How To Hold On in Hard Times
Preserving your mental health when the world is on fire
The spring house stood at the far end of the drive, halfway to the barn. It sheltered just at the base of a steep hill, like a tin-roofed entry to some subterranean domain. And in a way, that’s exactly what it was: a wooden shelter over great, granite stones the shape and size of a large bathtub. Water bubbled up there, swift and strong and straight out of rock like some Old Testament miracle: cold enough to give you an ice-cream headache, sweet and clean, with the faintest metallic tang from the ladle that hung on the hook above.
Best of all, surrounding the spring house and growing in prodigious clumps along the stream beyond were sprigs of wild mint. If I crush a peppermint leaf in my fingers even now, I am transported back to that shady hillside, the spring, my rusted bike, the sound of distant chickens, and dirty, skinned knees.
It was 1983. We were then in the midst of the Cold War and Soviet deployment of ballistic missiles targeting Western Europe. Then came NATO’s Able Archer ’83 military exercises simulating a nuclear attack, triggering an escalation in the USSR. Many consider it closest the world came to nuclear war since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. I remember drills, and discussion, even in grade school — the ever-present sense that something was about to go very wrong. We were, in those years, still suffering an economic crisis, the worst the U.S. had seen since the Great Depression. My father was laid off and looking for work, which might be why I’d been sent to my grandparents’ farm.
But I don’t remember those crises when I crush a mint leaf. I remember the spring, summer sunshine, playing in the creek with my brother, and making friends with a rooster. And today, as I watch the world events turn dark and darker still, I think about the fact that — even among these horrors — children are making joyful memories about first snowfalls and first spring flowers.
It seems incongruous.
A pandemic rages (still) despite being treated as “mostly over,” and in its wake millions have died; Russia has invaded Ukraine, killing civilians, devastating cities, and threatening (again) nuclear escalation with the West; climate change continues to hew away at the ice caps, resulting in the greatest species loss we have seen since prehistory. And yet, children are born, they grow and play and discover, and they see in this world wonder, beauty, miracles. We cannot become children again. But perhaps there is something to be learned from a perspective that sees the newborn luster of individual moments. We need it. Desperately.
The State of Mental Health in America released their numbers for 2021 recently, and it shows a continued steep decline. The trend is global, and it has begun to affect children, too — a result of multiple factors, including the pandemic isolation and the strain on parents. As reported in Fatherly, “according to a new American Psychological Association poll, as a group, [parents are] more stressed out than anyone previously realized.” And then, there is the inescapable and constant barrage of news from every conceivable platform.
Those same platforms have been trying to give us pointers, too. The New York Times made several recommendations: 1) Give your feeling a name. 2) Give your mental illness a name. 3) Find meaning in everyday activities — as well as allowing yourself to grieve and giving yourself a break. But what does it take, at the most basic level, to hold on during hard times? How can we preserve our mental health — not just for ourselves, but for our children, who still want to experience the joy and wonder of the world? I don’t think it’s a 10-step program, and it’s not enough to “unplug” or give ourselves a day of rest here and there. I’m not even sure it’s about finding meaning. Instead, I think it’s about joy.
Come with me on a journey. For a few moments, let’s step outside obligation and self-help. I am going to ask you about your memories. What’s the first memory you have? I always like to start there; remembering takes some practice because we weave it from fibers of beingness dispersed among many neurons. What is the first memory you have of looking out at the world? Mine involves a horse. Or rather, a nose and knees of a horse — I was too small to grasp the whole concept of horse as a single animal. I remember the nose, velveteen, and the wrinkly, mobile lips. Another early memory (around the same time) is of my own shadow on the ground and discovering that my own movement changed the shadow. Find your early memory, and hold onto it for a moment. Let it bloom, gathering more details to itself. Allow it to fill in with color.
Scientists in 2010 discovered that relaxed minds remember better: “Stronger and more lasting memories” can be formed when we are relaxed and “the memory-related neurons in the brain fire in sync” with brain waves. But I also find that, when reaching back to an early memory, I do begin relaxing. We let go of the now for a moment and seek out the then. But a memory is not like a data file; we recreate memory. By remembering, we are connecting with our younger self, peeling back layers in real time. Remembering is reexperiencing in ways brain science has only begun to appreciate. It requires chemical and structural changes in the brain and active thinking. You are remaking a piece of yourself.
Let’s go on another journey.
This time, let’s find a memory that brings you joy. Let me explain a little further. Joy isn’t a job; it doesn’t have to have meaning or teach a lesson, and it need not be rational. Think about the first breath of summer after winter, the first kiss of a warm wind. It lightens something inside us, doesn’t it? Unconsciously, even. The spring house on my grandparents’ farm, that cool, fresh water, the smell of mint — that brings joy. When I let that memory bloom, I also see the sunset on the opposite hillside, the way it turned the wheat pink, the pulled-taffy clouds up above, the sound of crickets in their first chorus of evening. Locate a childhood joy and sit with it a moment.
There is peace in remembering when the world was new to us. And you — you deserve that peace. You are exhausted, and the world expects so much. But you deserve the peace and the joy that you had then. And what’s more, that peace and joy are still possible. You have just remade them, as you read this. I don’t know what became of the spring house, but I have mint growing in my garden, and if I get close enough to it I can feel the earth under me slow down a bit. There are still beautiful things to behold. There are still memories worth making.
The world wasn’t perfect when we made those perfect memories. There have always been hard, hard times. What is happening now has happened in the lives of many others, reaching back to the start of everything. But if we sit in joy with our childhood self, encouraging memory gently, we can hold on. And maybe we’ll be able to connect better with the children — and former children — in our everyday lives.