By William Elenchin
Journalism in its many forms plays an immensely vital role in our society. Media has increasingly become part of our daily lives in ways that would be unimaginable, even by one generation past. We can now livestream our favorite sports and watch the games on our cell phones, get the latest news from hundreds of websites, and escape from life’s worries at day’s end with a favorite documentary or movie on Netflix. Media plays such a profound role in culture that sociologists consider it to be one of five major agents of socialization – the others being family, school, peers and religion.
As we navigate these stormy COVID-19 waters, the press has been the primary means by which the public is able to grasp the reality of this pandemic. The nature of this scourge is marked by complexity. No one can see a virus. It’s hard to feel protected against an enemy when the enemy is not visible. As human beings we are hard wired with a fight or flight system. When faced with danger we tend to either engage the threat or retreat to safety. Disease allows for neither option.
There is also great disparity in the morbidity and mortality rates caused by the coronavirus. Tragically, thousands of people in the United States and across the globe have lost their lives, while others have contracted the disease but are asymptomatic. States have varied wildly in their exposure.
When consuming media reports on this historic and unfolding crisis it may be helpful to highlight the very meaning of health and wellbeing. With the distress caused by COVID-19 it’s natural to focus on the physical threat. Yet our health is not one-dimensional. We are much more than physical beings. We are also composed of thoughts, emotions, relationships with others, purpose, and souls.
The complex nature of who we are and what constitutes our health has been captured by prominent health entities. The World Health Organization defines health as:
A state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity (Constitution, n.d.).
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention uses the related term “well-being” and describes health as being comprised of:
The presence of positive emotions and moods (e.g., contentment, happiness), the absence of negative emotions (e.g., depression, anxiety), satisfaction with life, fulfillment and positive functioning (Well-Being Concepts, CDC, 2018).
Persons conducting health studies have long understood health as being holistic – spirit, mind, and body. Our thoughts impact our moods, which in turn, affect our bodies. Each of these areas can be synergistic. The more we exercise one, the more the others are strengthened as well. Being confronted with this historical pandemic, it makes sense to tap into every resource at our disposal.
Scholarly work that explores wellbeing cuts across many disciplines and is captured under the umbrella concept of Fortology. Fortology refers to the study of strength and is basically the opposite of Pathology, which means the study of illness.
A Major Shift in Thinking
Perhaps the richest area where we’ve seen advances in our understanding of health and wellness has been in the field of Psychology. There is an interesting twist here in that most of Psychology’s history, especially during the last century, has focused on mental illness, with little attention given to wellbeing. However, the past 20 years have seen the emergence of the most recent major school within this field, called Positive Psychology.
The spark that ignited the growth of this area can be traced to the natural warmth and simple truths we often find in little children. Martin Seligman, a past president of the American Psychological Association and one of the founders of Positive Psychology was working with his daughter Nikki, tending their garden. Seligman, who describes himself as grouch, was pulling weeds while his five year-old was having fun and tossing them playfully in the air. Agitated, he angrily sent her away. A few moments later Nikki returned to her father and said:
Daddy, I want to talk to you. Daddy, do you remember before my fifth birthday? From the time I was three to the time I was five, I was a whiner. I whined every day. When I turned five, I decided not to whine anymore. That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And if I can stop whining, you can stop being such a grouch (Seligman, 2000, p. 6).
Recalling this exchange with Nikki, he describes it as nothing short of an epiphany, which led to two key revelations.
First, when raising children our goal ought not to be about correcting their weaknesses. Instead, we should focus on developing their strengths. We’ve now long recognized how childhood is a formative stage in life that powerfully influences lifelong character development. Through love, teaching and role modeling, parents take a lead role in not only nurturing young souls but helping to fortify them. As adults, they will inevitably face a host of struggles along life’s highway. COVID-19 is a most recent and obvious example of that.
The second lesson Nikki taught her father was just as profound but from a much broader perspective. Up until the past 20 years the field of Psychology had largely lost its way. The term Psychology consists of two Greek words. Psyche refers to mind, soul, and spirit, while Ology means the study. Psychology literally means the study of the soul.
There are many reasons why the field went adrift, not the least of which was that many of its key theorists desired to make their discipline as scientific, and by default, as prestigious, as their colleagues in the medical fields. In their attempt to reach this goal, the conceptualization of dysfunctional human behavior was reduced to focusing on how the mind works. Notions of spirit and soul were discarded as archaic.
This paradigm shift in Psychology went all in on the disease model, with an exclusive focus on what is wrong with an individual, not unlike Seligman’s prior missteps parenting Nikki. This preoccupation with pathology blinded the discipline to the brighter, invigorating side of the human condition. Seligman sums this up when writing “Psychology became a victimology”. (Seligman, 2000, p. 6). And while it is accurate to say that we are all victims of the coronavirus, it is quite another to suggest that to a large degree we aren’t able to intentionally choose our responses to these events.
Victim culture is in no way isolated to 20th century Psychology. Numerous articles and books have been written describing how this and related phenomenon has spread throughout our culture, from corporations to college campuses. (Campbell & Manning, 2018; Lustig, 2017.) When describing how our corporations often manipulate and control consumer thinking, Robert Lustig, University of California Professor of Pediatric Endocrinology suggests from a cultural perspective, “it look like our avoidance of pain has taken precedence over our pursuit of happiness” (Lustig, 2017, p. 160).
Fortunately, research in the study of strengths has simply exploded and cuts across a wide range of discipline. There is no shortage of lessons to take away, a key one being that it’s a whole lot better to engage in life’s battles than it is to sit back and hope for the best. In a sense, we don’t have a choice. No human has ever gone through life successfully avoiding pain and struggle in their varied forms.
While the studies of competence and flourishing is vast, perhaps the one area that connects most directly to confronting this pandemic is rediscovering the importance of resilience. Resilience refers to the capacity to bounce back from difficult life experiences that are common to every life, such as illness, death of a loved one, failure, and disappointments. Living in the midst of a pandemic, this seems a rather appropriate trait to embrace.
Scholarly research and publication on resilience has been immense and cuts across a host of disciplines, including medicine, psychology, education, and the social science. In short, research summarizes that we typically respond to life’s struggles in one of three ways.
First, we may take a reactive stance, hunker down and hope to survive the challenge. Second, we may seek to not only survive, but make efforts to recover to our sense of wellbeing prior to the event. The final potential response is that we not only absorb the shock of distress and recover, but indeed grow and thrive by enduring the very hardships that threatened our wellbeing (Ledesma, 2014). It is important to note here that this third stage is in no way pleasant or desired, nor does it prevent very real emotional and perhaps physical scars that may be lifelong.
This third and most healthy state is analogous to the forging process through which metal becomes hardened after having been steeped into a fire. The metal is changed and transformed into a more refined, stronger state than before experiencing extreme heat. Ledesma (2014), when describing research on resilience, speaks to this when writing “transformations include the reconstruction of meaning; the renewal of faith, trust, hope, and connection (p. 3).”
Just as there is a plethora of academic writing on finding strength in the midst of struggle, there is no shortage of anecdotal stories that offer this same lesson. While there are famous examples of inspirationally resilient lives lived by such luminaries as Viktor Frankl, Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, and John Paul II, a great many more resilient lives are lived that go unnoticed.
Journalists who cover the varied aspects of this pandemic are well-positioned to go beyond reporting the latest statistics, to dig deep and develop a fuller picture of both how COVID-19 might impact us, as well as how to respond to this threat. And this is beginning to happen.
In late April of 2020, Michigan’s Wayne State University public radio station began production of the documentary COVID Diaries: Stories of Resilience. Dallas Morning News and The Indianapolis Recorder Newspaper are running similar stories. Journalists who cover the struggles and strength of people battling the epidemic do a tremendous service in helping bring balance and perspective that goes far beyond daily statistical reports on the prevalence of infection. There is of course much more work to be done.
William Elenchin is chair of the Sociology and Criminology Department at St. Bonaventure University. He is the author of Hidden Courage: Reconnecting Faith and Character with Mental Wellness (2009), Happy Without the Meal: Reflections from Catholic Faith and Reason (2013), and Rethinking Stress in an Age of Ease: A Field Manual for Students of all Ages (2019).
Adisa, I. (2020, April 16) Pandemics and community wealth: Four stories of resilience. Indianapolis Recorder. Retrieved from http://www.indianapolisrecorder.com/opinion/article_715fb6aa-7ff3-11ea-b940-ffbdfdd5b0ee.html
Campbell, B. & Manning, J. (2018). The rise of victimhood culture: Microagressions, safe spaces, and the new culture wars. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham, Switzerland.
Constitution. (n.d.) Retrieved May 5, 2020, from https://www.who.int/about/who-we-are/constitution
Ledesma, J. (2014). Conceptual frameworks and research models on resilience in leadership. Sage Open.
Lustig, R.H. (2017). The hacking of the American mind: The science behind the corporate takeover of our bodies and brains. Avery: New York.
Seligman, M.E. & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist. 55(1) 5-14.
Snyder, L. (2020, April 4). Tell us your stories of resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic. Dallas Morning News. Retrieved from https://www.dallasnews.com/news/inspired/2020/04/04/tell-us-your-stories-of-resilience-during-the-covid-19-pandemic/
Tabaczynski, T. (2020, April 28). WDET responds to COVID-19 crisis with special series, ‘COVID Diaries: Stories of Resilience.’ Wayne State University Office of Public Relations. Retrieved from https://today.wayne.edu/news/2020/04/28/wdet-responds-to-covid-19-crisis-with-special-series-covid-diaries-stories-of-resilience-37117
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