By now, everyone in the country and throughout the world has had their lives upended by the Coronavirus outbreak. In the United States we are seeing a deplorable lack of preparation, compassion, and leadership on the part of our federal government, while healthcare workers are fighting on the frontlines to keep up with an accelerating situation.
Knowing that we are painfully unprepared, what’s the best way to deal with this pandemic?
Here are a couple of ways I’m seeing people respond:
Let’s take a quick look at each of these ways of dealing with a crisis.
1. Denial – This is an unexpectedly powerful force in many people’s lives. Denying that something exists allows us to avoid dealing with it. Pure and simple. We’re already very good at this; we ignore the homeless folks on our streets, the pollution in our water, the staggering number of deaths by gun violence, etc.
The problem with denial is that it always comes back to bite us in the ass. Pretending that Amazon doesn’t exploit its workers because we like free shipping just helps the world’s richest man expand his power. And whistling “The Sun’ll Come Out Tomorrow” during a pandemic might make you feel better for a moment, but it is just a distraction. Things will continue to get worse until we finally acknowledge the severity of the crisis and are willing to take the appropriate action.
2. Panic – This is a primal response that’s hardwired into all mammals. When we first adopted Gatsby, our Bernese Mountain Dog, he would flip out in crowds. If there were too many people around, he would start running wildly in circles. One time he even leapt into traffic before we were able to wrestle him back on the curb. His ability to make good decisions had been completely overthrown by his animal instincts.
This happens to people too. Our emotions overwhelm us and we feel out of control– heart pounding, sweating, even screaming at some real or perceived threat. So when something like a pandemic shows up–and let’s face it, even the term pandemic sounds scary– it’s natural for us to slip into panic mode and start hoarding toilet paper, looking at every neighbor as if they were patient zero, and washing down every surface in our home 10 times.
There are very real reasons to be scared, but panic is not a productive response. Panic manifests as fight, flight or freeze, and any one of these responses could lead to disaster in a pandemic.
3. Hopelessness – When there’s no obvious solution (no vaccine, no silver bullet), then giving up starts to look very appealing. If there’s no light at the end of the tunnel, then why not just throw in the towel? The answer is simple: you can’t win if you don’t fight. Doctors say that patients who have a positive, determined attitude stand a much better chance of recovering quickly than those who give in to despair.
When a friend of mine was facing a serious illness, he sought out a wise Buddhist elder in our community for guidance. “My doctor told me that people with this condition only have a 12% survival rate,” he said dejectedly. The Buddhist elder looked him straight in the eye and exclaimed, “Then determine that you’ll be one of the 12% who survive!” My friend said it felt like a lightning bolt had gone through his body. “Yes! I will be one of the 12%!” he replied, now filled with conviction.
Denial, panic, hopelessness — none of these responses are sufficient if we want to get through this period with our sanity intact. Instead, I propose using the 3 F’s: family, friends, and faith.
During times of crisis, the connections we have to our family can be crucial in helping us keep going. I know there are some members of your family you probably don’t like seeing, and you may even have legitimate reasons for feeling that way. But now is not the time to hold on to resentment towards your sister, brother-in-law, mom, or whomever.
Instead, approach your family members with compassion, especially those who may be feeling panicked and hopeless. The Buddha, when meeting someone new, always spoke first to break the ice. Have a lot of ice in your family? Try telling them you love them– it’s an instant ice-breaker. Thank your parents for bringing you into the world.
Don’t hold on to old shit. Even if you have been let down or mistreated in the past, consider forgiveness.
Because you may not get the chance in the future.
Plus, gratitude and forgiveness strengthen your immune system. It’s true. You can read about the studies UC Berkeley conducted on gratitude and health.
You might have family members who are in denial about the seriousness of the pandemic. This can be super frustrating, especially if you love them and want them to survive! A courageous yet compassionate conversation about how much you care about them and want them to be safe can be 100x more convincing than an edict from the Governor.
As the cliché goes, friends are the family we choose for ourselves.
Having friends we can talk to, whether in person (6 feet away, of course), via Skype, Facetime, Zoom or just old-fashioned phone calls, can mean the difference between losing hope and staying afloat. Even if things get dark, they always seem a bit lighter when there’s someone you can share them with. Gossip, bad jokes, talking dog videos, they’re all better with a friend.
A true friend is someone who will support you in good times and bad. Someone who might even violate quarantine to get you needed supplies or medicines. Someone who will hold your hand when you need it most.
Ben Franklin’s old motto couldn’t be more current – “a friend in need is a friend indeed!”
Faith is what you believe in, what you hold dear. Whatever that means to you, now is a good time to reconnect with that.
As a Buddhist, I believe in many things: the Law of Cause and Effect, the limitless potential of each individual, the power to change poison into medicine, and that each person is at their core an enlightened being.
You may believe in something else. Wonderful!
As long as your beliefs help you face this epidemic by embracing and uniting with others, I support you.
Another Buddhist friend once told me that the function of good is to unite, and the function of darkness is to divide. Especially in times of crisis, philosophies, religions, and belief systems that bring people together will help us defeat this pandemic.
Having faith in the goodness of people and the potential for individuals, systems, and societies to change can lead to creative solutions. Innovation springs from hope and the universe works in concert with those who seek to improve life for everyone, especially the weakest and most vulnerable among us.
So, batten down the hatches. This one is going to be rough. But I believe the 3F’s can help see you through not only this pandemic, but whatever else life has to throw at you.
Wishing you health and fulfillment. And stay safe!
The Career Buddha