When I was fifteen years old, my English teacher assigned an essay on the life of someone we admired. I chose to interview my father about his childhood during World War II. He had been imprisoned for a year in Buchenwald concentration camp at the age of fifteen, and I wanted to understand how he managed to get through it mentally. He told me, “Everything was so terrible I just had to believe the next day would be better.” I’ve spent decades trying to hold onto his practical optimism.
Now I’m sixty and my father is ninety-one. We are still having conversations about how to stay positive in the midst of profound fear and uncertainty, prolonged illness, and the inevitability of loss. Having been born into a landscape of trauma—my mother is also a Holocaust survivor—I’ve written volumes about my inheritance of grief as well as tenacity. Hypervigilance to ward off disaster is woven into my DNA. Even as I cultivate an adaptation of my parents’ resilience in this era of COVID-19, the catastrophizing that some people are experiencing for the first time is deeply familiar to me.
Long before this pandemic began, I wondered hard about the art of retaining hope. Twice I’ve gone through treatment for breast cancer, the same disease which killed my mother twenty years ago; twice I’ve recovered. My father has undergone two brain surgeries and countless dramatic hospitalizations; each time he is discharged from the ICU or the ER or a rehab facility, he amazes his healthcare workers and loved ones with his capacity to heal. I call him King of the Rebound. Privately, I wonder how many times either of us can bounce back.
My mother used to repeat a saying that is nearly universal in multiple languages (she spoke seven): “Where there’s life, there’s hope.” Now, sheltering in place, I imagine her hearing the phrase during her confinement in the Vilna ghetto. Maybe she was comforted by those words while isolated and in hiding in the Polish countryside. Later diagnosed with a mood disorder that periodically plunged her into bouts of deep depression, my mother also possessed an infectious buoyancy and joie de vivre that captivated everyone who knew her. However, there were times she muttered, “Where there’s life, there’s hope” in a tone of resignation, as if she felt more doomed than blessed to carry on.
Ironically, her most commonly uttered curse, when she felt especially agitated with her children, her husband, or with the world, was cholera jasna! It wasn’t until I was an adult and saw the phrase spelled out and translated that I realized she was essentially wishing a plague upon her enemies—and her family. (Polish friends assure me this expression isn’t nearly as vicious as it might appear.)
My mother didn’t live to see the plague upon us now. I did not suffer through the nightmares my parents outlasted, but I do carry the legacy of their PTSD. Panic turns to blame, denial persists regardless of irrefutable facts, desperation produces both over- and under-reactions. What kinds of pandemic PTSD will we all be left with?
Future damage is difficult to measure with precision, of course, so I turn my attention to the outline of each day. I try to stay mindful that the immediate danger to my well-being isn’t only the plague itself. The enemy isn’t only physical. The most destructive forces may be those that threaten to invade or overwhelm my consciousness, my spirit.
Like my parents, who never felt comfortable calling themselves survivors, I’ve never accepted the reductionist argument that everything depends on the ferocity of one’s will to live. Resilience is far more complicated than we can fully explain. In the aftermath of calamitous events, whether singular or cumulative, some people actually experience a form of post-traumatic growth. At the heart of my understanding—gleaned not only from the generation who endured the Holocaust but also from my own explorations into spiritual practices—I know I am powerless over almost everything that might happen to me. But I do possess some power to choose my attitude.
To counter-balance the weight of terrifying facts and equally terrifying unknowns, I name my demons, even when I can’t quite see or touch them. (Hello, loneliness. Hello, free-floating anxiety.) It’s more than ironic that COVID-19 attacks the lungs, since one of the most common features of PTSD is a tendency to hold my breath. I acknowledge how terrible everything is, and then I hear my mother’s ghostly whisper: “Where there’s life, there’s hope.” Focusing on the rhythms of my inhalations and exhalations, I find they lengthen— a few seconds at a time. Somehow, especially when my thoughts spiral into despair, my father’s belief that tomorrow has to be better stretches its reassuring arms toward me.
Gratefully, consciously, I breathe. And I make it through today.