Op-eds

Pandemic a danger and an opportunity

  • dorianne weill
Life happens. No-one is immune. Most of us have experienced unpredictable challenges or even crises. Sometimes the initial response may be, “It’s not fair, why do bad things happen to good people?” But here’s the truth, Life is fair, because it isn’t fair to everyone. The difference is that this time we’re all in it together! We’re living in an unprecedented time of uncertainty and disruption. The global pandemic of coronavirus doesn’t discriminate.
by DORIANNE WEIL | Mar 26, 2020

Nothing connects people more immediately and pervasively than a shared emotional event – good or bad. Remember the feeling in the country during the transition in 1994, or even most recently when South Africa won the World Cup? The sense of community generated by this challenge is palpable. It’s all people talk about, and understandably, it’s completely dominating the media. There is a minimisation of differences – which may have been seen as obstacles only a couple of weeks ago – to a collective sense of co-operation”

This is manifested by many stepping up, wanting to assist, and displaying an appreciation and kindness that says, “We are all members of the human race.” The indignation, righteousness, and understandable anger that spills out towards those who are seen as uncooperative in playing their part in flattening the curve comes from the belief that at the moment, it’s all for one, and one for all, and if you don’t do your bit, you are disregarding all of us.

Paradoxically, there is the potential for another side of human nature to emerge, which hopefully can be contained by the correct response now. As we have learned from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, safety and survival are paramount. When resources, whether they be financial or medical, become really scarce, heart-warming co-operation can quickly turn to aggressive competition and the sense of belonging gives way to “me, myself, and I”. Sometimes this leads to an almost xenophobic reaction – even politicisation and blame – as “my brother” morphs into “my rival” when there’s no food on the table.

One response to this global pandemic is the forced realisation that the future is now, today, and not tomorrow. “One day when” becomes more and more inappropriate when the rug is pulled out from under your feet. A new sense of urgency emerges that reminds us that this isn’t a rehearsal.

Self-isolation often generates self-audit. Instead of responding to external demands on the treadmill of life, we have a chance to listen to our own inner drumbeat and ask, “Where have I been? Where am I going? What’s important to me? How do I want to spend my energy from now on? Am I really feeling fulfilled in being a part of this rat race?”

Often, there is a wake-up call and priority shift which mostly involves valuing the relationships that may have been there, but were somewhat taken for granted.

When the chips were down and many people could make just one phone call before they lost their lives in 9/11, the research highlights that they all said the same thing! Clearly we don’t and shouldn’t live our lives as if we are in a crisis, but we are reminded in monumentally tough times about what’s important.

During this time of self-reflection, people speak of the recognition of the power of support and connection. You aren’t meeting your business colleagues, friends, or family face to face, and you may miss this contact. The fact that you do, also serves to underscore the fact that we are wired for connection, and you may want to be more proactive than you have been in the past in reaching out. Appreciation of the “How are you doing?” call generates an awareness of the importance of behaving in the same way.

Contact and care is just as important as content concerning advice and information.

With the loss of control comes re-evaluation of the balance of self-responsibility and self-direction, with the harsh realisation that there are external influences way beyond our control. It’s pretty humbling! Much of our focus these days is on being in the drivers’ seat of our life, and strategically manipulating circumstances for our personal and business benefit.

As Jordan Belfort says, “Successful people are 100% convinced that they are masters of their own destiny, they’re not creatures of circumstance. They create circumstance. If the circumstances around them suck, they change them.” Well, if anything challenges that, the coronavirus pandemic does!

Let’s not forget, however, that we can direct our responses.

These range from denial of the real impact and seriousness of what we are facing to unbridled panic. In some ways, the range of responses is almost like a huge Rorschach test. Personality traits are enhanced. People who tend to be anxious will panic, people who are emotionally unexpressive will appear to be almost infuriatingly and unrealistically calm and dismissive.

The expression of fear and anxiety is a normal reaction to the traumatic situation that we are living through. Emotional intelligence is the recognition of emotions, what triggered them and why, and then dealing with them intelligently. It’s a combination of head and heart, never privileging one over the other. Hence, considered factual information is extremely important as are, indeed, the odd touches of humour which serve not to diminish the seriousness, but give tiny breaks to lighten the load.

During social distancing and staying at home, it’s advisable to exercise some discipline in not obsessively looking at your screen or TV 24/7. Of course, information is paramount, but so is giving yourself some downtime and distraction.

Certainly, we are forced to learn patience, like it or not. But, together with an inability to accelerate the process comes renewed appreciation and gratitude. Simple things like the beauty of a flower previously unnoticed, hopefully the health of your family, the smile of your child, become blessed gifts, and once again may generate a new resolve to leave this challenging time just a little different.

What helps immeasurably in seeing us through is undoubtedly an optimistic world view. We aren’t talking about being unrealistic or overly optimistic, but having the belief and a knowledge that “this too shall pass”.

Of course, in these times, no-one will ever say, “Thank you, Lord, for this amazing learning opportunity”, but perhaps the Chinese were correct when they combined the symbols for danger and opportunity.

  • Dorianne Weil or Dr D is a recognised practicing clinical psychologist dealing with individuals, couples, and families.

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