This article was originally posted on medium by Amanda Efthimiou
It’s one of the few moments of my life where I feel comfortable writing about how there are no accidents, that life’s unfolding happens at exactly the moment it’s supposed to. Ten days ago I was at the beach just outside Lisbon with friends. It was a warm, sunny day, and we were sitting on the sand having a picnic lunch after a morning surf session. The night before many of us were at a local bar listening to a friend DJ. Coronavirus, aka Covid-19, was only a momentary topic of conversation; we had no idea how in such a short period of time our lives would change so drastically.
Ten days later and I’m sitting at home with that same brilliant Lisbon sun shining onto my balcony. I’m dealing with a surfing-induced sprained ankle. I’m in my apartment with my crutches, physically vulnerable. But my specially-timed physical immobility still feels like a small dent in time compared to the witnessing of how the world is walking a tightrope bordering on complete collapse. With changes of such great speed and magnitude, each day in this new paradigm feels like a whole month in our old world.
So here I am, surfing a different wave. I’m staying the fuck home, following Portugal’s orders to self-isolate, to quarantine. These words can’t possibly do justice to the feelings that come with social distancing and taking all necessary health precautions. While in this state I have sat for many hours contemplating, like many of us, how this is going to affect me and everyone else, while fruitlessly trying to predict when this nightmare will be over and when we can wake up and return to our lives. But we can’t go back to yesterday. We can only go forward and embrace the groundlessness that awaits us.
Just a few critical days before my self-isolation, I facilitated a women’s gathering where we discussed Pema Chödrön’s concept of groundlessness:
The sense of inner strength, compassion, and openness of mind and heart comes from becoming more comfortable with the fact that people and things are always shifting and changing. That is the nature of reality, and rather than that being bad news and unsettling, it actually frees us to see each moment as unique and fresh and each personal encounter as happening for the first time.
We know that everything at every moment is always changing, yet as humans we resist this basic fact. When faced with a perceived threat, our amygdala — the ancient, reptilian part of our brain — gets into high gear and takes us into fight or flight response as we confront fear. We are rapidly processing the fact that sometimes life isn’t going to go our way; we struggle to cope with the fact there is as much to lose as there is gain, and that it might require us to ride out some pretty big waves.
How can our brains even handle this uncertainty, and how do we let this groundlessness fold into our lives without drowning? Fortunately, we have a choice. We can ride the wave and transform a breakdown into a breakthrough. There’s three areas where I believe we can come to our own breakthroughs, but first, I’ll give some context to this breakdown-breakthrough dynamic.
Breakdowns with severe economic, societal and health impact worthy of being called a pandemic can lead to breakthroughs of many levels. They can start small when realizing the power of solidarity, as in Italy where people choose optimism and joy by playing instruments and singing from their balconies, a lesson in how voices of unity echo farther than voices of fear. Breakdowns can heal our planet and climate advocacy can take on a new meaning, as in the immediate effects of slowed factory activity in China showing a drastic decrease in pollution levels in just a two week period. Forward-thinking thought leaders like Li Edelkoort says Coronavirus “offers a blank page for a new beginning,” with this “quarantine of consumption” and subsequent economic recession giving way to a reset of values and radical shifts in the design, fashion and art worlds.
Breakthroughs may be just what we need right now. Writing articles can lead to breakthrough changes in societal thinking and behavior. I admire the no-nonsense and urgent calls for people to step up and enact change as quickly as the spread of the virus itself, as in the case where one person’s voice, in Why You Must Act Now, can surface and unify millions under a singular mission.
Yet there’s so much we can do at an individual level to achieve our own breakthroughs. Potentially, it’s about breaking our old habits. While globally conventional patterns are collapsing by the minute and giving way to new models that guide our lives, I believe that every day we remain in self-isolation can be seen as an incredible gift: to break those habits that no longer serve us, and to remind ourselves that each of us has the power to respond to the current situation however we wish to.
So as we move into uncharted territory, we can choose how we communicate, connect, and create. No matter what changes await us and no matter how different our “yesterday” used to be, our choices empower us to unearth our productivity, positivity, and a potentially a renewed sense of purpose.
How we communicate matters right now, and we can learn to do so thoughtfully in a crisis. We can set up our own boundaries for consumption, drawing the line between being informed and being overloaded. We can hold ourselves accountable for the spread of misleading information. We can respond to the fearful behaviors of others with compassion instead of judgement. We can share from experience, instead of condoning another’s actions and telling people how they should behave or react.
And communication governs how well we lead. Andrew Horn believes that leaders are molded during times of challenge:
How can I lead with compassion, stability, and support during times where many will be facing significant financial, emotional, and health challenges?
Connection during a time of crisis is how actively we choose to nourish ourselves while staying present to, supporting, and validating the challenges (and joys) of others. As human beings our brains are wired to connect: the neural circuitry that helps us feel pleasure and pain is the same as that which makes staying socially connected a lifelong need, one as vital as food and shelter.
On a tangible level, Brené Brown describes Connection as:
The energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.
We all have someone who cares about our wellbeing and whom we care for; and if that fact has been forgotten, a crisis can remind us of this. Even if we’re forced to remain in isolation for an indeterminate period, we shouldn’t ignore our needs for connection, be it our partners, family, friends, colleagues. We are fortunate to live in a digitally fluent society where we can communicate in a vast number of virtual ways. Whereas yesterday we may have just sent a quick check-in text to someone, now it’s our moment to pick up the phone and have a video call instead: our days living in uncertainty could pass by far more meaningfully than we could have imagined.
Now is the time to think differently about how we’re going to engage with our new world. The Chinese word for “crisis” is composed of two characters signifying “danger” and “opportunity.” Creativity represents how well and how quickly we solve problems and respond to new opportunities in the face of crisis. It’s our signal for how much we can rise above and thrive.
Creativity through storytelling builds empathy: the video 10 Days Later: What Italians Wish They Had Known urges people to take seriously self-isolation measures and make responsible choices and stop the spread of the virus. Creativity and divergence coexist: we need people from all career backgrounds and skill sets to find ways to strategize and enact the mass behavioral changes required in mitigation and containment of the virus. Creativity is needed for an economic transition: both large corporations and small businesses may need to adapt their business models or develop a completely new one, during and after this pandemic ends. Artists and performers will have to recreate their ways of working in order to survive. Whether or not this creative output goes beyond individual impact to reach international significance, we can still tap into our inner creator and affect change.
Truthfully, yesterday won’t be coming back. It’s how quickly we can accept the things we cannot control. It’s how we navigate this groundlessness by cultivating small breakthroughs. Let’s rethink how we communicate, connect, and create. There’s no better time than right now.
Facts, not fear. Patience, not panic. Clean hands, open hearts.