In my work at a residential mental health facility this year, I was necessarily conscious of how the pandemic has affected mental health. Now, in the pandemic’s second year, both clients and staff seem to be struggling well, a positive situation that I like to think is related to our meaning-centered therapeutic program.
Still, I’ve noticed in myself a dull, low-level anxiety that has arisen this year. My stress is not about financial insecurity or fear of infection or uncertainty. It’s more about frustration with conspiracy theorists or those who declare that mandating vaccines is an affront to personal freedom. It’s more about anger that some individuals and institutions have disregarded the health and safety of others in their pursuit of profit. It’s about watching a young store clerk scream at an 80-year-old man, “You’re going to kill my kids!” because he had forgotten to put on his mask. But I don’t get overwhelmed by this bad behavior. I’ve read enough history books on pandemics to know that such behavior is typical, even if it is appalling.
I’m also a bit frustrated that a loud minority declares it wants “personal freedom” from mandated vaccinations but is unwilling to assume personal or social responsibility—an obvious contradiction that they appear to be oblivious of. But, as with the bad behavior, I’m not overwhelmed with anger or disgust, and I haven’t lost my faith in people.
What’s helped maintain a semblance of balance in my life is, in large part, that I live in nature. To live comfortably in my isolated little town, you need to make peace with two ferry rides or a small airplane. There’s no other way in or out. You also need to keep yourself entertained. Those who complain, “There’s nothing to do in this town,” don’t last long.
I feel a sense of peace when I return to my home: 3.5 acres of towering Douglas Fir and Western Red Cedar, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. I’m surrounded by water on one side, and mountains and forests on the other sides. When I look out the window or cut the grass, I see more whales, seals, bald eagles, bears, and deer than people. The quiet is interrupted only by the wailing sea lions.
My experience of living in the natural world is that I, like the COVID virus, am part of nature. It was no surprise to me that several presenters at INPM’s online Meaning Conference, such as Dr. Lia Naor of Haifa University and Dr. Andrew Kemp of Swansea University, spoke of connecting with nature as a therapeutic method to ease pandemic and other suffering. Naor pointed out research that feeling connected to nature was positively associated with wellbeing and that back-to-nature therapies are becoming more popular as the pandemic trudges on.
Being part of nature does not mean that I can simply relax and marvel at its majesty. When I go for walks in the forest, I follow the government’s recommendations, such as make lots of noise and carry a can of bear spray. Nature can be dangerous, and you have to play by its rules if you want to survive. Human rules—be polite, follow government mandates, get close to a bear or cougar to get that perfect picture—don’t apply in nature. If I forget to bring a lighter with me on a winter hike or my car gets stuck in a muddy back road with no cell phone service or I don’t bother telling anyone where I plan to hike, I risk injury or death.
I’m curious why some people firmly believe that nature is mainly nice and beautiful. My experience is that it is often brutal. Orcas, which are promoted in the tourist literature as beautiful creatures, deserve their nickname: killer whales. Curious seals or whales can upend a kayak with one swish of their tails. When dogs run away in my little town, Facebook users instantly alert residents of the situation; if a friendly stranger does not take the dogs in, they are at the mercy of bears and cougars and cold. We never leave puppies alone in the yard because they are snacks for the eagles.
Being connected to the non-human world is a concrete experience, not abstract. Torrential rain and cold, or getting lost in the forest or mountains, are not abstract concepts best pondered in an armchair by the fire. They hijack attention from all but the most pressing survival needs and demand action. Understanding the dangers, without falling victim to them or panicking, is essential for wellbeing.
So, I connect with nature on nature’s terms, not mine. This is the key to my relative wellbeing in 2021. I can’t be self-centeredness in nature or retreat to positive illusions. I can’t turn nature into what I would like it to be in my imagination. If I’m in awe of the majesty of the mountains, I can’t forget that there is always danger lurking—even a single misstep on a rocky climb can put me in a hospital or morgue.
Nature is real. Like the COVID virus. I’ve learned to accept my vulnerability to nature and its viruses. I can’t take a cavalier attitude that I’m not concerned being infected and spreading it to loved ones and neighbors. It’s like equine therapy for those suffering from trauma. Horses are prey and, thus, skittish. If you want to connect with a horse, you have to get out of yourself and play by the horse’s rules.
Connecting with nature confirms for me that I’m vulnerable and need to take action to keep myself and others as safe as possible. It also confirms that despite my human frailty, I can still enjoy hiking in the forest and kayaking in the ocean. I’ve applied these lessons during the pandemic.