I saw the email pop up on my screen and suddenly my entire body get hot and tingly. “Bring Your Own Dinner! 6 PM” it said. In a reply, one of the half-dozen college students who are riding out the novel coronavirus pandemic with their parents in my town home community had replied with a smiley-face emoji.
I looked at the clock and rushed to the window. It was 5:50 p.m. and I expected to see a stream of people converging on our shared courtyard. I watched as over the course of the next 15 minutes twelve people from six different households, none of them wearing masks, many of them less than six feet apart, picnicked, laughed and drank.
My three-year-old daughter was pulling on my shirt, saying, “Mommy, mommy, let me see! I want to see!”
“No! Get back!” I scolded her. I was struggling to maintain calm.
For weeks now I’ve battled with my neighbors over what I perceive to be a dangerous lack of social distancing. I’ve been at a loss as to how to lead during a time where I know all too well the epidemiological consequences of disregarding our current stay-at-home orders, and the recommendations of public health experts.
I have spent decades as a health care journalist, marketing executive and entrepreneur. How could it be that I have become the pariah on my street? How is it that all my carefully curated research and intentionally calm and professional demeanor seem to not only be yielding zero results, but that my neighbor’s behavior seems to be getting increasingly rebellious?
I had envisioned a world made better by the current crisis. I’d seen the news headlines about smog clearing from cities at the foot of the Himalayas, about wild animals frolicking happily in the absence of humans in our national parks. I was encouraged by so many families managing to work from home while educating their children. I even welcomed the opportunity to look at my own family’s consumption habits and return to a simpler time where family movie night and a bowl of microwave popcorn was one of the highlights of our week.
On this hot May evening, however, as my neighbors disregarded all that I’d asked them to do, right outside my front window, I hit bottom. The coronavirus pandemic was not turning me into a better human being; it was triggering my worst. At least for now…
I was a mess. My mind was whipping at a maniacal rate through the 9 Stages of Transformational Change as Soul Path Parenting Guest Bill Tipton shares in Episode 26: “Why Change Can Feel So Hard…and What to Do About It.”
I grieved what was possible. My neighbors a week before had collectively decided to turn down my request to remove a patio table where members of several different households – mostly the 20-somethings – had been gathering without practicing social distancing or sanitation. Instead, they argued with me about the public health measures that I asked them to adopt. They justified their visits to one-another’s households. One neighbor even shouted at me from her front yard, “Just stay inside if you don’t like it!” My hopes of a socially-conscientious community “in it together” had been crushed, hard.
I rapidly went into denial. I was in shock as I counted the people again and again. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I couldn’t believe who was participating. A couple in their late 50s, one with diabetes and high blood pressure, the other with an immune disorder. My next door neighbors, in their late 70s, out there chatting it up with the 19 and 20-year-olds. I looked back at the email to see who had arranged this illegal gathering. It was my 78-year old neighbor, one with a serious heart condition! What? How could this be?
Anger rose in me and coalesced with the “if only” part of Tipton’s process. If only these people would watch news. If only they would take this deadly pandemic seriously. If only they would consider their impact on the broader community. If only they’d stop being so selfish. If only they’d stop this hippie, germ-sharing nonsense! If only they would listen to me! If only they knew they were endangering our lives, my life, and putting our community at risk of becoming a hotbed of COVID 19!
By the time I called the HOA president, and then the police (yes, I called the non-emergency line and requested a drive by), I was in the “begging and pleading” stage. I desperately demanded to know why there was no one who would speak out, correct this unsafe behavior, send these offenders home. The HOA president took a bottle of hydrogen peroxide to the courtyard. The police informed me that they were too understaffed to dedicate an officer to such a low-level help request. I sent a strongly-worded text to my elderly neighbor, asking her if she realized what she had done. It was professionally worded, but let’s be honest, I shamed and blamed her.
I fell into despair, then whipped back into grief, as uncontrollable tears poured from my eyes and my body shook with terror. The images of news programs featuring mothers and fathers with young children, suddenly struck down by COVID played in my mind. I imagined my elderly mom dying, alone in another state. I sobbed uncontrollably. Then came the emotional story again, denial, anger, “if only.” And I got stuck there, cycling around the “grief” half of the transformational cycle for two days until I “flamed out,” as the model describes.
“I am finding most people I know right now with the stay-at-home are swinging between despair and tolerance,” Tipton said.
Tolerance? How, I asked, can I tolerate my neighbors, when the consequences are so serious?
I danced with acceptance, trying to force myself to empathize with the college kids as I watched them share a box of donuts at the patio table. I tried to imagine the 78-year olds next door craving human connection during this challenging time. But every time I dipped into empathy and understanding, anger flared up, hot and ugly.
But I knew that how I’d handled the situation up until now was not working. There had to be another way. Ugh, I thought. I’m going to have to rise to this occasion. I am going to have to actually practice love. I wanted to scream. I wanted out. The only way out was through, and I knew it. I had to get compassionate. I had to drop my defenses and judgement. I had to find an opening.
I remembered a technique from Psychotherapist Becca Armstrong (see her Episodes here). It involves getting to a place where you can authentically be curious about the perspective of someone else when you radically disagree. Using her suggested request “help me to understand,” I was able to make the leap to the possibility of acceptance, and to get to the “growth” side of Tipton’s chart. It took me an entire day of trying on asking my neighbor this question to get to a place where I actually, honestly could say that I wanted to hear her answer.
I sent her another text. I let her know how much I value her and her husband as neighbors and friends, and I told her that I’m really struggling with the behavior that I’m seeing in our community. Then I asked her the question, that starts with these magic words: “Please help me to understand…(fill in the blank with your issue).” In my case it was: “When you feel comfortable, I’d really appreciate it if you would help me to understand how you see this pandemic situation and how you are choosing to navigate it.”
She immediately messaged back saying she’d be more than happy to talk. I haven’t had the courage to have the conversation yet, but I’m getting there. For now, at least, my anxiety is mostly gone. I’ve realized that I’m in this for the long haul with my neighbors, and even if I continue to let them know that I feel certain behaviors are unsafe, the only way I’m going to have a chance at influencing change is by honestly being willing to hear where they are coming from first.
“I think the end result here is far more connection, far more compassion, far more love in the world than what we’re experiencing even a couple of months ago.”