The Four Check-Ins: Using Biography To Get in Touch With Your Life During the Pandemic

May 13, 2020

While we are in the midst of the corona virus pandemic, each of us is having a unique experience. Many of you are parents working from home and helping your children who are distance learning. When we first became aware of the danger of the virus, we had to quickly adjust to the news as it came out. In my case, Spring was filled with travel for work, meetings, and vacation. That was all cancelled as instructions came out to get masks, toilet paper, food, and stay home, especially if you are at risk. We checked in on family members, their job situation, and who needed what.

Emergencies affect us in many ways, our thinking, our emotions, our sense of safety, and most of all, in our decision-making. As the problem continues, we go through different stages in our behavior.

We are now several months into the pandemic, and we sense it won’t be over for quite a while. Schools are closed. Businesses are closed. Under certain conditions, some are allowed to open. Health care workers are at risk by not having proper protective gear. Some places are hot spots, others are not.  Things change daily. There are vast discrepancies between those who can manage and those who do not have what they need for daily life — food, a job, technology to keep in touch, and a safe home. Outside of wartime situations, most of us in North America have never experienced anything like this in our lives except for being caught in the 9/11 and anthrax situation or major hurricanes, tornadoes, or floods.

The Four Check-Ins

I have identified four ways that we can check in with ourselves, internally and externally. These will help us gain control over our situation so that we can function well and meet the pandemic with a level head, calm emotions, and a sound mind.

The First Check-In – Stabilizing Our Physical Life

The first check-in has to do with our physical situation – our body, our sense of space, our essential needs, and how to feel safe. We need to stabilize the situation and gain control, making sure we have healthy food, water, and proper equipment (mask and gloves). We survey our family and identify where members are, and what is needed for all to feel safe. We know that this is a short-term solution which will be modified as the situation changes. We check in with our body, identifying places of tension —neck or shoulder strain from being on the computer so much and stomach knots from stress. We need to move, breathe, and exercise to regain a sense of vitality. We check in on our work space, adjusting the light, as we transform a home desk or table for working with Zoom or other platforms. We help our children set up a space to work, do projects, create a corner with supplies, and screens if needed. In order to use this situation to gain greater understanding and enhance our sense of well-being, we review our biography, looking to see if something similar has happened before when we had no control over what was happening, but we had to respond quickly. It is essential to meet these challenges through Self Care, thoroughly checking in with ourselves, being awake to how past experiences, consciously or unconsciously, rise up and affect us. The uncertainty of these times makes us particularly vulnerable to the influences of past experiences in our biography. By reviewing past situations in our life, we find ways to calm down, think clearly, figure out what is needed and recognize how to reach out for help. We remember with gratitude those who helped us.

I think of Hurricane Sandy in October, 2012. I arrived in New York with plans to visit family and friends. My friend Sally had offered me a place to stay in her apartment in Manhattan, but unfortunately, she was not able to make it there from Cape Cod because of the storm. I was able to get into her apartment on Sunday afternoon, and I had a few hours before the storm would arrive. Quickly, I walked to the nearest market which was jammed. Employees were not going to be able to return home. People didn’t know if there would be power, should they buy perishables or not? There was excitement, fear, and worry in the air. My heart was racing in anticipation of what would happen facing this situation alone. Back in her apartment, I couldn’t get the tv to work, but the radio cautioned us to fill the bathtub with water, so I did that. That night the storm was so violent, the windows seemed as if they would crack apart, and I found what seemed like the safest spot to sleep in and slept with my hands over my ears.

Over the next three days, the storm continued, flooding streets, subway stations, knocking down power lines. The violence of the storm blew the heavy iron patio furniture 22 floors down onto the street. The building swayed, and the storm howled. I had to call the superintendent to retie all the plastic sheets on the windows and French doors of the apartment. Two workers balanced on a ledge, retying ropes, while the storm blew around them. They attached the French doors to a rope tied around the door handle of another room to keep them closed against the power of the wind.Friends of Sally’s who had been flooded out of their apartments called to see if they could come to her place. Since I still had power and was not in danger of being flooded, I welcomed them. It was an eerie scene as we looked down onto the streets. Many were cordoned off, busses were not moving, gasoline was not available. By Wednesday, the storm had abated, and we could go out onto the streets. No subway trains were running. Busses were free for all, and the Museum of Modern Art offered free admission. There was a feeling of exhilaration, even humor, as strangers met on the streets. However, it was very difficult to find a way to get to the airport to leave the city, as many roads were closed. Only when I located a private cab company did we made our way on empty roads so I could fly home.

Thinking back over that situation helped me realize that I had dealt with a challenge effectively, and I could do it again. A natural disaster has many problems. People are hurt and some die. Homes are destroyed. Life is changed. Although problems continue, the actual danger is over. That is not the case with a pandemic. What do we do when the chaos goes on week after week, month after month? It calls for calmness and presence of mind. We can do it!

The Second Check-in: How Are We Coping?

The second check-in is to take a wellness temperature. While the first check-in had to do with physical space, the second one has to do with time. How are we functioning? How is our health, our sense of wellness, of comfort and discomfort? How is our rhythm? Are we getting enough sleep? Chaos causes stress, and stress creates symptoms. We need to identify where we feel stress such as remembering to keep our hands off our face, feeling our forehead to see if we might have a fever, or check to see that we are washing our hands often enough. We have to gain control over our sense of well-being. This is done by setting up a schedule, developing a routine, and figuring out a rhythm-­ a time to work and a time to play. We need structure, but we also need flexibility to change things as needed. This is not a sprint, it is a marathon. This is particularly important if we have children at home. We need to check our calendar, figure out which appointments need to be cancelled, and set up a schedule for the children.

In addition to getting enough sleep, we need to get out and walk in nature. I am fortunate here to have the American River and the trails nearby. In addition to sleep and nature, we have to limit how much news we listen to or read because that exacerbates the sense of panic. The other extreme of anxiety is lethargy, becoming tired and not able to cope with what needs to be done. Fatigue often sets in as we become impatient, moody, irritable, and wishing it would all be over. How long will this go on? Again, we have to learn patience, not expect too much of ourselves, knowing the virus will go away eventually. We have to go slowly. Music is very helpful here. Whether you play an instrument or enjoy listening to music, you can join with others. Music fills the air with tone and gives us a healing sense of time. It is also helpful to have poems, a prayer or meditation that has helped in other times of anxiety or fear. Following is one of my favorites:

The Waking, by Theodore Roethke

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.

We think by feeling, What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Of those so close beside me, which are you?
God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there.
And learn by going where I have to go.

Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Great Nature has another thing to do
To you and me; so take the lively air,
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.

Looking back at our biography, we can identify times of illness, anxiety, or stress. Is there a pattern in how we have reacted to medical situations? In my case, my brother Joey died in an accident when he was ten and I was five. No one explained to me what has happened or reassured me that I would be fine. In adulthood, when I would get sick, even a bad cold, I would tend to panic. I would think I would die just as he did. It has taken me decades to identify this pattern and work with it. I developed sentences which I could say, calmly telling myself not to over-react, state the facts rather than the fears, remembering that it was just a bad cold, allergies, stomach ache, or whatever. I had to learn to trust time, that in time I would be fine. I got through it before, and I’ll probably get through it again. Humor works wonders here. I laugh at myself as I go through the stages until I bounce back into stability and a feeling of wellness.

The Third Check-In: Nurturing Our Relationships

The third check-in is relationships, our connections with others. Relationships are the nourishment for our souls. Without them, we are left like islands in the sea. We need to gain control by examining where we are in our relationships. At first, we take roll, asking where is everyone, our family, elderly relatives, neighbors, colleagues? Are we in touch with each other?

As the pandemic continues, we have to overcome the sense of isolation. We can set up a time to check in everyday with certain people. We can have a weekly phone call, Face Time, or Zoom with a good friend that goes more deeply than a general check-in. When we feel connected, we feel trust. We can send a note or card, a refreshing change from email or text. Working collaboratively with others strengthens the sense of community for adults as well as for children.

We can help the children with their schoolwork, with tasks in the home, and can find moments of laughter and sharing. We can connect them with their friends on a walk or wave, if not in person, then through the screen. We can join with others to work on projects in our work life, our family, our neighborhood, and in our community.

In my biography, I look for examples of trust and mistrust. When did people reached out to help me, where I felt left out, or lonely? Are there examples where I made a difference in someone else’s life? How do I feel now looking back at that? Does that inspire me to reach out to others?

One of the most important things to do is to look back over my life and identify people and situations for which I feel grateful. I remember the kindness of friends and acquaintances when I had surgery. I smile as I recall students who slipped through my back door, leaving a jar of soup or flowers on the kitchen counter, friends who delivered food regularly, and those who accompanied me to the doctor’s office or the chemotherapy section of the hospital. It was heartwarming to receive telephone calls or cards from acquaintances who were reaching out in friendship. The people who came into my life when I needed them are the stepping stones of my karma. My heart is full.In this situation of the pandemic, how can I bring that to others?  Are there people I need to forgive? How can I do that? Can I forgive myself for my actions I’m not happy about? What have I learned from thinking about this? We can look at this forced time at home like a sabbatical with possibilities for doing some things I’ve meant to do, but there was never enough time.

The Fourth Check-In: Taking Control of Our Thinking

The fourth check-in is in our thoughts, values, goals and sense of meaning. During chaos, our thoughts become jumbled and it is hard to think straight. How can we gain control over our thinking?  When we realize that we have the power to shape our biography by the decisions we make, there are many things we can do. Even if we only focus for five minutes a day or a week, we have an opportunity to clear our minds, find peace, and connect ourselves with the essentials of life. Writing in a journal is a good way to keep track of our thoughts during different phases of our lives. Engaging in artistic or craft activities stimulates our creative juices. We can meditate or pray, or gather special poems or music that help connect us to our higher Self.

We can think about the future, imagining what will be possible? We can examine what we are learning through this difficult time. Can the skills we have gained in technology be used for the future? What changes can we as a society learn from this pandemic? Can we move to a new imagination of society, of world culture,  based on interconnectedness, nurturing our planet, and supporting the spiritual sustainability of human  life?

In my biography, I look for examples where I overcame difficulty, how I did it, and what I learned from it. When was I challenged to learn a new skill, did I make use of it? Many of us are offered this challenge to work with technology. How will this experience change the way we may do things in the future? Given this opportunity, we can experience how it is a helpful tool for the future and how we can use it to connect with each other. At the same time, we may see the need for in-person relatedness, the joy of sharing a smile, helping each other, being more conscious of our thoughts and deeds.

I can identify negative experiences in my biography and see how they can be transformed into positive experiences. Through this experience, I begin to sense that I have power to take hold of my situation. This fourth check-in offers us the opportunity to ask ourselves deep existential questions, who are we, what is our purpose, and are we doing what we came here to do?

Reviewing the critical years of our lives, we often find that the most difficult times challenged us to be our true selves, obeying our conscience and making hard decisions. Often these were silent, known only to us in the quiet space of our soul.

Using our biography for these four check-ins helps us to make sense out of our lives and gives us a way to come through the pandemic in a healthy way and with new possibilities. All the information is sitting there like buried treasure in the years we have lived. We just have to dig them out. There is great wisdom in each of our lives.