The Gifts of the Coronavirus: How to Find the Silver Lining in a Crisis
Posted March 12, 2020 Change,Conflict Mastery,Emotional Intelligence,Leadership,Mindfulness by Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler, Ph.D.
There have been times in my life when I’ve had to learn important lessons the hard way. It typically goes like this: I want to succeed at a project, so I work beyond the point of productivity without a break, day after day, until I become bleary-eyed, starved for human contact, and anxious. Or I expect myself to become acclimatized to living in a new place too fast, so I push myself to go out to meet new people and attend every event until I fall ill from exhaustion. Or I do work that doesn’t align with my values until I experience physical pain in response to routine acts like sitting at my desk and typing on my computer.
Each time, the physical pain starts slowly with a small ache here, a sleepless night there. But the more I ignore it, the more it builds. One day, the bodily version of a red-alert blares: BEEP. BEEP. BEEP. All systems flashing. My body stages a revolt in the form of a virus. It forces me to stay in bed for hours or days. And when I have really not listened to its signals, I’m laid up for weeks on end.
These times have forced me—in what feels like an external takeover of my body, against my will—to be still, to rest. I finally begin to recuperate once I have fully surrendered to the reality of the situation I’m facing. I stay in bed, read, and rest.
I’ve experienced this scenario at multiple points in my adult life. While the specifics of the situations vary (the particular circumstances of the expectations I’ve placed on myself are slightly different; the particular illness varies), the pattern is always the same: I push too hard, and then I pay the price.
When I experience the unwanted consequences of my own actions, I tend to feel indignant. “How could there possibly be anything wrong with how I’ve been living?” I ask myself. “I need to finish this project, get to know these people, do this work at this company. There can’t be any connection between my own overactivity and the outcome I’m experiencing. And there’s nothing I can personally do to avoid a similar predicament in the future. It’s simply unfair that I have the kind of body that doesn’t let me work 16-hour days even though my husband/friend/colleague seems to be able to handle it just fine.”
After enough years of experiencing this cycle, one day, my perspective shifted. I heard my yoga teacher Brahmani’svoice in my head: “Every action has a result.” Her words allowed me, for the first time, to see my own culpability in the mess I was in. Thankfully, her words also gave me the knowledge that I have the power to get myself out of the mess, too.
I began to view my experience as a gift. My body wanted me to have time to rest, and read, and relax; wanted me to stop working so I could enjoy the world, and my life; wanted me to re-think how I operated and consider whether there might have been a more sustainable way to live.
How Does This Relate to the Coronavirus?
I can’t help but see a similar pattern between my personal experience (which I know others share) and what we’re now experiencing at the global level. We have pushed Mother Earth way past her limits. She tried to warn us, first by issuing warning signs like a hole in the ozone layer and melting ice caps; then by sending a tsunami, deadly hurricanes and heatwaves.
When we finally started to listen, our response was mostly intellectual: we knew we shouldn’t have taken that plane ride, or turned up that air conditioner, but we did it anyway because we could.
We listened, but we didn’t heed the call.
So what did Mother Earth do? She did what she always does: she ratcheted it up a notch. Planning to fly cross-country to speak at a conference? Not anymore. COVID-19 has cancelled your conference. You won’t be flying anywhere. BEEP. BEEP. BEEP.
Surrender and Notice the Gifts
Just a few miles away from where I sit writing this, the school system of New Rochelle, NY has been closed for the week, and the National Guard is delivering food and care to all who are quarantined. In Europe, the entire population of Italy is barred from travel. In China, over three thousand people have died and the supply chain providing medical equipment, not to mention all types of other goods, is severely impaired.
What if we could allow our panic—leading us to hoard toilet paper and be fearful of touching doorknobs—to subside long enough to hear the other messages this virus might be trying to send us?
A great way to hear those messages is to notice: what is this virus giving us already? What gifts are all around us, if only we would notice them?
Here are a few gifts I’ve noticed so far:
- The gift of exchanging time I once spent commuting for more quality time with my kids, rest, or exercise
- The gift of time I would have spent doing errands, enjoying a walk in nature instead
- Rather than eating out, I have more time and inclination to cook for my family
- I am giving the earth the gift of a rest from the carbon expenditure of my air and train travel
- School leaders are experimenting with virtual learning in K-12 settings, which could routinely benefit ill, low income, and rural student globally in the future
I’m sure there are more gifts that will continue to appear if I look for them, but this is a start.
Shift Your Perspective
When we take the time to think about a troubling situation in a new way, suddenly something that has been causing anxiety becomes a situation that may bear gifts. The ability to perceive the gifts requires coming face-to-face with the reality of the situation, even if doing so at first may be uncomfortable or even painful. It requires considering the best you can imagine happening in the situation, while taking into account the reality of what you’re dealing with. As I write in more detail in my new book, this is my definition of an optimal outcome.
What gifts can you imagine in this global crisis, or in any other tough situation you may be facing?