- Sarah Cronin
In her 1891 poem "'Hope' is the thing with feathers," Emily Dickinson compared hope to a bird. The bird "perches in the soul," she wrote, and keeps singing — even in the harshest circumstances. One hundred and 30 years later, a sighting of that particular bird would be most welcome.
In the first week of January, 1.15 million people filed initial claims for unemployment benefits, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. On January 13, one week after armed rioters seized the U.S. Capitol, the U.S. House of Representatives impeached President Donald Trump for "incitement of insurrection" — making Trump the first president in U.S. history to be impeached twice. That same day, more than 3,900 people in the United States died of COVID-19 and 230,476 new coronavirus infections were reported, according to the New York Times' daily COVID-19 tracker. And that was just the first two weeks of 2021.
In Vermont, recent news has also been discouraging. Due to a holiday-related spike, the state has logged record-high weekly growth in coronavirus cases in January, according to the Vermont Department of Health.
These are hard days in Vermont, the country and the world. A new year and the January 20 inauguration of a new president are occasions that by their very nature represent change and herald possibility, while the development of new vaccines against the coronavirus offers hope of an eventual return to normal. Still, with all that on the horizon, many are having a tough time finding reasons for optimism.
What do the experts suggest for keeping our spirits up? Last week, Seven Days spoke by phone to a handful of local therapists and a rabbi about the experience of collective trauma, how recent developments might offer hope in a grim time, and why that hope is so important to our mental and emotional well-being.
Kristine Reynolds is a licensed clinical social worker and director of the Vermont Center for Resiliency, which she founded 18 months ago and which is affiliated with Otter Creek Associates, a regional mental health group practice with offices around the state. Since March 2020, in Reynolds' view, people have been simultaneously experiencing and processing "repetitive collective trauma."
For her clients at the resiliency center, she said, trauma that "continues to happen" is the "constant" in the current uncertainty — see: all of 2020. If these clients are feeling any relief from the promise of a vaccine or of the installation of President Joe Biden, she hasn't witnessed it yet, but she highlighted how optimism for the future can inspire perseverance.
"If a person identifies those [forthcoming] changes as hopeful, it gives us a reason to continue to engage in life's challenges," Reynolds said. "If we're seeing hope, if we're seeing opportunity, if we're seeing possibility, it can give us motivation to keep going.
"The hopeful side of me wants to say that we are navigating through it," Reynolds continued. "But it's hard to heal and feel safe when trauma keeps happening."
One strategy for building resiliency is to "reframe" a narrative, Reynolds said. That could mean thinking of the isolation brought on by the pandemic as a beneficial pause, one that you didn't know you needed, she explained.
Reframing fear, Reynolds continued, might involve understanding it this way: "I am doing the best I can to keep myself and my loved ones safe."
Elizabeth Flynn Campbell, a licensed psychoanalyst in Burlington, suggested it could be useful to consider the etymology of the word "apocalypse." Stemming from the Greek apokalyptein, it means to uncover, to reveal.
"What helps me during these brutal political times we're living in is [that] what's being unveiled is the reality of our situation," she said. "The reality of the consequences of slavery ... and the limitations of our capitalistic model.
"These things are brutal to bear," she went on. "But we won't make the corrections we need to make unless we see more clearly."
In an email to Seven Days, psychologist Eric Aronson of Montpelier wrote that his clients, as a general rule, are "stressed ... tired and confused." Their concerns range from the health and safety of family members to how to pay the bills.
"Of course, they're anxious about the spread of the coronavirus here in Vermont and people dying every single day," Aronson wrote. "The elections had a lot of people worried, and now it seems that a river of bigotry and hatred runs right through our land. And people just want peace and justice; they want a brighter tomorrow, where everyone can find shelter and have enough to eat."
While a new administration in Washington, D.C., and the advent of the vaccine offer hope for some, "there is a lingering sense of insecurity, which people of color, refugees, LGBTQ and other communities have long been familiar with but which is quite widespread now," Aronson wrote. "That won't shift until we see real change take hold, until meaningful solutions are enacted."
David Edleson, rabbi of Temple Sinai in South Burlington, provided historical context when he discussed the meaning and value of hope.
He recalled prisoners in Nazi concentration camps who sang a song called "Hatikvah," Hebrew for "The Hope," as they walked to the gas chambers. The song would later become Israel's national anthem.
That act, Edleson said, "says to me that human beings can get through anything if they feel there is hope for either themselves or their descendants.
"By descendants, I mean both personal descendants and cultural descendants: the people who come after us," he added. "If people know that there's a hope that things will get better in the future, humans will do tremendous, brave, moving things in order to help that come true."
In Judaism, the concept of hope is partnered with action, Edleson said. And taking action — political action, community organizing, a faith-based activity — helps give meaning to life, he noted.
"Hope is the belief that if I work and we do what we need to do, change is possible," Edleson said. "Humans were created to work to make society fairer and more just."
The development of the coronavirus vaccine, Edleson believes, is already having a positive impact on people in his congregation and beyond.
"I think we're tolerating being isolated now because we think there's an end in sight," he said. "There's the thought that This, too, shall pass."