Crosswords, COVID, and Floyd: Cultivating acceptance in crisis

Back in January, I bought my husband a book of New York Times crossword puzzles. He wasn’t necessarily a crossword puzzle guy, but I figured that he could use something non-kid and non-state-of-the-world-related to occupy his mind. He started working his way through it whenever he had a spare moment.

Once COVID hit, I found myself drawn to the book of puzzles. I hadn’t ever been a puzzle person; I always devoted my time to reading. But my overwhelmed mind couldn’t concentrate on fiction, so crosswords seemed to be a reasonable alternative. My husband and I began to work on puzzles together, sometimes while physically sitting next to each other, at other times working solo.

Crossword puzzles eventually became an essential component of my quarantine self-care. They provided me with a kid-free activity. They occupied my mind; thinking about, say, what “salmagundi” could possibly mean (a dish that is a “mixture” of ingredients, in case you’re wondering) helped me not think about the chaos of the world. Puzzles gave me something to do with my husband, whose company I sorely missed (who would have thought that you’d have less quality time with your partner while working at home with them than you’d had when you went to different offices?) They also enabled me to set concrete, specific goals that were actually achievable. This was no small thing, during a time when everything was uncertain and felt so out of control.

We’re in month five of this madness now, and, three Times puzzle books later, I’ve officially become a puzzle person. I’ve been doing so many puzzles, in fact, that I close my eyes and see puzzles. I often find myself reading a word and contemplating how that word might fit into a puzzle, and what words might cross with it.

I’ve been thinking, too, about the structure of crossword puzzles—how you often find several unrelated and even at times contradictory topics intersecting with one another. “True dat” crossed with “Carob,” say. Or “Toy dogs” with “Horace Greeley.” Or “TSA agent” with “Nap” (although some might view that crossing as apt?)

It strikes me that our lives during the past several months have also involved previously unrelated or even seemingly contradictory things intersecting with each other. Like children and face masks. Healthcare and computer screens. Birthday celebrations and car horns.

And how about gratitude and despair? Have you ever felt so simultaneously grateful for what you have and torn to shreds by what you (and the world) have lost?

Or empathy and privilege? Since George Floyd, so many of us white people who’ve always endeavored to empathize with people of color have nevertheless had to reckon with our own white privilege, and the behaviors that have resulted from it.

The post-COVID, post-George Floyd world is a world of strange intersections, of contradictory ideas and emotions. It reminds me of a core concept in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)—that two seemingly contradictory emotions or thoughts can be true at the same time. I’ve found myself returning to this concept again and again, as I try to help patients (and myself) accept that they will just have to learn to live with these contradictions and inconsistencies.

This includes the many patients who’ve been agonizing over whether to send their kids to summer camp, when what’s best for their children’s (and their) mental health directly conflicts with what’s best for their physical health. Or the patients who, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, have had to come to terms with the fact that their stated best intentions have been undercut by their actions (or inactions, as is often the case). Or the patients who can’t understand how they can possibly feel several wildly different but equally valid feelings (gratitude and despair, for example) at the very same time.

In times like these, we all need to learn to make space for inconsistencies and contradictions. We have to abandon the idea that if we just spend enough time thinking through our problems, we’ll eventually be able to reconcile the inconsistencies and resolve our issues. Because unlike my trusty crossword puzzles, there are no neat solutions to our world’s current ills. There’s no answer key we can turn to in times of desperation.

Circumstances in this post-COVID, post-Floyd world are far too complex and nuanced to be problem solved away. All we can do is follow the guiding principle of DBT: to accept the things we can’t change, and work towards fixing what we can. We have to make peace with where we are at the current moment, with its many inconsistencies and contradictions, and at the same time do whatever we can to educate ourselves, to keep our loved ones safe, and to take action against any injustices we perceive. (And of course, to vote).

I’m working on cultivating this balance of acceptance and change right alongside my patients. And I’m turning to my puzzles in those times when my brain and heart need a break. I wish the problems of our broken world could be solved as easily as a (Monday) crossword puzzle. In the meantime, I’ll keep consoling myself by thinking in terms of crosswords, and hoping for the day when COVID crosses with recovery, and injustice crosses with change.

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