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How can we put our house together during this challenging time?

The world is experiencing probably the most challenging period of our lifetimes. The rage with which the coronavirus descended upon mankind and the damage it has wreaked is staggering. The flow of news and information reporting the number of sick and deceased leaves us feeling scared, overwhelmed, and often helpless. There is no need for a column to reflect on the desperation of our situation–there’s plenty of those.

The issue that I’d like to discuss is, “How should we respond on a personal level to this unique situation?” Families are spending more time together; lockdown forces us to make our homes the center of our lives. How is this affecting us? Positively? Negatively? Both? Spending so much time with ourselves, our spouses and children feels like being in uncharted waters. How do we best navigate these hard times and develop a more hopeful and positive home environment? The following is a discussion of how, on a personal level, we have been affected by COVID-19 and suggestions on how to improve the quality of our lives.

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Let’s first stretch our memories to life a little more than a month ago when everything was “normal.” For the majority of us, our daily schedules of work, school, prayers, and Shabbat were set. Routine and predictability formed the foundation of most homes.

And then came COVID-19.

Could we have imagined how a microscopic virus could wreak such havoc on our lives, health, and jobs? Now we are together all day. Our routines trashed: workplaces- closed; schools- closed; stores and malls- closed. Seniors and singles are separated from loved ones left to struggle and to worry alone. In short, our world was turned upside-down.

What impact has this had on us and our families?

Before dealing with our families, let us consider how we have been affected personally. Our responses cover the emotional range from dread, fear, panic, and anxiety to calm, acceptance, and a deepening faith. Probably, we are all a mixture of these, some more to one side or the other. Many of us are barely coping. Although many of us feel overwhelmed and isolated, there are extensive resources for physical and emotional support. Anyone who feels the need should reach out without \ embarrassment or shame.

Though it’s probably not the time to self-analyze our emotional histories it is a time to do those things that will increase our sense of peace of mind and tranquility. It’s abundantly clear that emotional well being affects our health, environment, and ability to handle stress and worry. Music, dance, exercise, meditation, and prayer are just a few techniques to create greater personal harmony.

In terms of our families, there are two basic situations we find ourselves in, those directly affected by the disease and those indirectly affected.

There are thousands of families directly affected by the disease, whose parents, grandparents, or siblings have fallen sick–or worse. Those families have needed to rise to the overwhelming challenges of illness or death. (We extend our prayers and heartfelt concern to all of them). Life at times of crisis can reek its own havoc. I am wary to comment about such devastating situations, but possibly, the following thoughts may also be applicable.

In order to address the impact of the coronavirus on a domestic level we should evaluate the glue that usually holds our families and marriages together. The connection and functioning of many families are based on maintaining schedules and routines with little emphasis or time for activities that encourage quality of life. The present situation will cause such families to be pressed into two basic paths, either feeling overwhelmed and anxious with a constant increase of tension or, alternatively, to resource new strengths and connections causing a deepening of communication. Realistically, with the kids bouncing off the walls and everyone squished together, tension and tempers rising can be expected. But we don’t have to be victims of circumstance. It is our choice to push ourselves to change and improve the quality of our lives.
These same two paths will be applicable for families where the quality of life is already woven into the fabric of their home but it will be easier for them to access the path of connection and mutual encouragement.

How can we relate to our situation more positively? First, the family should do their best to maintain their regular schedule. Consistent bedtimes, getting dressed, regular meal times, and attention to personal hygiene should be maintained as much as possible. Besides adding consistency and a feeling of familiarity to our day, it encourages the attitude that we are going through something temporary and can look forward to better times . Second, as much as possible, make the home a place everyone wants to be in. Do fun activities, listen to music, play games, make special recipes, even tell jokes. (We’ll discuss talking and sharing soon.) In general, make the home as pleasant a place to be as possible. Third, limit your news consumption and social networking. It’s important to be informed but an excess of exposure to updates and statistics is emotionally draining and doesn’t help staying proactive.

Besides keeping productively busy, this is an extraordinary opportunity to connect emotionally and spiritually to ourselves and those we are with. I would dare to say that probably not too many of us were 100% happy with our quality of lives pre-corona. And now, sharing and talking is not only valuable, it’s essential. We need to process, express, and share our fears, anxiety, and panic concerning issues of health, finances, and safety. To keep these emotions bottled up inside creates an environment for the festering of worry and dread. Our children are being exposed to something terribly frightening, they need their parents by their side to help them process and cope.

Those unique families that already are open about feelings and fears have a head start in facilitating open communication, but they also need to pay extra attention to the wellbeing of all the members of the family.

All of us can and need to develop a more positive home environment through enjoyable activities and better communication. Some may need outside guidance in the form of a Rabbi, therapist, or respected friend. But most of us, with the necessary attention, can learn to develop the sharing and openness so essential to deal with our worry and dread. Hopefully, we will benefit from developing deeper and more open channels of communication.

None of us knows when this plague will end. It has been devastating on so many levels. But it is within our reach to create the type of supportive home environment that emphasizes connecting, caring, processing based on mutual love and respect.

(Rabbi Dovid Charlop is a well-known Torah educator, serving as a beloved Rebbe in yeshivas in the United States and Israel)

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