A Shift In Perspective

What Matters Most: A Gentle Reminder


I have given up hoarding coffee beans as a coping strategy. It was harmless and somewhat effective, but I have moved on. Learning to bake a good cake from scratch is my new diversion in this time of extremes. None of us are alone in, or immune from, the consequential events of this year. Many people have suffered losses, conflicts and stresses. Stories of people coping by taking up bread baking, binge watching TV shows or learning to can their new garden crops are legion as we navigate this national crisis. Anyone who ventures online has undoubtedly seen some amusing memes with commentary on the year 2020. Humor is a great way to deal with stress.

But even while enjoying your local newspaper, the stresses continue. Although currently in a season that beckons us to revel in the crisp fall air, relax by the fire and savor a hearty bowl of soup (with some of that bread we learned to bake), many are suffering anxiety, depression and the heartache of fractured relationships. People are separated by pandemic-enforced isolation, and often by political divide. People have suffered the loss of loved ones, loss of employment, loss of routine and structure, loss of health care, loss of social and emotional supports, and the loss of usual means of diversion. (I very much miss going to a weekend movie). We are awash in disorienting change and disheartened by expressions of ill will. We are exhausted and feel stripped of the comforts of mutual respect and kindness.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that reports of anxiety are up three times over last year’s numbers. Teens are included in people reporting depression, increased substance abuse and suicidal thoughts. LGBTQ, ethnic and racial minorities are among the hardest hit communities for mental health stressors. In many minority communities, access to mental health services is limited in the best of times and is more difficult now. The toll on caregivers trying to balance work and family has grown and is reflected in their own increased health problems.

Many people have resorted to limiting exposure to news reports and social media, which are crowded with the constant blare of politicians, protests, counter-protests, and warnings and scare-tactics. The unrelenting barrage of polarizing noise attempting to influence our thoughts, votes and spending can be overwhelming.

As I spend time reflecting on these challenges, I keep circling back to the same conclusion. When we get right down to the nitty-gritty, through all of our losses, what we can’t do without is each other — our people — those who love us and those whom we love. Family, family by choice, cousins, siblings, neighbors; all the people who fill our minds and hearts and memories. Relationships and love are our nourishment.

Dr. Ira Byock, a well-known and respected voice in hospice and palliative care, wrote a bestselling book in 2004 entitled “The Four Things That Matter Most.” The four things are represented in the statements:

“Please forgive me.” “I forgive you.” “Thank you,” and “I love you.”

The practice of expressing these sentiments aloud to our loved ones can protect and preserve our most valued possession — our relationships. Not only at the end of life, but in everyday life, these statements have the power to mend and nurture the ties we have with others. Letting go of grudges and toxic emotions frees us to remember who we are, access our best selves and reach out to others for mutual support. Dr. Byock wrote, “Whatever else we choose to do and be, we must be kind and generous with one another.”

The Thanksgiving table may be different this year for many. The traditional winter holidays can be complicated and painful in the best of times, and could shape up to be an epic calamity for some. But the year 2020 will finally come to a close, thankfully. And, we can have some influence in how that plays out in our households by remembering the things that matter most.

Vicki Biggs is a longtime social worker. She lives in Home.