now I add blessings and simple acts of kindness. They cost nothing and take very little energy. And they make you feel better (along with spending as much time as possible with your canine or feline companion.)