How Wide is Your Window of Tolerance?

A statue of Peter Stuyvesant wearing appropriate PPE.

New times bring new thoughts, or how do we adapt to the times we’re now living in? Several terms are cropping up in social media that can help us rethink and perhaps better understand what we’re going through.

And one of them is not a new definition of cranky people. Cranky still means “given to fretfulness, easily angered, ill-tempered, grouchy, cross.” Sound familiar? Sheltering at home is not always easy. Sometimes resilience is just putting one foot in front of the other.

Someone has asked, “How wide does your window of tolerance have to be?” Window of tolerance, a term coined by Daniel J. Siegel, MD, a psychiatrist, is defined as the zone in which people are able to function most effectively.

“When a person is within their window of tolerance, it is generally the case that the brain is functioning well and can effectively process stimuli. That person is likely to be able to reflect, think rationally, and make decisions calmly without feeling either overwhelmed or withdrawn.”

How wide does our window of tolerance have to be for us to adapt to the disconnection and solitude we are experiencing, to being alone and not having the company of family and friends? What can we do so we don’t feel overwhelmed and withdrawn, which are legitimate feelings in these times. Much food for thought.

One of the ways in which we can be more tolerant of our situation is that we are now better able to see what is essential, another current meme. We now know we don’t need things, we need people, so the media is telling us. It makes me smile, a bit ruefully, that my coauthor and I have been talking about this for nearly two decades, as have others involved in the world of downsizing and decluttering. But now it seems that our message if being heard, loud and clear, by a newer and bigger audience.

What do I miss most? A friend says she can’t wait to invite us over for tea and cookies (she’s a great baker) and I can’t wait to accept her invitation. I would like the library to reopen, even if it’s just to pick up books. And I would love to get a haircut. I would like to greet my favorite people at the farmers market from a distance closer than 6 feet. I don’t miss going to the theater as much as I thought I would, maybe because there is so much available online. I don’t miss in-person meetings (although video conferencing is getting to be a drag). I would love to get on public transportation so I could visit loved ones who are a train ride away.

This need to rethink our lives brings us another new term, or rather an old term that has found new relevance: a circular economy. What this means is to reuse or recirculate what you have.

In practical terms, it means to darn your socks (as my coauthor pointed out a few weeks ago), patch your jeans, wear clothes until they wear out or pass them along to someone who will. It’s a world of wearing hand-me-down clothes, fixing electronics when possible to make them last longer, borrowing books from the library (which is not possible right now) or sharing your books and jigsaw puzzles with others. It’s a world of eating leftovers, not wasting food. It’s making protective face masks from old t-shirts. It’s carrying a bag with you when you shop, being willing to forego the free plastic shopping bags. It’s a world where we care more about the planet and its people than we do about what we can get or own or have.

We widen our window of tolerance, which helps us see that people matter more than things and that makes us more caring of the world around us.

Stay safe. Stay well. Keep sharing what you have.

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

Sheltering in Place: Me and My Stuff

Broadway looking north from 43rd Street — with theaters closed and no traffic.           Photo by Peter Macklin

When I first started putting together this post, my sheltering in place was voluntary, now we’re in “pause” and, since New York City has become the epicenter of the virus in the United States, no one knows how long it will be before we are in total lockdown, something our much praised governor, Andrew Cuomo, is reluctant to do. It is difficult to imagine New York City in total lockdown. We hope it never comes to that.

Everything is changing by the minute and so much has been written and posted already about how to cope with sheltering at home, social distancing, and the emotional upheaval of it all that it’s difficult to say anything new. But I would like to add some personal thoughts.

Be useful.

In our downsizing and decluttering world that means we tackle a clutter issue, we use this time to sort through and possibly pass along things we no longer need. I was fortunate to get a couple of bags to Housing Works, a thrift store that uses its income to help the sick and needy, right before they closed. Literally, an hour before they closed down for the foreseeable future. (What’s foreseeable? Who knows how long that will be.) A neighbor and friend is a doctor who volunteers at shelters and she is always grateful for clothing and toiletries. I took several bags of clothing my daughter had left here and brought them to her front door, just a block away. It was social distancing since we did not meet face to face. Many friends have posted about cleaning our their closets, going through their drawers, straightening kitchen cabinets, and redoing their spice cabinet. I’m not there yet.

Be kind.

Several people in our neighborhood list-serv have offered to go to the grocery store or pharmacy or run errands for others. A woman in my building posted in the mailroom that she would do the same for any residents. That selflessness blows me away.

If we choose not to go out, from the comfort of our homes we can call friends who are alone, chat via any of the web-based videoconferencing platforms, and we can pass along via email all the opportunities to participate online. One morning I took a tour of the orchid show at the New York Botanical Gardens, listened to a concert by a singer/friend’s accompanist, and shared a video of the students at The Berklee College of Music’s rendition of “What The World Needs Now.” Last night I watched a reading of a Broadway play.

And we can be kind to ourselves. I started my day with an online meditation followed by a restorative yoga class. Many of us are working from home and Team Vertellis urges us to be grateful for that. Many others do not have that option, most importantly, health care workers. We are grateful for their dedication. We are also grateful for the first responders, the truck drivers who deliver food, the people who work in our grocery stores and pharmacies, and people who make deliveries, all of whom make our lives better. Thank you for your service.

Be creative.

Many of my friends are posting photos and recipes of the most tantalizing meals, ones that make me hungry and envious. Cooking elaborate meals is not my forte. Soup is more my thing. Other friends are knitting and crocheting. Busy hands are happy hands, as they say, but I’ve found it difficult to focus on a knitting project. Some people are sharing their expertise online. While others are binge-watching shows they hadn’t had time to watch before. I just started The Stranger. Not sure watching television qualifies are creative. Perhaps continuing to read interesting books is a form of creativity.

Be careful.

We are all washing our hands, wiping down all surfaces with disinfectant, keeping our distance (a cotton scarf folded over helps keep out 50 percent of the germs, so I’ve read), or are simply staying home. Many of us have posted the meme where healthcare workers in a hospital hold cards that say: We stay here for you, please stay home for us. We belong at home, the safest place we can be right now. Stay safe. And keep others safe.

This is our disaster. But we can learn from the experiences of others.

Two interesting points from Jon Mooallem. In his New York Times Sunday Review essay about the great earthquake in Alaska in 1964 and how people got through it, he described the cluttered basement where rescuers found 30 boxes in which an Anchorage radio broadcaster had “assiduously packed thousands of letters, photographs, diaries, audio recordings and other material from her life. Here it was: all the joys and agonies of one person’s life, but so blurred and compressed that it was impossible not to recognize the form that all our lives assume from such a telescopic distance — a forgettable blip, a meaningless straight line from birth to death.” Gives one pause, especially for the keepers among us. Does it take a disaster to remind us that stuff is just stuff and it’s people that matter?

Soon after learning of the earthquake, disaster researches expected to witness the breakdown of a society but, upon arrival, “immediately began discovering the opposite: The community was meeting the situation with a staggering amount of collaboration and compassion.”

Wishing everyone safety and health and an opportunity to share with loved ones. We need to face the situation our world is in right now “with a staggering amount of collaboration and compassion.”

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

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