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OP-ED: It’s OK not to feel OK right now. But here’s how to feel better

Mary Schmich
Chicago Tribune (TNS)
A doctor in Israel checks a medical ventilator control panel while wearing protective clothing. Hospitals worldwide are bracing for the impact of the coronavirus, and the U.S. is short on supplies. (Photo by JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

It’s OK to be scared.

It’s OK to be confused, anxious, angry, lonely.

Whatever emotion you’re feeling in this coronavirus craziness, it’s OK. Try not to dwell in the worst of it, try not to feed it, try not to take it out on other people. But don’t feel guilty for feeling what you feel.

That’s some of the best advice I’ve heard for this surreal moment in which a tiny virus has shut down the world, a moment that arrived so gradually, it seems, and yet like an explosion.

Think back to only a week ago. What were you doing?

I’m writing this on Friday, March 20. Last Friday I went out to dinner. I did it ambivalently but the friend I’d planned to go with said we should go to support the waiters and so we went.

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By Saturday I’d put myself on house arrest except to go out for solitary walks (keeping 6 feet away from other humans) and I’ve taken to calling that Friday dinner “The Last Supper.”

We look back now at last week as if it belongs to an ancient past, back when human beings went freely to the gym, the bar, the sports arena.

A week ago we kept calendars. How pointless those calendars seem now. The upcoming dinner date, doctor’s appointment, concert? They’re dreams that vanished like clouds.

Now the future is erased. The planned future, at any rate. The future is still out there but it’s as inscrutable as our calendars are blank. It’s the uncertainty, above all, that rattles us.

What next? What now? We wait.

And while we wait, we search for ways to stay safe and sane, for new routines to serve as solid ground in this shifting time. To help myself in that regard, I’ve invented what I call the “OK-Better” game. It allows you to feel what you feel while trying to feel something better. It goes like this:

It’s OK that you feel claustrophobic.

It’s better to remember, as my youngest sister — who lives alone, with mental struggles and diabetes — said to me recently, “At least I have a home.”

It’s OK that you forgot to shower today. And yesterday. Two days? Really?

No shame. But it’s better to take a shower.

It’s OK to be eating weird stuff because when you got to the grocery store, the only stuff left in the frozen food aisles was okra and riced cauliflower, and the only canned soup left on the shelf was some gross curry thing that you bought anyway.

Rather than curse the shoppers who grabbed the items you prefer, it’s better to imagine you’re enjoying culinary adventures in a foreign country.

It’s OK to feel a pinch of alarm at that vague sore throat.

It’s better not to assume you’re dying the minute your throat feels ticklish.

It’s OK if you wake up in the middle of the night worrying for the people you love and depend on. I woke up the other night afraid for my sisters; for a couple of my brothers who are suddenly short on work; for my friends who are yoga teachers, musicians, waitresses, who now have no work; for the doctors, nurses, grocery clerks, cops, everyone who keeps on working, at risk to themselves, because we need them.

That fear is reasonable, but it feels better to look for a way to help. Check on a neighbor. Call a friend who may be lonely. Send a check to a charitable organization. Buy a gift card to a local business. If you ordinarily pay a housekeeper, a gardener, a dog walker, keep paying them.

It’s OK to spend more time than normal watching Netflix.

It’s better to get off the couch occasionally to take a walk, play an instrument, wipe down those doorknobs again.

It’s OK to lack the focus to read a book.

But you’ll feel better if you order a book from an independent bookstore. One day you’ll want to read something besides grim news again.

It’s OK to read the grim news.

It’s better to read less of it.

It’s OK to think of what you’re losing during this hard time, what we all are, in different forms and measures and with different capacities to cope.

You’ll feel better thinking of how much you still have. And of how much we’re learning. About disease and government. About our reliance on people we take for granted. About how to wash our hands. And how to work on Zoom.

It’s OK to acknowledge that this crisis we’re living through is likely to get worse before it gets better.

But it will get better.

In the meantime, I keep hearing the words of the Tibetan Buddhist nun Pema Chodron, who begins her book “When Things Fall Apart” with one of the most insightful sentences ever written: “This very moment is the perfect teacher.”

— Mary Schmich is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune and winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for commentary.