David Brooks: People learn what their pain is teaching them, and become wiser and softer as a result

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A lone pedestrian wears a mask as he walks the mostly empty streets of downtown Salt Lake City as most people shelter at home during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic on Thursday, March 26, 2020.

Dear Friends,

Last week I asked you to tell me about your mental health — how you are faring in this hard time. I don’t know what I expected; maybe some jaunty stories about families pulling together in a crisis. What you sent gutted me. There have been over 5,000 replies so far, and while many people are hanging in there, there is also a river of woe running through the world — a significant portion of our friends and neighbors are in agony.

A college student in State College, Pennsylvania, wrote that at first the lockdown seemed like a lark — a chance to get out of certain obligations. But “now almost a month into staying here, I’ve been gripped by a deep depression. My appetite is very low. I’m sleeping far too much to feel as lethargic as I do.

“My future, which seemed so bright a few months ago as I anticipated graduating in May, now seems bleak and hopeless: How will I find a job with the economy tanking? How will I pay hundreds of dollars per month when my loan bills kick in during August?”

A college junior from Vienna, Virginia, is going through the same thing. His career hopes now seem dashed. “I’ve spent days crying alone and feeling helpless as I’ve been stuck at my parent’s house and I find myself difficult to be around even as I don’t want to be.”

Senior citizens are especially hard hit, particularly the widows and widowers. For many, it’s the painful sense of missing their grandkids, the precarity of living with a disease that could kill them at any time. For others, it’s the wrenching loneliness.

“The combination of isolation and stress is having compounded impact. I am 65, and a single woman with no nearby family. My surviving sibling lives several hours away. Six months ago, my older brother died (I am the youngest). My neighbors are not very friendly, and not once has anyone asked if I needed anything. ... I cry a lot, which is my new norm. ... So to sum it up, I’m feeling totally alone in this crisis and hopeless.”

A woman from Fresno, California, wrote, “I am normally a very positive person, outgoing, happy, energetic. Definitely a glass half-full. However, lately I cannot get through a day without tears, often sobs. I am terrified for myself and my family and everyone in the world. All the things I love to do, I’m now afraid to do. ...

“The anxiety is also very challenging. I have not been able to eat much. I have experienced anorexia previously during times of stress — divorce, death, etc. I’ve lost 8.5 pounds in the past month. That might not sound like much, but I’m tiny and it’s 8 percent of my body weight.”

Then there are those already suffering with mental health issues. People with anxiety disorders wrote in to say that they were paralyzed by the possibility that they hadn’t washed their hands well enough, that they hadn’t disinfected enough and that they would cause their own death.

“I’m struggling. I returned to my family’s home earliest this year,” one woman explained. “I’ve placed myself back at the center of a highly dysfunctional household — generations of trauma, sexual abuse, alcoholism, depression and anxiety.”

Another person wrote that there was no way to distract yourself from your unhappiness now. Indeed, you are hogtied to your unhappiness.

One reader said this pandemic was causing “invisible stress” — a pervasive, ever-shifting, hard-to-define anxiety. Many people are experiencing shortness of breath, tightness in the chest, exhaustion.

One man from Placitas, New Mexico, said he used to have five things he wanted to accomplish in a day, but now it’s down to two — maybe baking bread or planting a small garden. A woman from Pennsylvania said the anxiety leaves her mentally drained, more irritable, unable to focus. “I think of it like having a few large apps on my phone that are running and draining the battery, even when I’m not using them,” she said.

Some people are active for days, frantically cleaning the house, and then one day they just shut down and cry. A person from Denver is worn down by being so suspicious of others and asked, “Why am I suddenly afraid of the mail carrier or the food delivery?”

There’s a heroism in the vulnerability you display in these letters, a courageous willingness to share your fears. Spiritual growth pulses through the paragraphs. An atheist wrote that he prays daily, though he doesn’t know to whom. Many people are reading Viktor Frankl. “I am looking at this as a type of monastic retreat. I am hoping that we come out of this crisis as a nation with a renewed sense of perspective, a new sense of our dependence on each other.”

I’m reminded that this is a time to practice aggressive friendship with each other — to be the one who seeks out the lonely and the troubled. It’s also true that character is formed in times like this. People see deeper into themselves, bravely learn what their pain is teaching them, and become wiser and softer as a result.

So much respect,


David Brooks | The New York Times (Josh Haner/The New York Times)

David Brooks is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.