appeciation

Seven lessons from a pandemic

Deserted streets. Shuttered restaurants. Empty shelves in the supermarkets. Dizzying unemployment graphs in the papers. Announcements over the supermarket, warning us to stay six feet away from each other. The new ritual of donning a face mask before going into a public building. Mass graves in New York City. Rotting corpses piled up in rented trucks in New Jersey.

It’s like a dystopian science fiction movie. But it’s real. And we’re living in it. And we’re having to learn new ways of living.

In fact I’m hearing from lots of people that they are, in some ways, thriving. We’re gathering on Zoom: connecting, meditating, learning. We’re finding new ways to connect. We’re experiencing stillness. We’re reflecting. We’re considering life from a more existential perspective: What’s important? What’s life about?

We’re looking for meaning.

I’ve pulled out just seven lessons from this crisis that have been important for me. (I’d love to hear in the comments what’s important for you.)

1. Embrace vulnerability

In the papers there are pictures of demonstrations against stay-at-home orders. There are stories of people gathering in large social groups, even though illness and deaths have been tracked back to similar gatherings. I see people cherry-picking data, trying to convince themselves and others that this virus is no big deal.

I think of all those phenomena as refusals to acknowledge the vulnerability of our situation. These are expressions of unacknowledged fear. It’s scary to accept that this virus is going around, and that in some places, even with the numerous precautions that are going on, medical systems and even funeral homes are breaking down under the strain. It’s scary to accept that a handshake, or even just casually walking by someone, might result in illness or death. It’s unnerving to acknowledge that right now, in this moment, you might be infected and be a danger to others. Rather than face those anxieties, no wonder some people want to carry on as normal, or to pretend that there’s really no risk.

It takes courage to admit to those fears. It takes courage to admit to uncertainty: there’s much we don’t understand. There’s much we don’t know, including how long this thing is going to go on.

So take a breath. Acknowledge that fear. Feel it. See it. You don’t have to let it control you. But you can know that being in denial of it is, in a sense, just another way of letting it control your life.

2. Count your blessings

This situation is hard. It’s hard to have your life disrupted. Many people have lost their jobs. In my small town, several businesses have announced that they’re closing for good. I’ve barely seen my kids in weeks, because my partner is at high risk of being exposed to the virus at her workplace and it’s too risky to have them come over here. I’ve lost one friend to this thing already.

All those things are hard. But however hard it is, you can find someone else who has had it harder.

And so I find it helpful to count my blessings. At least I’m used to working from home. At least I’m an introvert, and used to isolation. At least I’m still working. My income has been affected, but I’m still able to pay the rent. I’m still healthy.

So spend some time every day thinking about what’s going right. And think about someone who’s one or more rungs down the ladder of hardship. In other words, count your blessings. You always have more of them than you thought you did.

3. See the big picture

Although we’re doing difficult things and making sacrifices, we’re also saving lives. Yes, when we wear our masks and swerve six feet to the side when someone approaches, we’re avoiding getting infected. But we’re also avoiding infecting others. Because the chances are that if we catch this thing we’re not going to know for several days, during which time we’d be spreading the virus. So all these precautions are literally saving lives. As has often been pointed out, it’s a strange kind of heroism that involves staying at home on your couch watching Netflix, but it’s heroism (and compassion) nonetheless.

So relate your discomforts to the big picture. You can look back on this in years to come and realize that you saved lives. That’s a big deal, and you can feel good about it right now.

4. Realize what you do affects others

What you do matters. Small actions make a difference. Wearing a mask normalizes wearing masks. It encourages others to overcome their reluctance to do so. Giving someone the “‘rona swerve” reminds others that it’s important that we keep our distance right now. Every time we act, we’re reinforcing or undermining social norms that can save lives.

Everything we post on social media has an effect. Studies show that negative emotions spread much faster on Facebook than do positive ones. False information leaves a mark so strong on our minds that even when we’re given a correction, we’re more likely to remember the myth than the fact. So it behooves us to be mindful of our speech, and to be careful about what we share. Fact-checking, as I like to say, is a spiritual practice.

This is a reminder that we all have power. Remember that. If you’re conscious of this fact, you’re more likely to act wisely and with compassion.

5. Find new meaning

A lot of people, their normal habits disrupted, often with far more time on their hands than is normally the case, are first finding that they’re lost, bored, and confused, but then come through that phase, into a place where there’s a greater sense of meaning and purpose. What that meaning is varies from person to person. It’s only important that you find yours. I can’t tell you what’s meaningful for you, but I’d guess it’s to do with connecting with others, becoming more loving, or being of service to others. Or to do with creating, appreciating the moment, growing, or learning.

So take time out. Reflect. Read. Daydream. You’ll figure it out, this business of having meaning in your life.

6. Embiggen your heart

There’s a lot of suffering in the world. Closing ourselves off from that fact doesn’t protect us — it just causes a different, and worse, kind of pain. It brings isolation, disconnectedness, loneliness. As the 8th century Indian teacher Shantideva wrote, “After seeing the suffering of the world, how can this suffering from compassion be considered great?”

Suffering can often shrink our perspective. In pain, we curl in upon ourselves, mourning our lot. Grieving, we become obsessed with our own unhappiness. But just as there’s a part of us that suffers, there’s a part of us that is capable of responding compassionately to that suffering. And once that’s happened — once we’ve shown support and encouragement to the suffering part of us — we uncurl. We open up. We blossom. We open to the reality that others are suffering as well. In fact may of them are suffering worse than we are. We move from self-compassion to selfless compassion.

Now, compassion is not just a feeling. The Sanskrit word for compassion, karun?, comes from the verb karoti, which means “to make” or “to do.” Compassion is not a feeling, but a desire that propels us to act. Specifically, it’s the desire to relieve suffering to whatever extent we can.

Feeling that we’re going through difficulties alone can be intensely painful. Loneliness amplifies suffering. So, often the best way of relieving suffering is to support others as they go through hard times. Knowing that someone understands what we’re going through relieves us of some of the burden of isolation. It’s easier to carry our suffering when someone is helping to bear the load. So simply expressing support and solidarity is a powerful expression of compassion.

So reach out to others. Call your friends and family. Check up on them. Listen rather than lecture. Let them know you know what they’re going through, and that you understand their pain. That’s more effective than trying to “fix” things for them.

And if you can safely give practical help, do that too.

7. Start planning a better world

Even as hundreds of millions of people around the world are losing their livelihoods, and even as people are dying lonely deaths, the stock market is soaring. Billionaires are adding more billions to the billions that they already have and already could never spend. Workers in Amazon warehouses that complain about being forced to work without protective gear are being fired. Doctors and nurses that complain about being forced to work without PPE are being retaliated against. In Russia, doctors that make these complaints are mysteriously falling from high windows, which happens a lot to social critics in that country.

And it turns out that many of those doing jobs that turn out to be essential, and the jobs that we really miss being there, are those we are led to believe are unimportant and “menial.” And in the US they usually live paycheck to paycheck, can’t afford to take a single day off work, are one bill away from financial catastrophe, don’t have health insurance, and certainly can’t afford to pay hospital bills. The exact details of these inequalities vary from country to country, but it’s clear that although we’re all in it together, some of us are more in it than others. We’re all in a storm at sea, but some are on luxury yachts while others cling to flotsam.

The world that’s falling apart around us has been sick for a long time. We’ve forgotten that everybody matters.

Most of us are craving a return to normal but, let’s face it, normal was not good. So when this crisis is over, let’s make sure that what we rebuild isn’t an exact replica of the old normal. Let’s make it better.

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