There are times in life where you experience hardship. Maybe it’s an illness in the family, maybe it’s a death. Maybe it’s a global pandemic, or you’re struggling to find work.
Sadly, hardship is an unavoidable part of life. It often comes by surprise; an unforeseen circumstance that you find yourself in by accident. You think — ‘why me?’
As Edith Eger explains in her momentous memoir “There is no hierarchy of suffering”. Thousands of people all over the world are suffering the unimaginable right now. But it doesn’t make your suffering absurd in comparison. Your feelings are legitimate.
Unfortunately, many moments of hardship are unavoidable. Troublesome circumstances present themselves in waves that you just have to ride out. They’re external eventualities that you can do nothing about.
But you can control how you experience these moments. There are actions that you can take to ease your suffering, even if ever so slightly; little tools that can provide some respite when you’re struggling to catch your breath.
My story is by no means a tragedy. It’s about a time in my life that I found difficult. It’s set from January to June 2020. I had accepted a 6-month Paralegal role in an international law firm in Geneva.
I had lived abroad on a few occasions in the past. I love exploring a new city and meeting new people, so I was excited. But this time was very different.
I was working inhumane hours during the whole month of January. Weekends included. I had rented an Airbnb for the first month of my stay and spent every free moment looking for a place to rent for the remaining months. I didn’t have time to meet anyone outside of work.
Thankfully, my sister’s boyfriend had a friend who lived near Geneva. This friend had a friend, who had a girlfriend who had a friend, who had a spare room to rent in her apartment. Only it wasn’t exactly her apartment.
It turned out that the apartment belonged to an 80+-year-old lady, who also lived there. Her name was Erna. Spirits intact after a rocky first month, and with my mind open to new experiences, I happily took the room.
It was my 27th birthday; the 16th of Match 2020, and the first day of lock-down in Switzerland. Everything was closed, and the other housemate had moved out. So I had no hopes of celebrating.
It was a Monday, and everyone in my office had been briefed to work from home the night before. I sat down to work at the tiny desk in my room, on a bright green plastic chair that could only be comfortable to a Lego figure. A few minutes into my work, I hear a knock on my door.
It was Erna. Her room was just across the hall from mine. She had never been particularly warm or pleasant, but I knew her situation couldn’t be easy either. So, I was accustomed to letting her passive-aggressive remarks and unreasonable demands slip my mind like a raindrop to a duck feather.
Leaning along the door frame to my room and said — “You can’t work from home”.
Startled, I responded — “I’ve been asked to do so by my boss because of the new covid-19 measures. We’re not allowed to go into the office. I’d go to a café but everything is closed, so I don’t have much of a choice”.
Unconvinced she said — “I don’t rent rooms for people to work from home. This is just a way for big corporations to spy on my privacy and steal my data.”
Firstly, that’s just not how Wi-Fi works. Also, I’m not sure how much data could possibly be traced back to this woman. I later found out that she wouldn’t pick up the phone whilst she was in the house because she was afraid that her telephone company was spying on her.
Any other person would probably have shrugged her remarks off and laughed about the absurdity of the situation. But I was already in a sensitive place:
- Almost half-way through my Swiss experience and I hadn’t made any friends.
- The restrictions had escalated to a point where any hopes I had of meeting anyone had dwindled.
- I was working very long hours in an unfulfilling and thankless role.
- I was alone; and my family was scattered.
- The environment in the apartment was increasingly tense.
- This would be the third birthday in a row that would go un-celebrated; I felt that the years were passing me by with no improvement.
- And I was questioning why, at this age, I still couldn’t figure out where I wanted to go, and what I wanted to do with my life.
One thing I knew for certain was that I wasn’t going to quit. However lonely this experience was and however exploited I felt at work, this was a wave I was going to ride out. I told myself I’d look back on this period as a learning curve. In hindsight, I can say I do.
But I have immense empathy for anyone who’s experiencing hardship; in whatever form, of whatever magnitude. When you’re in that moment, the angst is overwhelming. Everything seems too much.
Situations that you could typically deal with easily become huge hurdles that you can’t gather the energy for.
So here are some of the things I did to keep myself powering through.
You’ll notice that all of the things that I did have an overarching theme: they helped me take back control.
The worst thing you can do is ‘nothing’. When it feels like the world is a great big ball of chaos, where everything is working against you, you feel helpless. It’s tiring. All you want to do is curl up into a ball in the corner of a dark room and wait for it to pass.
But life goes on. You have to keep moving. And the best way I’ve found to make things easier is to be disciplined. Give yourself some semblance of control and direction, by being disciplined.
Set Yourself a Schedule
I carved out a period of time for work and scheduled all of my free time. It might seem excessive, but I don’t mean you have to be ruthlessly strict on yourself. Be disciplined about your self-care too; schedule it into your day.
I would go for a run along the lake at dawn most mornings. Just as the sun was coming up, the streets were empty; it was the only time of the day where I felt a sense of calm. A rush of endorphins works wonders. Coupled with the quiet, peaceful views, it was truly a moment to express gratitude every morning. A great start to my day.
Start a New Project
This experience made me realize how much I’m not made to live alone. I love time to myself, to reflect, and to relax. But I’m not someone who can spend all day, every day, alone. I need people, I need affection, I need laughter, and perhaps most of all, I need to get out of my own head.
Faced with an overwhelming lack of opportunities to do anything with anyone outside the confines of my bedroom, I scheduled time every evening for a ‘project’.
I use the term ‘project’ broadly. It can be anything, a hobby, an online course. It’s actually during this time that I began to write. I also started to draw and learned to build a website with the help of my sister (via Zoom, of course).
No, I didn’t stick to my schedule every night. I couldn’t. There were nights where I was in the office until 4 am. Down-time ‘wasn’t an option’. So I get it if you have other commitments and you can’t make it.
But try to stick to your plan as much as you can. Even when you’re feeling exhausted, and all you want to do is watch something on Netflix. It can be just 20 minutes.
Pick up a pencil and draw. Watch a YouTube tutorial about a skill you want to pick up. Read an article in a different language that you’re trying to learn. Put on a short yoga video.
Anything that you actively do, that’s not turning to your default position on the couch, will make you feel better about yourself; even if it’s only 20 minutes.
Give Journaling a Chance
I had never kept a diary or adopted any form of journaling practice. But, together with meditation, I have found it to be one of the most helpful tools to keep myself moving forward with clarity.
“Once we get those muddy, maddening, confusing thoughts on the page, we face our day with clearer eyes” — Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way
I personally use The Five Minute Journal, proven by research to help you reach higher levels of positive emotion, joy, and optimism. Again, it’s a tool that provides a semblance of control. It has a simple structure that helps you organize your priorities and practice gratitude, to start and end your days on a positive note.
Schedule Your Calls
You’ve probably inferred by now that I was feeling catastrophically lonely. I needed to know that I wasn’t going to go to bed that day without speaking to someone who wasn’t (i) asking me to do work for them, or (ii) Erna.
I’d schedule a call with a friend or a family member every day during my lunch break and another in the evenings.
It was actually a great opportunity to catch up with friends that I hadn’t spoken to in a while. A good friend of mine happens to live in the Caribbean, so she was my go-to for late-night chats when I couldn’t fall asleep — Thank you time zones.
Having something to look forward to at the end of your day can help you overcome the loneliness or the struggles you might feel throughout the day. So reach out to welcome people into your daily routine. Schedule your calls to give yourself that little sense of security.
Clear Up Your Environment
I’m not obsessive about cleanliness, but keeping a clean and tidy environment when the world feels like it’s moving without you, really helps to bring a little Zen into your life.
Again, it all comes down to control. When you’re in an unavoidably bad situation, facing externalities that you have no control over, clearing up your environment helps to bring in clarity, structure, and space for you to think.
If you have clothes lying around, hang them up. If there’s too much clutter to deal with right now, find a box and put any ‘miscellaneous’ items that you don’t know where to store away, into the box.
You can come back to it and organize when you’re feeling better. But for now, just pack that box away, under the bed, in the closet, wherever, just out of sight.
Dust off your shelves, do a little hovering, clean your bedsheets, open the window. Do whatever you need to do to make your home environment feel like a place you want to spend time in; a place that brings you peace, clarity, and comfort, free from all the chaos.
I never officially celebrated my birthday. But I did buy myself a bottle of my favorite wine, and a selection of my favorite foods, to treat myself to a nice dinner for one.
We all need joy and flavor in our lives. You don’t need to have big plans or splurge on lavish expenses. Go back to basic and think about the little things that you can weave in easily on a daily or weekly basis to just thank yourself.
I may have been alone and slightly afraid by the prospect of another reprimand from Elsa. But that hour that I carved out to bring a little color to my day was special. I made a cozy nest on my bed with the duvet, curled up with a glass of wine and Mezze, and watched my favorite series with a smile on my face.
If you’ve read this to the end, I assume you can relate to the situation I describe. If so, I truly hope that the advice I share will help you one day.
It can’t eliminate the situation, and it won’t make it pass by any quicker. But it can help you manage your situation and lighten your experience. So I hope that it will bring you some respite, and joy.
To summarize –
1. Become disciplined
2. Set Yourself a Schedule
3. Start a New Project
4. Give Journaling a Chance
5. Schedule Your Calls
6. Clear Up Your Environment
7. Treat Yourself