Living Popcorn Style in Zoomland

Popcorn Style in ZoomlandWe are all navigating untenable times — most of us connecting in isolation and many of us struggling in silence. This COVIDian chaos is our new global zeitgeist. What is normal, anyway? We had been living in our own private Twilight Zone since the 2016 election. But now, we’re conquering a brand-new frontier called Zoomland, where the women don’t wear makeup, the men don’t wear pants — and all the cocktails are above average.

I have at least one online Zoom meeting per day for various reasons — spiritual, professional, and ad hoc/friend (aka  Zoomtails). I guess it makes sense since the phone call became an anachronism in the last decade — especially for the under-30 crowd. My brave new technical world is defined by intermittent internet buffering, waning laptop battery life, and unflattering lighting. First-world problems, but I still find this new communication imperative to be strangely draining. Maybe it’s that I lack the energy to be “on” 24/7, or maybe it reminds me of just how isolated I am.

Adding to the awkward vibe is the practice of “sharing popcorn style” in Zoom groups. I suspect the idea is to allow participants to engage as they are so moved, but I find the expectation uncomfortable in a land of only two dimensions. It triggers my performance anxiety. I always thought I was an extrovert, but living in the depths of profound grief since my son Elliot’s tragic death almost two years ago, I have morphed into an introvert with occasional extrovertish episodes. In Zoomland, I have discovered that introverts simply need more time, and extroverts should probably take more time.

I sit alone in the cozy 10 ft. X 12 ft. room I call my office, staring at a Brady-Bunch array of faces stacked in perfect chessboard symmetry on the screen—  disembodied heads blankly gazing into vague, abstract space. The connection is an illusion, devoid of nonverbal cues and physical energetic exchanges —  except for that cute couple cuddling up in one box. I guess it’s better than nothing.

Should I go? Uh . . . Hello . . .  Argh, my screen froze, or was that someone else’s? Oh, I’m muted! Hello! Can you hear me now? Now? Now! Oh well, someone else started, anyway. I’ll wait. Betty always jumps into the dead air.

There we are, trying to take the edge off our baseline angst, but we are plastered across an electronic wall like a batch of newly apprehended hooligans lined up for our mug shots. This is Zoom lockdown. There also seems to be a heightened sense of self-consciousness on Zoom — ironic since no one has put on “outside” clothes since 2019, and almost everyone has given up all attempts at hair maintenance. Still, every time you speak, you are in that glaring spotlight of exposure without any immediate feedback. Everyone is looking at you  — or at least, the image of you. Or, they are checking out your room décor.

I have decided this “popcorn style” online group dynamic is an apt metaphor for broader pandemic experience. The dizzying randomness of messaging — so rapid-fire and scattershot. All news is breaking, a constant barrage of urgent nonsequiturs — as befuddling as they are horrifying. The extroverts dominate. It’s too much to process, so we don’t. We can’t possibly. Sometimes, I turn it all off to feel better but end up feeling more isolated. So-called leaders and self-proclaimed pontificators are popping their respective corn — on every channel. No plan, no strategy, no conscience. No method to their external madness — exacerbating my clandestine grief.

It’s Only a Test

Wear a mask. No, don’t wear a mask.
A mask does no good — but it might.
We have more than enough PPE. We are giving it away.
We don’t have enough PPE for the front line.
We’re “opening up” for business now. The case numbers are climbing daily.
Inject disinfectant in your lungs. It’s interesting. No, not really.
Just kidding. Are you laughing? I was being sarcastic. Can’t you tell?
No, I wasn’t.
The virus lives for three hours on most surfaces. No, ten. No, five.
We really don’t know.

Test, Test, Test.
Just disinfect everything. But you really can’t.
You may have had COVID already, or you could be asymptomatic.
Or, you probably had it in January or maybe December.
You’ll be fine — unless you are not.
You probably have immunity. If we could test you for antibodies.
But you will probably get it again. In the fall.  We all will.
The antibodies may not be enough.
When it mutates. And it will. Or, maybe it won’t. Or, it already did.

Test. Test. Test.
But we can’t test you right now. We don’t have enough.
Anyone can get a test. If they need it.
But not if they want it. Just ask. But not me.
I’m positive I’m negative.

Test, Test, Test.
But, not yet.
The tests are flawed.
They are broken. We can’t trust them.
We should not have released them. But we need more of them.
Trace all contacts. When? Now? How?
The virus lives in the vents. But it’s not airborne.
Sure, go inside. Have a seat but try not to breathe much.
Have dinner but wear that mask.
Shutdown your salon, but you have the right to open up.
Freedom has a price.

Test, Test, Test.
Sacrifice your life of the economy, silly.
Wipe down your groceries. No need to wipe down your groceries.
Wear gloves. Don’t wear gloves. Gloves don’t help. Wash your hands.
Only 25% of you can go out – go to a restaurant . . . but not to a bar.
But social distance. Just not at the same table.
You need to figure out what 25% capacity looks like. That’s up to you.
Washington doesn’t care –  much. About anything but the election.

Test, Test, Test.
But, don’t go out unless you must. To buy things. OK.
We need you to buy things, more things.
Work to feed our kids. The virus is deadly to kids.
Go to the store. Stay at home.
Don’t buy meat, but the packing plants will stay open.
Don’t buy toilet paper. The supply chains are fine.
Go to the movies. The theaters are closed.
Go outside. Don’t go to the parks.

Because—
There’s no vaccine. We are working on it though.

Popcorn style, it is — like living in a Twitter feed, asynchronous messaging and desynchronous realities. About 50% of us long for compassionate, competent leadership — demoralized by complete empathic failure, peppered with pernicious pouts. Unpredictability is the only constant.

At home, I am grateful for my shelter, but the walls are closing in. I have millions of things to do, but I do not accomplish much. Spinning my wheels. Then, suiting up to go out, decontaminating upon return, and again and again. All those Zoom meetings in between. I am busy but empty and scared —  about our world, mostly.

Every day unfolds differently than I expect — but wrapped in soul-numbing sameness. My days progress popcorn style. What day is it, anyway? Perhaps, the pandemic is internal. There is no plan. Is that the lesson? Be grateful for the ambiguity, Elaine.  Breathe. Soak in nature. Be gentle with myself. Peace is an inside job. But, hey, that’s another story . . .  for which I will need plenty of popcorn.

Thriving Trumps Narcissism

Art-Painting-American-Flag-Wallpaper-HD“Before directing the lightning in the sky, we must first harness the storms in our own hearts.”
—from Rasur by Roberto Brenes Mesen

As America’s fascination with Donald Trump continues to mystify me and many others across the globe, I believe I have a heightened sensitivity to his shenanigans and rhetoric, because I have struggled mightily to break free from toxic narcissists and unhealthy relationships. It’s a little like the smoker who has kicked a noxious 10-year habit. Daily, I am mindful about elevating my consciousness to recognize these insidious hooks — toning my exit muscle.

Narcissists are not intrinsically evil — as many contend, but they have developed hard-wired coping behaviors to compensate for their own deeply damaged psyches and false selves. On one level, my heart breaks for them and I do feel empathy ― even for those who have caused me such profound pain. Thankfully, I have learned that I am not responsible for their harsh judgments.  I am only responsible for my response to them.  There is absolutely no “fixing,” “repairing,” “convincing,” or “cajoling” these people.  They are who they are. That is it. The healing journey is stepping away from the tango.

Narcissists seduce, ingratiate, self-aggrandize, manipulate, denigrate and exploit, because they are desperate to neutralize their own shame ― and they have limited capacity to access their authentic inner selves.  Indeed, individuals with Narcissist Personality Disorder are perpetually looking for affirmation of an idealized, flamboyant, yet fragile, sense of self.

Et tu, Mr. President?

From a purely clinical perspective, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5 criteria) Narcissistic Personality Disorder is signified by satisfying  5 of 9 of the following standards (American Psychiatric Association, 2013):

  • A grandiose logic of self-importance
  • A fixation with fantasies of infinite success, control, brilliance, beauty or idyllic love
  • A credence that he or she is extraordinary and exceptional and can only be understood by, or should connect with, other extraordinary or important people or institutions
  • A desire for unwarranted admiration
  • A sense of entitlement
  • Interpersonally oppressive behavior
  • No form of empathy
  • Resentment of others or a conviction that others are resentful of him or her
  • A display of egotistical and conceited behaviors or attitudes

Philosopher and teacher Deepak Chopra said this recently:

“But in reality Trump isn’t bizarre or anomalous. He stands for something universal, something right before our eyes. It’s an aspect of the human psyche that we feel embarrassed and ashamed of, which makes it our collective secret.  Going back a century in the field of depth psychology, the secret side of human nature acquired a special name: the shadow.”

The coping mask of the narcissist is an amalgam of arrogance, entitlement and pretentiousness. He or she often professes to know all the answers to all the questions ― while monopolizing all the conversations. A narcissist may become indignant at the drop of hat ― or belittle anyone in any role if he does not receive the service or treatment expected.  I witnessed this countless times in relationship with narcissists, but I always thought things would eventually get better somehow.

Finally, the reality kicked in. Having been the frequent recipient of this vitriol, I now know this comes from unresolved anger — often unconscious. A narcissistic reacts abruptly with rage or contempt to feel superior. And he can’t stand any perception of criticism. He may even abandon you ― anytime, anywhere. I know.

But, as narcissistic abuse recovery expert Melanie Tonia Evans insists, focusing on the NARC does not help or heal us. There is no cheese down that hole. Therefore, we can analyze Donald Trump all day long, but the more we try to inspect, explain and prescribe, the more deeply we become hooked. That’s the painful irony. It becomes an excruciating no-win scenario.

“It’s like trying to wrestle an ape,” says Evans. “Impossible.”  And the real reason we do it is because we are trying to soothe our own unhealed wounds by somehow fixing and placating the narcissist. We are assuaging our own concealed feelings of inadequacy, pain and unworthiness.  His grandiose promises attract us like the circus coming to town ― filling the darkness of our hearts momentarily with sparkles of light, some cotton candy and cheesy spectacle, but as when the circus leaves town, it also leaves us desolate, depleted and feeling a little sick.

He tells us just what we want to hear ― and then, he turns on a dime and crushes us to the mat. In Trump’s case, he calls someone “an idiot,” the world “a mess,” or mocks a disabled reporter. This pumps up his ego and self-esteem. It becomes a seductive, unending cycle ― until we decide the healing must happen inside ourselves. Evans calls this the “Thriver Model.”

That’s just what we must do as a nation.

We must face the deepest unresolved traumas of our early and recent history ― racism issues that have festered since the days of slavery, institutionalized inequality, fraying of the middle class, lethal police culture, gun violence, and the list goes on . . . we must heal them from within. Individually, we must feel better about ourselves; love ourselves and each other deeply and truly — so we are not prey to the brittle, smarmy, sanctimonious charlatans.

Trumping Survival Programs

Melanie Tonia Evans says the purpose of any relationship is to reflect back and trigger unhealed parts to help us evolve and grow ― individually and collectively. With a narcissist, this opportunity is amplified and intensified, because he or she eventually obliterates our fragile survival programs.  But in a sense, this is a gift, because we can take the wake-up call as an invitation to heal what is broken in ourselves. We have the power to become whole, productive suppliers of our own support, vitality and affirmation. We do not need to look externally for validation or worth.

When we deny, disown and mask the most vulnerable parts of ourselves to ourselves ― all the fears and pains, our abuse radar does not operate effectively. This leaves us out of alignment with our true selves ― and exceptionally needy. We are unconsciously replaying tapes from our families of origin, and in the case of the election, the early and recent years of our adolescent nation.  So, we need to get real.

We are not inextricably attached to this difficult person. We do not need to make this relationship work to survive. We do not need Trump to take us to some sort of vague “great place.”

It’s time to wake up, America! It’s an inside job.