Vigilance takes a toll, but there are rewards. Safety and good health require vigilance and over time. You don’t just put your child in a car seat on the way home from the hospital and call it good. To keep him safe, you put him in it every time you take a ride in the car. You have a system to remind you to take him out of the car on a hot day. You religiously scan the ingredients of food if your daughter has a peanut allergy. You don’t just do it on Mondays. You do it every day of every week of every year. That’s what it takes to keep her safe. No matter who you are, each day will require you to be alert and diligent to stay safe and healthy.
Brush your teeth twice a day. Look both ways before you cross the street. Scan your surroundings before you enter an intersection or drive across a railroad track. Don’t click on email attachments that can’t be verified. Watch for snakes when you swim in the river. Check the depth of the water before you jump in. Check the temperature of the water before you put a child in the bathtub. Keep laundry pods, household cleaners, and medication out of the reach of children. Don’t leave a six-month-old unattended on an adult bed. Don’t pour lighter fluid on a fire. And, of course, don’t run with scissors.
While most of us accept the vigilance required to follow the safety rules above, we often become defiant if we believe a safety rule will take away something that brings us pleasure (avoid fried food, avoid sugar, stop smoking, stop vaping, drive within the speed limit, don’t hug your grandchildren), requires us to do something that doesn’t offer immediate benefit (wear a mask, stay out of a crowded dance club, limit contact outside your home), and/or requires us to pay attention to multiple choices each day (drink plenty of water, eat 5 servings of fruit and vegetables, avoid gluten, walk 10,000 steps).
You don’t have to pay attention to any safety or health guidance. You can assume the risks. You might come out okay. And there’s no question, vigilance takes a toll.
Paying attention all day long and making mindful choices doesn’t feel carefree. It doesn’t feel fun. Sometimes it’s tedious. Sometimes it’s annoying. Sometimes it’s exhausting.
And constant vigilance can affect your physical health. Living in a heightened state of vigilance each and every day is stressful. The body may respond to that stress by making and releasing extra cortisol – a stress hormone that increases glucose in the bloodstream, alters immune response, and suppresses digestion. It is corralling the body’s resources for fight or flight. Normally, this response is self-limiting, but when danger is constant, the spigot may not get turned off without deliberate action to reduce stress.
In March, the US public at large began to get a glimpse of what it feels like to live defensively every moment. Suddenly, we were instructed to be on guard for a virus that could be anywhere, or everywhere. There was no way to know who may spread it so all interactions became suspect.
There’s still no way to know with certainty when you’re in danger and no way to know when the risks will decrease. The only way to be safe is…constant vigilance. A large percentage of us have not been able or willing to practice this. In a mere three months, it’s become evident that Americans as a whole have little emotional stamina even when the consequences of letting down are guard may be deadly.
This could be a window into a path for improving both mental and physical health. What if we put a laser focus on building resilience and learn from those who have been through trauma but still manage to thrive – Elizabeth Smart, Michelle Knight (Lily Rose Lee), Jeannette Walls, Joey Jones, Oprah, Maya Angelou, Col. Charlie O’Sullivan, etc. What if we entertain the thought that their spirits shine not in spite of, but because of, what they endured?
I believe flipping the script could make all the difference during this pandemic and beyond. It has been life’s difficult, heartbreaking, horrific, traumatic experiences that have taught me how strong I am, how much resolve I have, how to put fear aside in order to function, how to be alone, how to live with heartache, how to build trust, how to reset, reimagine, reinvent, how to be flexible, and that what I do matters. I am more resilient because of, not in spite of, a sometimes rocky path.
Focusing in with determination and the openness to learn when faced with difficulty puts us on a whole different path than lamenting what could have been or should be. Attempting to avoid life’s harsh realities rarely has positive consequences in the long term. And denying real challenges does not help build emotional muscle. Weathering life’s unavoidable storms requires vigilance.
And, yes, vigilance takes a toll, but there are rewards for sticking with a plan–safety, health, resilience, and the possibility of thriving even in dire circumstances.