A Christmas Eve in a Concentration Camp, penned by my dad in 1944. Translated by me.
My father spent time as a political prisoner in three different concentration camps. Melk was an annexe camp of Mauthausen in Austria. For all of his short life he espoused and advocated freedom, faith and forgiveness.
For the past two weeks all the camp inmates could think about was Christmas. As the holiday grew closer, the mood deepened and intensified. Two concerns highlighted the hushed conversations among the group of prisoners while they worked: will we get some time off during the holidays? Will they give us better food to eat? And, if they do, what food will they feed us and how much will we get? Rest and “food”…that’s what anyone really cared about.
There were those who fondly remembered and spoke about the ‘good old days’, recalling fat and warm Christmas Eves spent in freedom. Food, drinks, sweets, cigarettes, fine clothes, and lounging around dominated their conversations. In no time, however, the desperate men succumbed to their deeper feelings of dashed hopes and dreams, angering one another with their cursing and swearing. For a moment their spirits remained free, drawing strength and nourishment from memories of happier times and fully-laden tables.
'Oh may they all not wait too long for the perfect Christmas Eve to come'
As I contemplated the meaning of Christmas through a prisoner’s -a *häftling’s- eyes, wistful images reminiscent of *Andriolli’s flair for indulgence and carefreeness in contrast to *Grottger’s bottomless misery and despair, I thought about the possibility of creating a new Christmas in a German concentration camp…an expression of a new reality of a new time with new people.
I entered into a silent alliance with block leader No. 3: Franz Sikorski.
“Ok”, the “ruler and master” of block 3 snapped back: “Fine, make your own Christmas Eve!”
The content for the evening's celebration was born during a train ride between *Melk -*Loosdorf. Even after a heavy day of labour, already a new mood seemed to permeate the group of passengers. I was also able to gather a few more Polish prisoners from the
*”Negrelli" commando. Rehearsals began...
The repertoire of Christmas carols was ready.
Christmas Eve had finally arrived. We finished work at 2 o’clock that day. Back at Block 3, in a long corridor on the third floor, there appeared to be a large group of prisoners immersed in curious conversations. At the top of the stair flight I see a small, modestly decorated Christmas tree.
It’s 7 o’clock in the evening. The assembly of inmates shuffle in. Camp stripes fill the corridor. Roll-call formation. They line up in groups of five, evenly spaced, row by row, filling any gaps between them. Shiny “highway strips" can be seen on their shorn heads under the bright ceiling lamps.
Silent whispers. Many skeptical glances. We all wait for the “fürher” …and the order.
The proud beast enters the barracks. In the corridor, 54 prisoners stand in frozen stillness.
Franz Sikorski reads us the daily report, ending with:
“Today is Christmas Eve. Although I personally don't believe in all of this, maybe there is something in it. I want there to be order. Don't give me a reason to have to punish someone at this time. My mother was Polish. I remember that on Christmas Eve her family always sang Christmas carols at home. And we will do it today here in the gulag. Let everyone sing. It must be cheerful.”
The Christmas tree glows brilliantly with electric lights attached to its branches. A group of Frenchmen step forward in front of all the prisoners of the third block. They sing carols in their own language. A church melody sounds strangely tender.
Then the Italians sing. The chorus is dominated by beautiful singing. Bel canto. It seems as though angel voices are falling upon us from beneath the ceiling of a cathedral. The Christmas spirit is growing.
The Greeks follow.… an odd-sounding tone of words. No one understands them.
And now the Poles! I go out with my group. My heart is in my throat…
We begin with “God is born!”
Inconspicuously, I look over at Franz’s face and see the gleam in his eyes. An odd grimace of a smile. His eyes seem turned outward, as if lost in thought, very, very far away from this place.
A thunderous applause.
The singing continues:
“When Christ is Born”,
"Hush Little Jesus”,
These Polish melodies tug at our heartstrings.
A new reality.
Applause! Applause! Applause!
The prisoners are beaming with Joy. In this gulag, in this circle of Satan, Christ is born.
A small light found in the darkest of places.
But it does not end here. There's more.
We sing carols arranged especially for the vengeful Franz (after all, sometimes it is good to throw some flimsy bone to a dog that always wants to bite).
We sing the song - "He lies in the manger".
At our gulag there is another blockleader, who comes from Trzemeszno.
So we sing him a song, too: “When Jesus is born”.
Franz can't believe his ears because he knows this blockführer has beaten so many men to a pulp!!
Human beings… blood, love, striped pyjamas, forgiveness, howling pain, broken clubs, bloody chair legs, songs, crime, starvation, suffering, death, hatred... and the choir continues to sing... a Christmas carol for him.
Caged within the walls of this Nazi prison and execution building, on a peaceful December night, a Polish victory song suddenly arises:
“Our entire country will stand
The *Piast stronghold will stand
The White Eagle will prevail
The Polish people will prevail!”
The patriotic mood is shared by Franz as well. He also sings about the victory of the White Eagle.
All the Poles are singing now. The amiable Stasiek Lechowski sings, the limestone labourer Stasiu Niebudek sings, the old, owl-faced Aleks Mikołajczyk sings, the handsome Janek Wiśniewski, and the unforgettable Jurek Wojciechowski,...they all sing too.
The spirit of a new Christmas Eve now reigns over the holidays.
We feel good.
Photo credit: “One Spring” — Gurs Camp, 1941 — By Karl Robert Bodek and Kurt Conrad Löw — Watercolor, India Ink, and Pencil on Paper — 14.4 x 10.3 cm — Collection of the Yad Vashem Art Museum, Jerusalem — The World Holocaust Remembrance Center
*häftling: German for prisoner. The name häftling not only declares one's imprisonment in the Lager, but also signifies how their former identity as an individual, as a human being, has been overridden by their status as a prisoner.
*Andriolli: Michał Elwiro Andriolli was a Polish illustrator, painter and architect of Italian descent. He is notable for his illustrations to Mickiewicz's Pan Tadeusz.
*Grottger:Artur Grottger was a painter and draughtsman representative of late romanticism who worked in Vienna and Lviv.
*Melk-Loosdorf: prisoners work consisted primarily of digging an underground tunnel complex in the Wachberg hill which is situated between Melk and Loosdorf.
*Nigrelli- one of the building companies hired out by the SS camp direction.
*Piast: The period of rule by the Piast dynasty between the 10th and 14th centuries is the first major stage of the history of the Polish state.
by Lydia Waruszynski, M.Ed
There’s an old saying, “all’s fair in love and war”, and basically the meaning behind it is that in some type of situations, anything or everything can be justified whether you are going after the person you love, or waging war on your enemies; that, in both matters of combat and the heart, self-interest reigns and people rarely follow rules of fair play. In other words, in both love and war, any kind of behaviour is permissible in order to get what you want, any method of achieving your objective is justifiable. So what if someone else gets hurt?
Well, when it comes to war, Vladimir Putin has certainly proven that. Lying, cheating, bullying, bribing, manipulating facts, violating international law…all part of his cold and calculated ambition to get what he wants, to be seen as a famous historical figure and to “make Russia great again”; all ruthless stratagem consistent with his character and credo: everything it takes to win the war.
How quickly the unforgettable becomes the unimaginable
Millions of people have fled Ukraine since Russia began its invasion. Thousands have already died. Ever since Putin’s war broke out, I cannot help but think about how one person’s power and self-serving interest has recklessly destroyed countless innocent lives, breaking the hearts and homes of so many, while spawning the largest humanitarian crisis Europe has seen in decades. I cannot help but think about how the rest of the world could have listened a bit more closely and acted a lot more sooner. And, how we all now helplessly watch from a distance as the UN, G7, EU, and NATO continue to condemn Russian actions and support Ukrainian forces. Haven’t we learned anything from previous wars and crimes against humanity? Will ratcheting up sanctions really deter Putin from winning his war? This is, after all, a president who has maintained, time and again, that Ukraine is not a country and that its citizens are really Russians, or what he would like to believe, his “master race”. Decimating cities into forced displacements, shooting civilians, shelling children, sexual violence, mass graves…and like every man-made war from time immemorial, we somehow continue to witness the same barbaric, disturbing parallels. How horrifying and utterly sad. I ask myself: How can this even be happening? How can the world watch yet another despot, another genocide? Will we ever live in a world without war? How, as human beings, do we continue to confront the lessons of history, yet seem condemned to repeat them, again and again?
The trauma of injustice
It seems like forever ago since I watched a video of a Ukrainian man bidding his young daughter a tearful goodbye before he dutifully boarded a train to join the military fight, ready to defend freedom and his homeland, not knowing if or when he would return. Under martial law men are expected to fight and help out with the war effort. To watch this heart-wrenching bravado of “keep calm and carry on!” go to pieces as father and daughter succumb to their suffering and crumble into each other’s crying arms…well, I can’t even begin to imagine all the broken children who now find themselves desperately afraid and alone, having to learn to deal with the trauma of what happened to their parents, families, communities and homeland: nightmares, flashbacks, sleeplessness, terror, anger, anxiety, mistrust, fearfulness… lingering ravages of war, just to name a few. One can only imagine the brutal reality behind all the good people now forced to do bad things in the name of battle and survival. Oh my, how the war wounds run deep!
I cannot believe how quickly everything has changed for the people in Ukraine. Just think, only three months ago their lives were basically as everyday as yours or mine. It’s scary how suddenly life can be thrown into turmoil! While I work from the comfort of my home helping couples demystify love and war in their ordinary day-to-day intimate relationships, I cannot help but be reminded of all the difficult challenges and harsh circumstances Ukrainian couples routinely face, and how immensely shattered they must feel by this very cruel, selfish and senseless war. I can’t help but let my mind wander to those couples deeply in love and now forced apart, with still so much left to be said and lived, and time unjustly ticking away. And what of those couples whose last conversations were marked by conflict and regret, with no opportunity to rekindle or repair? Even if many do find a way back into each other’s arms, I picture how PTSD will clearly create problems with trust and communication, even go on to sabotage or destroy a great number of these relationships. I think about all these couples and what they are up against: the trauma of a prolonged war in addition to their own personal versions of battle and failed peace talks, not to mention sagging spirits, and a longing for a life that no longer exists or will never be the same.
Etched in my mind forever will be the women and children, the family pets and the elderly, fleeing for safety in what has become the largest exodus and forced migration in Europe, ever. Even more remarkable are the many acts of kindness from the people of Poland and other border crossings, including Canada’s proactive and warm response to helping refugees feel at home in their new country. On the other hand, it’s difficult to imagine that although a war is raging in Ukraine, not everyone has left and that some have decided to stay put, no matter what. I shudder at the thought of all the helpless people and animals who wanted to but had no choice or were unable to flee. I wonder who will take care of all the forgotten ones, already far too many who continue to find themselves very alone and bereft of support. And what about all the Russians, including soldiers, who have no sympathy for Putin and feel anxious and distressed and strongly oppose this war? What about the truth on the other side of the line? Patriotism often blinds people during insecure times. What’s truly unfortunate, however, is that amid the heartache and the bloodshed, exists the tragedy of two countries with many ties to family and history, and the sinister way they are now being torn apart. For many, this war will never be over, if only in the minds of those who suffered it.
All because of one man. And his ambition to own more lines on a map.
As Putin continues to throw Ukraine into chaos, I meditate on how everyone feels separated by war and united in fear, and how domination is the seed of so much suffering in the world. Even with his weapons of mass destruction, I wonder if Putin knows that, in the end, no one ever really wins a war.
It’s Valentine’s day…so let’s talk about love, shall we:-)
One of the best books I have ever read about loving well is called The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm. Written almost seventy years ago, the premise still holds true today: “as with every art, love demands practice and concentration, as well as genuine insight and understanding.” In other words, love is a skill. And because we live in a society where the cultural mythology still casts love as something that happens to us, especially something magical we “fall into”, our failure to recognize this skillfulness aspect is perhaps the primary reason why love is so often laced with frustration and disappointment.
However, skillfulness doesn’t mean “Not meant to be”.
This is one of the most destructive beliefs about relationships: the assumption that we love instinctually. Every relationship takes an effort to keep it healthy and strong. We choose to love. Actually, a no-effort relationship is not a great relationship, and most-likely feels like a “two ships passing in the night” type of relationship... often very lonely, and without lasting significance. Lest we forget, the quality of our lives depends on the quality we put into our relationships.
Putting effort in a relationship basically means making space in your heart for someone else:
The true art of loving is never passive. It is curious and creative. It is willful and intentional. It is imbued with responsibility. Love is a verb. To love is:
And to meet each other halfway.
Happy Valentine's Day,
I know that many of us were hoping to make this holiday season feel that much more wonderful, to push through the overwhelming feelings caused by the pandemic-fuelled fatigue, to finally usher-in more festive feelings and make beautiful memories with all of our loved ones well into the new year and beyond. Yet here we are again: another resurgence and reminder that the pandemic is far from over. Another dashed Christmas, season of gatherings and festivities with family and friends.
And just when we had a flitting taste of how nice it felt to get out and about: back to work, school, restaurants, travel and friends! After all, to want to get on with our lives is normal! Yet here we are, forced to retreat once more, and so many of us are finding it tough to see the light. Just when we thought we were somewhat done with uncertainty, this new variant now casts its shadow with its unprecedented community spread, blurring our resilience in its wake. Surprise! Particularly at a time in history when people are already feeling more anxious than before. And, in spite of it being “the most wonderful time of the year”, the mere thought of reaching out to friends leaves many of us feeling blah, unmotivated and fed up. Tell me, are we “languishing” yet?
After living in a pandemic for so long, our morale is indeed low. Recovery feels difficult. I often think of the healthcare workers trying to function under this unrelenting strain…omg, how do they even do it? Under normal circumstances, the holidays can be a stressful time. Today, even more-so for those who are also feeling financially-squeezed or tapped out. Like many attest, we have been locked down, smacked down and batted around. And as the pandemic marches into its third year, practicing self care feels somewhat morally suspect - closer to a comfortable betrayal by now. I’ll have another glass of wine instead, thank you:-) Mourning our bygone lives and living in prolonged uncertainty with no end in sight will do that to a human being. Without a doubt, things can be a million times worse but feeling this way is normal. We are lonely and tired and many of us are grieving. So, please know that you are not alone.
It’s important to remember that everyone grieves differently. Sometimes anger is grief. Sometimes quiet is grief. It’s okay to feel defeated or sad or exhausted sometimes. To have trouble concentrating. To go through the motions. To not be productive. To find it difficult to keep our chins up, keep calm and carry on. To mourn or “just be” is truly okay. As long as it’s some of the time and not all of the time. Whatever you do, don’t tumble down a dark rabbit hole…that’s unless you stumble while running wild and free in the woods, enjoying your daily exercise with Mother Nature- this alone can help reduce stress and ward-off depression. Don’t beat yourself up if you’re not feeling festive but do pay attention to your thoughts and feelings. Recognizing how you are feeling can help you emerge from the pandemic abyss. Creating a safe space for those feelings even more-so. Reaching out to supportive people can help us tell our stories, even reframe things in a more positive way; to put things in perspective, and even find solace through others, knowing they are feeling the same way. In essence, Hope is about knowing that we are not totally alone. Let’s always keep this in mind. By reaching out, we can connect more compassionately on our sense of collective grief. And, there’s always tangible hope in that.
Wishing you Peace* Hope* Love this holiday season,
I’ve been offering relationship workshops for over 25 years now. And, may I say it’s been very rewarding! Yes, remarkably so, especially now, during this crazy Covid time we're living in! Who knew couples would continue to love their experience, even if only online? Granted, when life returns to pre-pandemic "normal", I know they will enjoy it that much more simply because a) these workshops are held from my home in a very cozy, country setting- offering people a bonding, "in-person" type of opportunity, and may I add, in a house which my husband and I literally built by hand together; and b) where coffee and homemade banana bread, including a nice lunch is always served; and, even more importantly c) where one is most certainly guaranteed to be greeted by at least one burly-but-ever-so-friendly Bernese Mountain Dog!! Now that's hospitality! LOL! But, all joking aside, I know the best part is that people truly enjoy and benefit from their learning experience!
My mission has always been to teach about love and relationships... Letstalkaboutlove, right?:-) Whether I'm conducting group workshops or private sessions, we tend to cover a vast variety of topics and themes concerning life, love, sex, parenting, communication, marriage and more! People are genuinely interested and often find themselves interacting at an exceptionally deeper level, too. And, just as we all need to be the architects of our own relationships, these workshops also create the impression that we are collectively building something stronger together: like a united community inspired to get better at relationships! Relationship education. When it comes right down to it, fostering a shared experience is at the heart of relationships, right? After all, it's through hearing others' stories that we can also reflect on our own. And, if truth be told, I get such a kick out of sharing everything I know about life and love (which is largely based on the latest literature, research and scientific studies, as well as my many years of training and work with both individuals and couples) and I must admit I always take immense pleasure whenever I witness knowledge, confidence and competence bloom in the room. Woohoo! I so loooooove when this happens! Yes, I am truly honoured when, at the end of our day, someone tells me they found their time to be not only fun and interesting...but that they also learned much much more than they had ever anticipated, not ever quite thinking about relationships or marriage or family life in such a multi-faceted way.. ie., having found a new appreciation for what it genuinely takes to really love someone or just stay connected as a couple today! I frequently hear couples tell me they feel like they’ve participated in a journey of self-knowledge and self-expansion which, appropriately, is at the core of building quality in a relationship together : that in order to sustain an intimate relationship, one must first become a good partner to oneself -warts 'n all- and, that this is what we all need to fundamentally understand and embrace before we ever begin to learn how to communicate our own needs, expectations and desires, let alone continue to thrive in partnership with each other . " At heart, it is self-love which allows us to show up more fully when it comes to love". lw
Love is Too Important To Do Badly
We can never learn enough about love. The truth of the matter is most of us -unless we’re in the field of relationship education or couple therapy or simply have a voracious appetite for the subject matter - never ever really think about the complexities and nuances underlying loving relationships; or really ever consider what it takes to get to know ourselves and each other better with respect to marriage, family, parenting, couple communication, sex or LOVE. As a matter of fact, when it comes to relationship harmony, each partner generally wants the other to feel and think the same way. And, society is no help, encouraging couples to stay uneducated and let romance guide the way! Most people are unaware of the ways they get triggered by each other, or that their past traumas, experiences and relationships absolutely affect their current one. Most of us don't pay attention to how our defense mechanisms may be pushing a partner away, or realize that anger is usually a response to hurt or fear, an undependable way many of us use to ward off pain. Nor are couples generally aware that there are four types of behaviour that are particularly corrosive in a marriage that - when not managed- can actually predict divorce with over 90% accuracy. Most people do not discern between love and desire, nor fully understand how they play out in intimate relationships or, more specifically, how love and desire can influence the sexual connection between a couple in both a positive and negative way. Most couples don’t know that when it comes to parenthood, we call the first two years of parenting the “post-partum-marital disaster area” because the potential for disconnect is so high between the couple (including infidelity). Yes, who would ever think that the majority of pregnant couples often report marital dissatisfaction once a baby comes along…never quite thinking it could also spell erotic disaster for their relationship! Most people are unaware of the different- yet equally effective - love languages they can use to express love and repair and that differences are perfectly ok! Most are surprised to hear that happy, stable couples have about as many problems as unhappy, unstable couples. Yes, you read that right! Most couples don’t consider that sometimes gender differences in communication play a major role : that for many men, it is the joint activities which act as an important bridge to emotional intimacy and connection (rather than the standard rule of verbal communication women routinely advocate as being the "best", if not the only, way). So, perhaps it’s safe to say that most of us do not really see past our own assumptions or perspectives when it comes to creating and sustaining relationship harmony, right? Often we cannot see the ways we undermine ourselves and our relationships. And, let me stress MOST OF US! The sad truth is that most of us have never been taught about successful relationships, other than the examples shown to us via role models, such as the influence carried over from family or what we expect or rely on to be true- based on what we believe or see around us -especially through media! Yes, indeed, research tells us our perceptions of marriage mostly stem from some mix of romantic comedies, mainstream media, and the example set by our parents, which can leave us with an unrealistic, decidedly negative, and, at best, incomplete picture of what it really means to build a committed, fulfilling relationship. And finally, how many of us actually think about the way our relationships exist in a larger, social, cultural context? Or, how we unwittingly pick up on cues from what is happening around us? This influence alone plays a significant role where our expectations and choices for love and life are concerned. In the end, relationship education is about knowing how to live and love better, and there is always, always much more to learn.
Love is a Classroom in the School of life
There's a saying: "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure". Probably nowhere more true than with relationship education. To help prepare you for marriage, to help prepare you for parenthood. Mid-life and retirement, too. To prepare you for the inherent challenges which are naturally present in all relationships….to educate you as to how to navigate them in such a way as to learn-grow-and-evolve together. To learn research-based skills that may dramatically improve the intimacy and friendship in your relationship and help you manage conflict in a healthy, positive way. To normalize and not pathologize. To learn how to love more bravely and know that, although uncharted territory can strike fear into many people, chances are pretty good when you and your partner find yourselves on the same page because you want the same thing, namely: a successful and rewarding relationship.
Everyone deserves a healthy and happy relationship and I honestly believe we would all do better if we just opened ourselves more to understanding love. We live in a culture where hardly anyone likes to think they can “learn” to be more emotionally healthy and happy in a relationship! Why is that? Think about it for a moment: We need to take drivers-ed in order to learn how to become good drivers, we hire financial consultants to guide us to make better decisions with our money, we hire business coaches, take golf or swimming lessons and the list goes on ...we do so many things in life in order to "know better so as to do better" and yet, still think relationships don’t require the same type of scrutiny. Why is it that we don’t address life skills in the same cost-effective approach when it comes to love, dating, sex, parenting, etc…why isn’t relationship education part of the regular school curriculum…especially seeing we know through the science of child development research that educating children about healthy relationships before the age of 10 is vital, because after this point, attitudes and behaviours become crystallized and resistant to change? I think this fact alone is reason enough to enlist in a relationship class, or more importantly, a parenting workshop…for the sake of the children, our relationship and a happy family life!
Unquestionably, love should never be taken for granted. It is a subject we can all learn more about, but only if we choose to look beyond the misguided, typical school of thought: that love is an emotion, or just a feeling rather than an action or a practice. Perhaps if we consciously aligned ourselves more with the perspective that it is through our very acts of love and care towards our loved ones, we are given the opportunity to continue to open our hearts to deeper feelings of love and compassion with one another. Love always needs to be something more than what you say or feel, it needs to be something that you also do! Maybe the lesson here is to learn that when it comes to the school of relational life, "love is more like a verb than a noun", something we mostly do but can also learn well. And when we do, not only will our own lives feel more meaningful—but our relationships will be better, too.
Today is Bell Let’s Talk Day. For over 10 years Bell Canada has actively been raising awareness of the role of mental health in the quality of our lives and relationships, inspiring change and promoting the importance of self-care , all the while breaking down negative stereotypes and stigma associated with mental illness. It is often referred to as the world’s biggest conversation about mental health. Suffice it to say, that for many of us, this rings even more true now than ever before! For it is only 10 months ago-March 11th to be exact- that the World Health Organization declared a global coronavirus pandemic, plunging our planet into crisis mode — creating a world filled with much anxiety, fear and distress, and we haven’t stopped talking about it since.
Coping with uncertainty is often challenging enough, but when you are predisposed to feeling extra-worried or overwhelmed, coping amid a catastrophe such as a pandemic can feel more akin to panic or paralysis! All the greater when past traumas are involved! Regardless, when mental health issues take centre-stage in our lives, finding an outlet for our complicated feelings -such as through supportive conversation- can often help us recognize and reduce future symptoms and reactions, even create positive change. In turn, by being a good listener, simply letting someone know you are there for them can be the kindest gift you bestow.
When you Listen to Learn and Speak to be Known, Your Relationship Grows.
The art of conversation is about vulnerability: to speak to be known and listen to learn. Being mindful about how we communicate matters. A lot! Especially when it comes to showing understanding. Probably the most important thing to remember is to validate feelings and show compassion. Putting yourself in your partner's place and paying special attention to feelings and what is going on for them helps you see their world through their eyes. Framing our conversations this way can help steer the dialogue in a meaningful way. It can also prove useful to stop and ask questions such as:
And listen in a way that shows strong interest by putting your own thoughts and feelings on hold and attend with an open mind and heart. Why? Because when you put your attention on the other person, it sends the message that they are important and you want to understand. That, and ultimately you find yourself teaching each other that carving out a safe space for expressing emotions can help you better deal with life!
As restrictions ease and re-opening strategies are implemented, we are all still wondering what life will look like in a post-pandemic world. Though many remain hopeful for yet a full return to the “good ol’ days”, others are already accommodating a new absence and vision for their future, convinced that everything has already changed. Either way, life in lockdown has left all sorts of emotional side effects- even scars- on people: anger, anxiety, fear, frustration, guilt, helplessness, loneliness, panic, sadness, worry…all laid bare by the inevitable challenges and uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, all inevitable companions to loss and grief. In essence, we are a global nation in mourning, as we accept the grim reality that a hefty, invisible virus has turned the whole world upside down. And, while a collective hope for a broad-scale vaccination program whimpers in its wake, let’s not forget that, in the interim, the ability to confront our vulnerable feelings also requires attention, for our state of mind and spirit are indelibly tied to our overall health and long-term well-being. Left untreated, we run the risk of not being able to protect ourselves against some of the more disabling effects of stress, and simultaneously end up hurting, or worse- infecting our most meaningful relationships.
Protect Yourself and Others, Too
Taking care of our minds is just as important as taking care of our bodies. Our emotions are there for a reason: they communicate that something is up and if we figure it out, this can motivate us into action. For instance, if the coronavirus finds you in a state of alarm or tension, unable to relax or sleep, it may just be your brain telling you what it is designed to do: to keep you and your loved ones safe. Normal. If however, after awhile, the distress is not managed or soothed by any healthful outlets or mitigating measures, this can have serious implications for both your mental and physical health. It may be time to seek professional help. More precisely, how you handle your stress and find ways to feel better can make a big difference not just in your own life, but also in the quality of your relationships.
We all know that lifestyle habits like good nutrition and vitamins, physical fitness and adequate sleep help keep the immune system healthy. What we rarely attribute or think about however, is that being in an unhappy relationship or a stressful marriage can also increase our chances of getting sick. When we are feeling miserable, pessimistic or troubled, our immune system actually suffers and produces more stress hormones, reducing our immunity and increasing inflammation. In fact, considerable research tells us that unhappy couples are at a higher risk for depression and cardiovascular disease. Conversely, having a loving and supportive partnership can reduce health problems as much or even more than the usual noteworthy health-promoting prescriptions like losing weight, quitting smoking and exercising regularly. Part of adopting healthy living habits, then, is knowing how to do relationships well.
Our loving relationships can be a powerful resource that can help us manage our stressful lives and preserve our emotional well-being. Feeling heard and understood by the one we love, and specifically during this time of prolonged uncertainty, can bring about immense comfort and connection. If truth be told, this is what all of us want and what great relationships are made of! Studies have repeatedly shown that couples who help each other alleviate stress through connecting conversation tend to stay together and, in general, feel happier and more fulfilled with their partnerships. However, knowing how to do so effectively, in order to sustain a healthy, happy long-term relationship, is a skill that is often learned, not natural or intuitive, as we would like to believe. In fact, many of us grew up observing a variety of ways of dealing with stress and conflict, the majority of which were probably not always very effective. This is not surprising, really, as we all come from more or less imperfect backgrounds- given that all human beings are somewhat flawed, or imperfect themselves. After all, such is the human condition. Most of us were raised with the notion of “falling in love and living happily ever after”. And that conflict was a sure sign of “trouble in paradise”. However, as anyone married long enough surely knows, this does not reflect reality. At all. It is not conflict itself that is the problem, rather how it is managed that ultimately predicts the success or failure of a relationship. The challenge, then, is having the awareness to recognize destructive forms of relating and to know how to shift it into positive growth, and in a way that skillfully minimizes damage.
When the voice carries a virus…
As far as relationships go, we all occasionally make mistakes while trying to communicate our disappointment or dissatisfaction, but when we continue to entertain bad habits such as not listening, shutting down, blaming and criticizing, not only do we eventually stop making efforts to repair the hurt and understand one another, we begin to resent each other and pave the way for contempt.* And, when it comes to couple communication, that can be lethal! Contempt is one of the top reasons for break-up and divorce, and the worst part is, too often, we don’t even see it coming. Like an insidious communicable virus, this communication pattern is often not apparent until it has already spread. So subtle are the put-downs at first, yet the unconscious mind takes hold and keeps track of all the relationship fault-lines that have since been pulling us apart, causing us to not only feel more and more judged, disliked and disrespected, but to continue to live a life amid constant acrimony, void of affection, leaving us believing and expecting the worst from each other. Contempt asserts a kind of “I’m right and you’re wrong” mentality and usually involves pleasurable feelings of power and superiority. Rejection is often the message received from a contemptuous act or tone of voice and most always develops into an internal narrative- one which is punctuated by the conviction that change is no longer possible and dissolution of trust. Over time, these long simmering negative thoughts about oneself and the relationship actually weaken the immune system. Contempt is a destructive negative emotional reaction, as it gnaws away at any foundation of love that may have existed before. Although not always volatile in nature, the mannerisms and words of contempt carry much pain. In fact, many couples at this stage of their relationship cannot even remember what attracted them to each other in the first place. Highly infectious, even contagious, contempt is often irreparable. It leads to more strife than any possible type of recovery or reconciliation. It’s that toxic! If not worked through, contempt literally spells doom for both personal wellness and for the relationship.
Under the Microscope
Even the most loving couples aren’t given total immunization against relationship malaise. Considering the universal nature of human fallibility, every relationship will have its issues. Normal. Close-up, however, contaminated relationships often look like this: name-calling, finger-pointing, crossing arms, teeth-gritting, sarcasm, scorn, mean-spiritedness, mimicking, mockery, moral superiority, derogatory comments, disgust, disrespect, belligerence, insults, cynicism, condescension, character assassination, hostile humour, sneering and eye rolling. Such is the culture of contempt. Time and again, like multiple strains spawned from the same virus, it eats away at a loving relationship most rapidly. What is less visible about contempt however, is the steady drip of quiet emptiness and suffering taking place. On the surface things may even seem calm, with distancing and disconnection serving the illusion of feeling safe, but the psychological damage usually runs deep. And, even if a couple wants the relationship to work, they do not know how to feel loved and connected anymore as, over time, they have grown so accustomed to responding to each other in this way. Blind to their own faults and fears, they have unwittingly overlooked their patterns -or possibilities- of engagement and, out of emotional despair and neglect, so too have poisoned their love. By contrast, contempt is virtually non-existent in happy marriages.
Much has been written about how we could have nipped this pandemic in the bud, so-to-speak. Had we not stifled the alarm of this respiratory virus, had we been more competent, clear and communicated more from a compassionate, global initiative, early intervention may have literally prevented everything from face-masks to fatalities. As we know, the problem with hindsight is that it always comes a little too late. Woulda Coulda Shoulda- the same can be said about saving troubled relationships.
Good relationships are rarely taken for granted or neglected. Instead, they are prioritized. At the heart of a healthy and happy, long-term relationship is a steady stream of positivity; one that is, as a rule, flowing with admiration, affection and appreciation, making each partner feel cared for and loved. It's willful and intentional by design. In other words, happy couples are devoted to building and maintaining a fertile spirit of friendship because having a meaningful relationship matters to them. Perhaps what is less apparent is how this skill purposefully serves them when conflict eventually erupts. If, as couples, we keep building our friendship and feel connected, our positive view of each other automatically serves as a buffer -ie., helps cushion the blows between us- during our more negative exchanges. How? Whenever we communicate, we automatically tend to attach meaning or value, especially the feelings we hold for one another. If the overall feelings for our relationship come from our experiences of good times, respect, security, satisfaction and, especially gratitude, we tend to give each other the benefit of the doubt, listen better, and most importantly, receive each other’s repairs during distress. It’s a win-win situation. Why? Quite simply because our shared history reminds us that we really like each other, so we know deep down inside we matter to each other. We think about and see each other in mostly positive terms. Whenever we choose to do something thoughtful for our partner or just have fun together, we feel more connected and somehow help each other bounce back from setbacks and stress that much better. It is as if our positive, routine relationship practices create and maintain certain type of built-in safety measures which enable us to handle difficult situations as well as respond to each other’s needs. It’s like having our own own PPE! Similar to the way an antidote relieves, prevents or counteracts a disease, we are practicing preventative maintenance by being proactive and may not even be aware of it! So, fundamentally, the quality of a relationship depends upon the quality of those involved in it or more aptly, on what we each bring into the relationship.
Reporting from the Front Lines
While the daily practice of maintaining a great relationship requires many skills, the ability to respond to each other’s stress can keep it exceptionally strong. The truth of the matter is most of us have never experienced a health epidemic of this magnitude, so naturally, we -some more than others- may feel overwhelmed by strong emotions like fear or anxiety, as we learn to adapt to the ambiguity and uncertainty of it all. Regardless, accepting how we feel and sharing our concerns and feelings by giving each other our time and a welcoming space to talk and be heard can help us not only cope, but also strive to stay connected as a couple, and not feel so alone under these extreme circumstances. In this way, making each other a priority can also help us draw strength and create a compassionate support system around stress, benefiting both our individual and relational well-being. Most importantly, it can help us feel like we are in more control over protecting our sense of safety and future somehow, sending home the message of shared commitment and resilience!
Relationship experts agree that these unprecedented times require frequent pulse checks with one another. The instability and stress surrounding the pandemic can easily exacerbate conflict for couples. For many people, along with the novel virus come uneasy feelings they may be experiencing for the very first time, so it’s incredibly helpful to lay down the groundwork for a healthy conversation. Intentionally checking in as a couple by really listening and engaging in conversation together, particularly with each person focusing on their own feelings or message when speaking but solely focusing on their partner’s perspective while listening- can not only enable couples to learn to keep their relationships strong but also improve many conversations and decisions related to present-day pandemic fatigue. So, for example, turning curiously toward your partner with, “You seem like you are a million miles away, would you like to talk about it?” And then genuinely listen in such a way without needing to upstage or rescind their stress by still remaining focused on them: “Tell me more…I’m listening” can invite even further fleshing out the details of the story and dialogue, making it that much easier to empathize or be present with their experience: “I know that you’re worried about having our friends over. I’m kind of nervous, too. After all, this virus is scary and unpredictable”.
Staying in sync this way, without resorting to typical communication barriers of “You’re always so negative”, or “Stop worrying so much, it’ll be okay!” or “Fine, let’s just call the whole thing off!”, allows us to feel safer in our distress as well as more emotionally engaged with each other. In other words, to truly connect through conversation means allowing your partner to be who -or where- they are. A major mistake couples make while talking is trying to fix things when this is not what is even needed or wanted in the first place. In fact, often no solutions are required -only acknowledgement, enabling couples to fully hear and understand each other. Compassion, quite simply, can be a very powerful communication skill. Whenever we can show care for our partner around some particular vulnerability, whenever we feel heard and understood without judgement or unsolicited advice, it can help us stay more optimistic with our everyday stress and feel even stronger together as a couple during more difficult times .
Altering the Course of Crisis
We already know that the pandemic revealed communication to be a big challenge for many couples. Learning to navigate life together under the best of circumstances is often demanding, but when couples are overrun by external stressors such as economic hardship or lack of social support- not to mention the real fear of contracting a viral illness- and fail to adapt, they subsequently run the risk of harming their relationships and mental health. Everything gets impacted: from being able to adequately focus on work, parenting, school, finances and other responsibilities, and most certainly for those of us where roles and everything else continues to collapse into one space! And when, in its midst, global movements with people protesting deep injustices, demanding economical, social and political change also grab our attention and manage to trigger even greater anger or worry, well, we end up amplifying our distress that much more!
To feel overwhelmed makes perfect sense then, given the many legitimate layers of uncertainty with the current world health crisis, notably the cumulative impact of challenges and consequences this pandemic has left on the core of humanity in so short a period of time, and in many ways we do not yet fully understand. Furthermore, as we grapple with the prospect of plural outbreaks and perhaps go into lockdown again, we need to be mindful that such dramatic changes may be that much harder to cope with while we try to make sense of the dystopian world we seem to be living in and try to keep each other safe. Make no mistake. We will get disappointed. We will lose our patience. We will get angry. We will get anxious and continue to experience frustration. We also know it will cause particular strain on our relationships. Time and time again. So, as we continue to wear our masks and wash our hands, and take all other necessary measures to stop the spread of this virus, let’s be a little more mindful of what we can also be doing for our partnerships. We can smile more often. We can talk more often. We can focus on what it means to truly listen and understand. We can show more appreciation and gratitude. We can immerse ourselves in nature. We can go for long walks. We can slow-dance. We can create a romantic picnic on the living room floor. We can give each other some space. We can inhale, we can exhale. We can soothe our own soul. And, we can humbly repair our mistakes. In other words, we can choose to become the person we would like to have in our life and show up the same way for each other. We can also remind ourselves that doing all of this is just as important today as it was before the coronavirus. Relationships flourish when couples invest-in and nurture them. Period. Maybe now going forward and armed with a little foresight, we can rethink our relationships, press the reset button and rediscover even a better version of ourselves, no matter how chaotic the future may feel. Crises and challenges, even everyday life, force us to adapt and change not just how we act but who we are. This virus is not going away anytime soon. This much we know. In the meantime, perhaps we can focus on a different kind of immunity which is also important to our survival- learning to love each other better by building a healthier and happier relationship together. Perhaps this much we can control and do. At the end of the day, it might be just the medicine we need.
*Please see www.gottman.com for the best research on contempt and all things related to couple communication.
Lydia Waruszynski is the founder and creator of LetsTalkAboutLove™. (www.letstalkaboutlove.ca) An accredited professional and a self-proclaimed "modern-day warrior of the heart", she has a passion for training the mind to serve the heart. With more than 25 years in private practice, she holds both a BA and an M.Ed degree from McGill University and is currently pursuing training and certification in GottmanTM Couples Therapy.
By Lydia Waruszynski, M.Ed
While the coronavirus pandemic is impacting our daily routines around the globe, we need to take a moment to understand the nature of our partnerships better, especially as we learn to adapt to our new normal. Indeed, much of what we knew as being normal has drastically changed. Much of what we took for granted is no more. Things are undeniably different. Work, roles, school, worship, community, family, friends, marriage, the way we shop, the way we walk, the way we chat… like it or not- our familiarity with people and places has changed a lot. We now find ourselves thrown off balance and disconnected from the life we once knew. Much of our day has been gripped by tension, fear, worry and grief. Round-the-clock news about the virus makes things far worse. The intensity of the unknown takes us into anxious sleepless nights and awakens us to the daily mantra of wash your hands, rinse and repeat. And, with all of that, we wonder ad nauseam: When will things ever get back to normal?
IN SICKNESS AND IN HEALTH
Come what may, the stress of the pandemic is now our new normal. With no return to routine in sight just yet, we all find ourselves somehow struggling to adjust. When faced with the unknown, this is normal! As humans, we all have a deep-seated desire for certainty and control. For the most part, it’s actually quite healthy and a necessary part of life. On the contrary, illness gives us a terrible sense of being out of control. We become anxious and we worry. What’s more is this sweeping new virus only reminds us how little control we have over what’s forthcoming, or more specifically, the future of our lives. Keeping our marriages and relationships predictably healthy and happy during these stressful times also signals a concern.
If truth be told, even the strongest of partnerships are feeling challenged by this crisis right now. As we make major adjustments to our lives, we also feel powerless to make changes. In the fog of uncertainty, powerlessness can feel intolerable but is also a healthy response to our current reality. When it comes to couple connection, however, it can blunt our sensitivity to each other’s feelings. Instead, frustrations flow freely and misunderstandings abound. Sometimes so much so that there go our communication skills down the proverbial drain. Disagreements set off control issues and alas we clash: my way versus your way, and these days, imposed sanctions finds no one really being able to take the high-way. Buttons get pushed. Needs are not met. Personal space is sacrificed. Boundaries are blurred and unintentionally broken. Mutual support is lost in the shuffle. For some, too much confiding feels too confining. For others, not enough feels like total deprivation. In sum, our emotions take us hostage and we tire each other out. All around the world, relationships with loved ones are taking a hit. Even more literally for some people, where home feels like hell behind closed doors. With the fear of the unknown, time stretches on, and hope seems to falter. We are reminded 24/7 that these are psychologically and emotionally, physically and economically unprecedented times. We are worn out! And, even in the best of relationships, for many couples the stress of this lockdown has put love to the test: learning how to be wholly together through our distinct separateness, while navigating this crisis under the same roof. Welcome to the bond of shared solitude: although a natural -and essential- part of intimacy and love, it is also now our unrelenting new normal.
Let there be spaces in your togetherness~Kahlil Gibran
One of the basic human life processes is maintaining a strong sense of exactly who we are individually while staying connected to others. It’s part of maturity and growth. An inherent paradox to human nature is that each of us needs closeness with others as well as a nurturing relationship with oneself. Whether paired up or not, to survive and thrive through a pandemic altogether demands much resilience and resolve. Moreover, struggling through these tough times while coping as a couple does not necessarily indicate that we love each other less. Relationships in general can be challenging every now and then. That’s because as human beings, we all have character flaws, idiosyncrasies, vulnerabilities and even neurotic tendencies. Normal! Warts’n all, it’s part of what makes us whole! In loving relationships, not only do we face our imperfections, sometimes we struggle with someone who has needs very different from our own, and with whom we can also feel like we are losing ourselves, most significantly our sense of security and happiness. So, it likely goes without saying that we often cope with stress by taking it out on those nearest and dearest to us. This almost always has more to do with the way we manage anxiety than it does with a lack of love or concern. To each other, our different coping styles can feel irrational and intolerable, especially these days when found sheltering in place outside our ordinary time and space. That’s why we react or rebel by demanding more closeness or desperately seek out a breathing room of our own. To be cooped up together for this long is definitely not normal! The truth of the matter is few of us really understand why we do certain things, how we feel about them or whether we could behave differently, unless we look beyond our emotional hang ups and injuries, and choose to connect and discover a better version of ourselves. Pitted against the polarities of our intimate partnerships, we perhaps fail to notice that out of our separateness we can still find closeness; out of our humanness we can still embrace our imperfections and most importantly, learn to grow together, rather than apart.
In Good Times and In Bad
The entire phenomenal universe exists because of the tension between the opposites. Hot and cold, growth and decay, gain and loss, success and failure, the polarities that are part of existence, and of course part of every relationship~ Eckhart Tolle
Life is about change. Everything is constantly moving and growing and adapting to change. Seeing each other through the current challenge requires not only that we try to tolerate our own frustrations, but that we develop a healthy balance between separateness and togetherness, too. This duality has always existed and is part of every intimate relationship.The same goes for: like and dislike, agreement and disagreement, accept and refuse, give and take, yes and no, yin and yang, and so on. Too much or too little, depending on each person’s needs, will always influence and determine the harmony of the relationship. Rarely does a couple have the same needs at any given moment.This is not a bad thing. Distinctions are quite normal but the trick in intimate relationships is to hold and guard space for each other. It’s about allowing each other to feel what they are feeling and say what needs to be said without judgement, but also about stretching oneself to be present for what each needs the other to be. It’s also an opportunity to learn more about ourselves. For it may mean the difference between believing your partner is selfish or too self-absorbed and learning that taking space is their way of self-soothing and something they presently need in order to help assuage their own fears of the unknown. Or, it may be the difference between getting annoyed with your partner’s constant reminders to put on a mask when out in public and realizing just how much you are genuinely cared for and loved. Whenever we look at life from a more bifurcated perspective, we fail to express ourselves in a more balanced way. Being awakened through contrast and having compassion for each other’s differences, however, allows us to surrender to the idea that the very nature of our loving relationships demands that we both learn, grow and evolve.
With the renewal of spring upon us, we are still dealing with a chronic world health crisis. So, as we reassemble together in the hope of reclaiming some agency over our own lives soon, let us not forget that we need to care for and count on each other not only as couples, but that we must also responsibly carry the same compassion in our hearts for one another as citizens of this planet. Above all, it is imperative we all understand that we each need to do all we can and look out for one another as a global community of people; individually and ultimately, we are all stronger in this together! For now, for better or worse, we must vow to uphold and cultivate our new normal- indeed a shared struggle, yet perhaps at the same time a solemn promise for a healthier and happier future for both ourselves, and for the entire human race .
In the end, it is always in our best interest to strive for the greater good!
by Lydia Waruszynski, M.Ed
As the coronavirus casualty numbers rise worldwide, life as we once knew it now feels completely upended. Millions of us find ourselves braving a new normal these days, having no choice but to adjust to imposed lifestyle restrictions while we try to allay our fears of isolation and the unknown. Shops and schools have closed. Travel and public gatherings are basically banned. Restaurants and theatres are empty. More and more people are being asked to work from home. Some have been laid off. Some continue to work for the greater good (thank you front-line workers!) while the less fortunate have lost their jobs. Routines have been disrupted. Plans have been cancelled. Words like quarantine and lockdown have become part of our daily lexicon. So, too, has “wash your hands!” And, peculiarly enough, toilet paper is now the Holy Grail. This is uncharted territory for most of us and for the first time in modern democracy, there is a moral imperative to sidestep our individual freedom and collaborate together so that we may flatten the curve of this pandemic-level virus and eliminate community spread.
Welcome to the altruism of social distancing
This is a new period in our history and it's difficult on many levels. In the medical midst, while we hold anxious vigil until a vaccine is found, we also find ourselves fighting a social recession. This is a big deal because human beings are social creatures at heart. We are relationally-oriented and networked to community. In fact, studies show that our lives depend on it. In the 21st century, loneliness is often referred to as the “modern-day epidemic”….the most common ailment of the modern world. Hard to believe we live in lonely times given the quick access we have to television, internet and social media these days. Why, one would say there are all sorts of possibilities for human interaction in the digital age! Not so fast… Studies continue to remind us those who substitute online relationships for real relationships increase their levels of loneliness. The truth of the matter is that people can feel even more disconnected when habitually found retreating to their screens. Virtual relationships may fill a gap, but, for many, they often feel more superficial, leaving less room for genuine belonging and community connectedness. Solace on the internet is minimal at best.
With less and less face time, there’s no better time for FaceTime
As social distancing reshapes how we connect, we now need to not only rethink how the human element has been hijacked by online technology, but much of how we are using our present technology, and to use it well. Yes, especially now with social distancing being sanctioned upon us, never has social media become more important to our lives. Because now we really need each other. We need more than just respond to our online notifications. We need to address our fears. Our loneliness. This time social media needs to be our intimate friend. Our source of news. Our information. Our place for conversation and connection. Our village of social and emotional support. Our bridge to collective community. Our home. It needs to serve a purpose, rather than just an escape from reality. To help check in on our loved ones, our family and friends. To engage authentically with what is going on for others. To finally reach out to those we’ve been meaning to touch base with but somehow “never got around to doing so”. To offer comfort, some laughter or just a bit of distraction from all the stress and uncertainty; to share our thoughts, feelings, ideas and especially our hope to emerge from this calamity soon. Ramping up our virtual communication and reaching out intentionally -and compassionately - can help replace some of the physical proximity and contact we now find losing with one another. Be it via Facetime, Skype or even chats on Facebook Messenger….no matter. Just, this time, let’s make it matter. This crisis can be our invitation to transformation: to look out for each other and to pull together and maybe finally begin using technology in a more mindful and meaningful way.
Ironically, the most socially responsible thing to do right now is to avoid mass gatherings and to keep our 6-foot distance when out and about, to preferably stay at home, to isolate, to bide our time because we cannot risk harming someone by the simple act of reaching out for acknowledgement- be it through a shake or squeeze of a hand, a touch, a kiss or a hug. As we all take part in slowing the spread of the coronavirus, let’s not panic, rather take to heart, that the love, respect and kindness we demonstrate to others- may actually leave us feeling even more connected than ever before, just with the way we choose to communicate today while we stay apart.
Hi, I'm Lydia- a modern-day warrior of the heart with a mission to reconcile the mystery and mastery of Love.