As I write this, much of the country is on lock-down due to the coronavirus. Schools, bars and restaurants are empty; people not in essential services are staying home and avoiding even small gatherings; the stock market has lost over a third of its value; staples like toilet paper and canned goods are scarce; and the news reports indicate more cases and the worst is yet to come. If it did not feel so apocalyptic, it would almost be funny how recent events seem like the plot of a disease disaster film. Think World War Z or The Walking Dead (at least our infected are not trying to eat people).
Some have compared the national mood to 9/11, but I think it is quite different. Back then the emotions were shock and anger, and as we mourned the dead, we knew our military would get even and the towers would be rebuilt. Now the emotions are increasing fear and anxiety, with an unclear timeframe as to when we will get back to normality. So here we are, in a truly global pandemic crisis, with life and death stakes. How do we handle it? How do we handle the closure and cancellation of everything? How do we handle staying at home except to get necessities, perhaps for months? How do we handle the imminent loss of work, income and savings? How do we handle the possibility of hundreds of thousands dying, and a new illness that may be lethal every flu season?
Psychologists talk about resilience, the ability to deal with and get past difficult life circumstances, like the death of a loved one, loss of a job, or soldiers returning from combat. And there is new related research on “AQ”, our Adversity Quotient, or aptitude for handling life’s more routine yet still challenging problems. Both concepts provide useful guidance on how to cope with difficulty. For me however, the current situation is at its core a test of our character. In many ways, life is one long test of character. How we deal with success and disappointment, our close relationships, personal and professional crisis, even our more common problems, all of these experiences and our major choices are tests of our character. I believe the ‘coronavirus hell’ we are in now is no different, albeit we are here collectively, along with everyone else close and far. So the challenge we face now, individually, is how to get through this crisis, and what getting through it reveals about our character.
I am not a medical professional, so I will offer no health care advice. But I have learned a little in my 55 years, in particular from my work helping clients deal with difficult change and get through tough times. The brief ideas below are frankly all common-sense reminders, adapted from principles known to be effective in staying mentally positive and coping with adversity.
- Create a Grateful List. Look for things you can really appreciate, even in this difficult time. For me, that list includes that my immediate family is healthy, both kids are living at home, my wife’s work is continuing (though reduced), electricity and the internet still work, we have savings, spring and warmer weather are coming, we have Netflix and HBO, Wegmans still has 95% of what I usually buy, and even if the gym is closed I can still walk, bike, and do yoga at home. Find the positive, write it down, and be grateful for it.
- Grant Me Serenity. We all know the full prayer: Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Much is happening and more will happen we cannot change. Tough as it seems, we have to accept it, and focus on what we can control because that reduces stress and is more empowering. The rules on social distance and all of the shutdowns are being done for sound medical reasons that hopefully will lead back to some normality in several months. Our energy is wasted if we dwell on what we can’t do, worry about the worst possible outcomes, and complain to others who are obviously in the same situation.
- Make Lemonade. For some, working from home is just as time-consuming as if you were in the office. But for others, this new forced confinement at home can be a gift of time to do things we have put off because of a packed schedule. For me, this is new found time to write — a personal goal I have had for years, clean up parts of the house, catch up on business reading, call old friends, work on business ideas, binge watch recommended shows, spend quality time with family, etc. Make a list of the things you now can and should do given the circumstances, and do them while there is extra time.
- Do For Others. Nothing creates personal happiness and relieves self-absorption like giving to others. There are new opportunities to volunteer (e.g. delivering meals to the needy through local nonprofits), help elderly neighbors by shopping for them, buy a take-out/delivered dinner for friends who are out of work, see who among your friends is low in toilet paper and give them a few rolls, etc. We are all in this crisis together, and the more ‘random acts of kindness’ we can share, the better it will be for all of us.
- Take the Long View. Yes, things are scary right now. The markets and our retirement accounts are way down but once the crisis is under control (and it will be), over time they will rebound. In fact smart investors who can are buying stocks now on the cheap. And yes, we may lose several months of our normal lives, i.e. the working, going out, traveling, being with friends, and the other freedoms we took for granted. But over the course of a long and hopefully healthy lifetime, a few months of our rat-race routine is really not so much to lose. Think about others who “lost” portions of their lives in difficult periods, in far more discomfort and fear: those who lived through the Spanish Flu in the early 1900s; fought in World War II or survived its atrocities; or went through hardship in some other country (e.g. USSR, Cambodia, Somalia or Syria) but made their way here. Our current worries don’t come close. So a little perspective is helpful, and so is some patience.
- Finally, Believe It Will Be OK. Really believe it. There are positive signs if you want to see them. People are helping each other, the Federal government seems to be (at last) responding as needed to the crisis, and other countries like Singapore, South Korea and even China seem to be over the worst of it. So keep up hope, find a few ways to still have fun (wine and Netflix come to mind for me), and help others remain positive too.
Dr. Seth R. Silver is an Organizational Consultant, principal of Silver Consulting, Inc., and has worked with over 150 organizations to improve leadership effectiveness, workplace culture, professional relationships, and overall performance. He was a graduate level professor at St. John Fisher College and RIT for 14 years, and has published on leadership, empowerment, covenants, and team alignment. He can be reached at 585-330-7853, or web-site: SilverConsultingInc.com.