Finding Focus in Harsh Times

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Current events have obliterated my ability to focus, both at work, or in my personal projects. Since the beginning of 2020, I've had bouts of helplessness, anger, or feelings of isolation. When the war started at our borders, I felt brain fog that lasted for days, my heart sinking for all those innocent people that are under fire. On top of the pandemic, we're now dealing with war, and the related anxiety. Yikes!

“Looking for tips on how to keep focus at work while the world is burning”@alexelcu / March 18, 2022

I should feel privileged. My close family and friends are well and healthy, Covid-19 has spared us for now, financially we’ve been thriving. Life has been good for us, yet this privilege seems fleeting.

I’m probably depressed, because the world around us seems to be burning, and the suffering of others makes me suffer. The symptoms of depression may be subtle for the uninitiated — it’s not just feeling sad, as that comes and goes in short episodes. It’s also boredom, inability to focus, itching for the next news cycle, lack of energy, changes in appetite, loss of joy.

I’m not qualified to give advice, I’m not even over the current events. This is mostly advice given to myself…

Is it time to talk with a mental health professional? I don’t know. If you’re in the same situation as I am, maybe you should. Post-2020, maybe we all need to explore our feelings, and even treat any chemical imbalances if given a prescription. Right now, though, I’m exploring changes in my behavior, as some things are under our control.

The first step in any recovery is admitting the problem, and focusing on why it needs to be fixed.

While my standing is secure, I’m my family’s provider, my family is depending on me, I can’t afford to disappoint them, a persistent thought that’s always with me. Having responsibilities towards others is good, as loving oneself is easier said than done. I always said that my responsibilities as a husband and father have kept me on my toes. In general, helping others helps us thrive, not just because of karma, but because it makes us feel needed, and being needed makes us happier. I am privileged to have a family that depends on me. And maybe I need to do more.

No News Is Good News (archive). TLDR — the author of this article advocates for disconnecting from news, because nothing important will happen without you finding out about it. Political discourse and virtue signaling on social media doesn’t help, righteous fury doesn’t help, it only contributes to the noise.

Donations help, punditry doesn’t. I’ve committed to a recurring donation to UNICEF until this war is over. Put your money where your mouth and mind are. If there’s going to be any physical or mental effort, that effort needs to count.

Worry about things that are in our control. We can’t stop the war, we can’t stop the pandemic, these aren’t in our control. It’s counterproductive to worry about things that we can’t control. I’m trying to embrace stoicism, as you can see 🙂 Like all philosophies, this comes with practice.

“ Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in a word, whatever are not our own actions.” — opening paragraph of Enchiridion, a handbook of Stoicism.

Find your sense of spirituality. Did I ever mention that I’m an Agnostic Theist? I don’t know if there is a God, but I’m not an atheist either. Like many millennials, I have my own spirituality. I certainly believe in a soul, and in the need to take good care of it. Humans crave religion, because science is limited in scope and doesn’t have answers or even questions for our spirit. There are multiple types of atheists in our society, and most believe in a religion that can be worse than Christianity with its ethics. And in theory nihilism can be optimistic and constructive, but I don’t believe it. This may be a good time to search for your god — which is another way of saying to go find meaning in life.

In Romania, we are going through Orthodox Lent, which is a 40 days period of fasting before Easter. This is a period of soul cleansing. And so I’m implementing a great fast that includes abstinence from all animal products, abstinence from absolutely all news, and abstinence from politics. Fasting from news is not going great, my fingers are twitching to get my phone, and see the live stream of recent events, or political commentary. But I’m pulling through, and it’s immensely refreshing to start the day without a doomscroll each morning.

To implement this I’ve blocked (via DNS and browser extensions): Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and all news outlets I could think of. This ensures that I stop and think whenever I get a craving for news, instead of mindlessly pulling my phone and starting to doomscroll. The only news I get is from low-traffic blogs, mostly on programming, that I follow via my RSS/Atom feed reader.

The best therapy in dark times is probably work and routine. We are designed to be active, to build and to think, so we can try (in no particular order):

  • Being more present at our $job, helping our colleagues, creating value;
  • Writing in one’s blog or personal diary;
  • Contributing to Open Source;
  • Gardening, other hobbies;
  • Exercise;
  • Meditation;
  • More social interactions, preferably face to face;

To my shame, my social interactions are low, I haven’t been doing exercises during winter, I haven’t been doing any meditation, I rarely write on my blog or in a diary nowadays, I have a long hiatus from Open Source, and I don’t really have hobbies, not ones that involve physical activity anyway. Hopefully I can do something about it.

Being around other people helps. Forget old grudges, especially with friends and family. This is the time to strengthen our relationships, to give and forgive, as there’s strength in numbers. A primary effect of this pandemic has been dehumanization. Companies asking employees to get back to the office can be a good thing, if all this remote work has led to our isolation.

Seasons always change. During summer, it feels like winter will never come back, and during winter, it feels like summer will never come back.

My neighbour's magnolia tree.

Spring and summer always come after winter, and the world tends to change for the better if we wait long enough, so trust that all will be well in the end, doing our part in the meantime. We deserve our spring, though, it’s been a long time coming.

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