Stressful Gratitude

Throughout this period of lockdown, I’ve been so looking forward to the collective waves of gratitude that we’d experience, just as we’ve lived through the pandemic restrictions collectively. Small things we’d taken for granted would be cause for celebration.

While that has partly been true as various constraints have recently been eased where I live, a more dominant emotion in me and those close to me has been stress.

The guidelines seem contradictory or inconsistent with how viruses travel. (I can get my eyes checked but can’t hug my mom?) Even when the rules are clear, people are choosing to follow them to varying degrees, including not at all, which can cause anxiety for others around them. (Mom, why is it ok for them to do that when we can’t?) We’re having to make too many decisions that used to be unconscious for us, and living on autopilot is far easier. (Do I have a mask with me?) Maybe there were things about lockdown life we’ll actually miss and we’re reluctant to let them go, or concerned we won’t be able to carry them with us into the next phase. (You want to book something on my calendar?) Being given a taste of freedom makes us crave even more. (What do you mean we can’t drive in a car together?) Please don’t ask me to adapt to one more thing. (Did I sign up for this?)

You can fill in the blanks with your stressors of choice.

For me, it’s reinforced four things:

  1. Certainty is easier for us than uncertainty, even if what we’re certain about is something difficult or negative. (Jonah Berger writes about this — I introduced him to you last week. He calls it an “uncertainty tax.”) We will opt for sure over better.
  2. We cling to stories and situations that aren’t serving us well, simply to avoid having to adapt to something new. (Berger captures this too, when he writes about endowment: people overvalue what they already have or do, even when the new thing is technically better).
  3. The weight of the cognitive load the comes from constant change is hard on us. We’re not wired for acute stress levels to become chronic. There’s a declining balance on our ability to adapt.
  4. We always have a choice as to where we focus our attention.

It’s taken some hard work to focus on the things for which I assumed I’d be immediately grateful when they came.

Perhaps you’re experiencing something similar this week, and so too are the folks in your circles of influence. It’s a difficult season in which to lead, but also one where nimble, gracious leaders will stand out. May we be kind to one another even as we encourage wise choices and a looser grip on the things that are no longer serving us well.

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