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Circles of Care by David Baum, PhD, DMin

I don’t know about you, but we’re only about three weeks in, and I’m already struggling with the phrase, “Unprecedented time in our global history.” It is a hard and scary place we find ourselves in as each of us tries to do our best to manage. We can be overwhelmed by the enormity of it all—the implications, the fears, the unknown—all of it.

As I’ve struggled with this time, I have found two ways of framing my emotions that have been helpful to me and others. I offer them for your consideration.

First, let me start with a question. When you think about the pandemic, how do you “hold it”? That is, what is the context you use to think and act? Do you see it as transitional—as something to get through? Or do you see it as transformational—as something that is to be worked with and used for your personal and our collective betterment?

If you see this time as transitional, you may miss that which is in front of you and the beauty or openings that are available at any given moment. It’s a bit like trying to swim the length of a pool underwater. We take a deep breath. We hold it and then we swim as fast as we can until we touch the other side. But here’s the problem. No one knows right now where or when the other side will appear.

This is the anxiety that many of us feel. What David Kessler, who co-wrote On Grief and Grieving with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross,called “anticipatory fear.” It is the sense of dread that something “tsunami-like” is coming, but we don’t know what or how it will change our lives. Like 9/11. We knew it would affect how we traveled in airports, but we could not imagine the specifics.

Transformational thinking can help. It helps us remind ourselves on an ongoing basis that, even on our darkest days, the opening for deep and personal change is available to any of us on the other side of our fears, grief and even our entitlements. We have but to look and then ask:

  1. What can I do to transform myself?

  2. What can I do to transform my important relationships?

  3. What can I do to transform my work and sense of purpose?

  4. What can I do to transform the larger world of which I am a part?

Then, and only then, will we come to understand what Jack Kornfeld, the Buddhist teacher, meant when he recently said, “The virus isn’t happening to us. It’s happening for us.”

The second framing is this. There is a proverb that says, “In the beginning is everything.” When it comes to how we move through these times, I completely agree. I’ve started to enter my day with what I call Circles of Care. Think of an archery target with its concentric rings going outward. The four circles are self, relational, work/purpose and larger world/society.

When you awake in the morning, the inner circle (the center) is the first thing I encourage you to focus on. It is the most important because it takes care of who you spend the most time with, sleep with, shower with, eat with, work with, etc. You. This is the ring of self-care. As best as possible, do something to take care of yourself first (before even getting up or soon after). Do something that is just for you. The Basques say, “Journey first, and all other relationships will follow.” If you are depleted, you likely will not be able to sustain anybody else, because you can only really give what you have extra. If we dip into our reserves, we will not be able to sustain ourselves, and we run the risk of making ourselves sick.

My practice is to do 10 minutes of meditative breathing lying in bed as soon as I wake up. I inhale to a count of four, hold for two counts and then exhale to a count of six. The longer exhale activates our parasympathetic nervous system—which calms us. Then I end with one minute of either positive self-statements or some other form of positive intention setting.

And when it feels too long or hard, I remember this brilliant quote from French mathematician Blaise Pascal, “All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone." That usually gets me motivated in the right way.

Once you’ve done the first circle, move to the next circle, which is relational. The relationships that matter the most to you define that circle: your family, spouse, partners or friends. Sort your list (keep it small) and connect with those people, even for just a personal minute with love and appreciation or by individually calling up their faces and sending love and positivity These are your emotional lifeboats, so treat them accordingly.

My practice is to lean over and whisper to my sleeping wife, “I love you.” I do the same for our little Jack Russell Bertie, and then I think of my kids and family. I spend a few seconds seeing each face separately and wishing them well.

Image by Bernice Wong and Andrew Schlesinger

Then, and only after completing the second ring, do I encourage you to reach for your phone or computer to enter the third ring: the ring of work and purpose. Now you can check your email and turn your attention to working outwardly on your tasks, colleagues or projects.

Before opening your email or texts, I recommend a few seconds to prepare yourself. Take a deep breath, remind yourself to respond positively and commit to doing your best. Sometimes, if I’m feeling a little shaky, I paraphrase to myself the words of theologian John Wesley, “Do all the good you can. For as long as you can. As best as you can. For as many people as you can.”

After you’ve completed the three rings, then and only then do I recommend you enter the final ring of care—community and/or the larger societal world which you inhabit. I read The New York Times daily briefing to see what global, economic and health news has come in overnight. I recommend doing this in small doses.

I figured out this routine because of what I was doing instead: I’d wake up, grab my phone and trundle off to the bathroom to pee. While multi-tasking, I’d check my emails and then go online to read what had happened overnight. What I was doing was bypassing my self-care and relationships and instead going straight to the third and fourth ring. In five minutes of reading bad or crisis-based information, I’d be anxious, exhausted, emotionally gassed and trying to recover.

While a map is not the territory, by choosing instead to follow these circles as a kind of guide to start your day, this order can be very helpful in building reserves to manage the good fight many of us are waging.

Remember, in the beginning is everything: journey first and all other relationships will follow

David Baum, PhD DMin

For more than 30 years David has facilitated big conversations that create big change. With two doctorates—the first finding horizontal connections as a social psychologist and the second looking for vertical ones in divinity—he seeks the overlap. His why is always the same: create connection without dots.

David has worked on conflict mediation in Northern Ireland, designed walking board meetings in the Middle East and large-scale change projects for Shell Oil, Barclays, GE and Fidelity Investments. His clients have won the Nobel Peace Prize, the Conrad Hilton Humanitarian Prize, the World Children’s Prize, the Malcolm Baldrige Award and the Clinton Global Citizen Award. He's also worked in a circus. No one has ever accused him of being boring.

To view David's powerful video presentation of this SOULFUL Insight, click here.

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