Editor’s Note: Sophia A. Nelson is a journalist and author of the new book “Be the One You Need: 21 Life Lessons I Learned Taking Care of Everyone but Me.” The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
It’s hard to believe we are nearing the end of the summer of 2022. For many, the great pandemic of 2020 is long ago in the rearview mirror of our lives, but it is not. From long Covid-19 to “quiet quitting” and now even “quiet firing,” we all feel the intensity and stress, and perhaps, even the promise of this moment we are living through.
As we return to the office and send kids back to classrooms, we need to ask ourselves two serious questions: Are any of us emotionally and mentally ready to reengage fully in life as we knew it almost three years ago? And how do we honor ourselves, our growth, our awakenings over the past two years to sustain and make use of what we’ve learned (both the positive and the negative lessons) during the pandemic?
Answering these questions takes me back to February 2020. I was speaking at a major conference in the Deep South. I was healthy. I was thriving. I was headed out on a speaking tour for Black History Month. I fell horribly ill after the conference, as did many of its attendees.
Keep in mind, the World Health Organization did not even officially name this virus until February 11. We had no test kits or anything else then – except for reports that China had some kind of virus outbreak and that our government was going to ban air travel from China to the United States.
So, as my symptoms began to manifest – a high fever, serious body pain and a terrible cough – I was pretty sure I had contracted the awful invisible virus. The worst part of being sick was that I was alone in a hotel. It was bad. I lay there wondering what would happen to me. Would I end up on a respirator or worse?
It’s a funny thing when you face your mortality. It’s the clearest mirror in which you will ever see yourself. And I did not necessarily like what I saw.
I saw a life that was still unfinished, a life that had so much more ahead. Oh, sure, I have accomplished a great many things, but the most important question that kept running through my mind was this: Have you fully lived your life, on your own terms? And the answer was a resounding no.
I decided at that moment to change my life.
I get it. We all feel it. Something is clearly amiss right now, and it’s not just the trauma of the pandemic (though that has certainly made things clearer). We are all clinging to our political divisions, our tribes, our anger, our grievances. Honestly, I have never seen my fellow human beings in such obvious disarray.
Worse, there is an air of tacit acceptance among us, acceptance of the unacceptable. We are fearful. We know that at any moment, we too can become a statistic. We can lose our own lives or those we love to random acts of violence. We cannot go to the grocery store, to our houses of worship, a movie theater, to a Fourth of July parade, without a palpable fear that we or someone we love can become the targets of a gun-toting madman.
If you were to ask me what the solution is to what ails us, I would tell you that it starts with a good, hard look at ourselves. Most people simply do not like that answer. They would rather avoid, duck, deny and run from the mirror.
In our modern world, it has become much easier to point the finger of blame at our parents, our pasts, our unhealed traumas and all the things that didn’t go our way. I wonder, however, how is that working out for us as individuals and collectively as fellow travelers on this journey called life.
I think we all know the answer – it is not working out well at all. Mental health crises abound. People are not OK. And as a former college adjunct professor during the height of Covid-19, I can attest that young people feel this most acutely. And yet it isn’t just confined to young people.
According to the WHO, rates of anxiety and depression increased globally by 25% in 2020, a rise so dramatic that at the end of 2021, the US surgeon general declared that there was a “devastating” national mental health crisis.
I think the way forward must start with us as individuals. Sometimes self-reflection, self-love and self-care, examining ourselves more deeply, is exactly what we need to be better human beings. That is why I wrote in my recent book, I want to challenge us as individuals, and as citizens of the human race, to be better by doing the work inside of us, that makes us so much better on the outside of us.
Here are three life lessons that helped me and that I know will help you take better care of yourself as we head into the fall of 2022:
- 1. Ask yourself three core but challenging questions often: What do I want? What do I need? How am I feeling? And then answer them honestly and authentically weekly, monthly, every year that you are alive.
- 2. Take care of your emotional and mental health first: You are all you have. Just as the flight attendant instructs us to put our own oxygen mask on first, we need to do that with our emotional needs, our stress management and mental wellness care. You can’t help anyone else if your cup is over full. Take care of you first; the rest will follow.
- 3. Build a strong and wise circle: Do you have good people in your life circle? People who encourage you, inspire you and offer wise counsel? Are you with people who exude positivity, health and well-being? Or negative people, who dump their issues on you and do not engage in reciprocal relationships with you?
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If we want to fix what is broken in our collective humanity, then we must start with what is broken within us. There is no silver bullet, no magic elixir. But if we can find the grace to ask ourselves what it is that we want and that we need, then we may find a way forward. Because it all starts with you and with me.
And how we treat other people reflects how we are feeling about ourselves. We are tired of the surface living that never dares to go deeper. We are drained from two-plus years of Covid-19, of career shifts and Zoom calls. We crave something more connected, more lasting. And we keep looking for it outside of ourselves, where we will never find it.