How to use compassion to gain a new perspective to the unexpected

Week 7 of isolation. What do you find surprising or intriguing about how you manage yourself in isolation? 

Let’s do a short recap of the emotional experiences in the weeks of physical distancing, so far, shall we? After initial reactions of disbelief and outrage against the emerging disruptions, moments of acceptance of what is may have followed. The gap between rejection and acceptance was filled by finding new routines. The new routines allowed us to continue the activities we were doing before. For me, new routines came with new activities also, like online yoga, which spiced up my days. 

By week 7, life in isolation is likely to be perceived as the new normal. A normality where we may have gotten used to e-see people, both in work and personal contexts. In the webinars that I facilitate, I do miss the richness of information that I used to receive from non-verbal cues in face-to-face communications.  

The other day, one of my uncles shared some photos taken two years ago at my niece’s baptism.  It dawned on me that in the new normality, I feel out of time and place. And I’m intrigued by this state. 

“On a normal day, people interact with somewhere between 11 and 16 weak ties on the way to work, while running errands, or on a break between meetings at the office.”, write the authors of the Harvard Business Review article, Why You Miss Those Casual Friends so Much. In the last 7 weeks, I interacted once from meters distance with a neighbour, a person belonging to my weak social ties. As for my strong ties, the initial enthusiasm of reconnecting with old contacts faded away and was replaced by the fatigue of keeping up this new habit. 

Without the physical presence of people who are part of my social network, I feel I’m flying high in the sky without being able to see the proximity of land. Does this sound familiar to you? Have you recently felt that your existence has shifted into a being nowhere normality? In week 7 of isolation, nowhere is my new address.

“It’s the most important place in the world – nowhere.” writes Tatyana Tolstaya, in her collection of short stories, Aetherial Worlds. “ Everyone should spend some time there. It’s scary, empty, and cold; it’s sad beyond all bearing; it’s where all human communication is lost, where all your sins, all your shortcomings, all lies and half-truths and double-dealings emerge from the dusk to look you in the eye with neither disapproval nor empathy, but simply and matter-of-factly. Here we are. Here you are. ‘And filled with revulsion, you read the story of your life.’ And you make decisions. “

Being nowhere means we are in the absence of the physical presence of others. If we choose to, for hours on end, the stream of our consciousness can go on uninterrupted by others’ sounds. This is how it must be like in a meditation retreat. And this is the beauty of the nowhere place. It’s like watching an ongoing parade of clouds, different forms, colors and sizes crossing a clear sky. These clouds are our undisturbed thoughts emerging in aloneness. As Tatyana Tolstaya writes, some thoughts, like memories of duplicity, personal flaws and lies can be menacing. And yet, what treasure chest memories are! Who would we be without our memories, both those we are proud of and those we are ashamed of?! 

Being in the nowhere space I found a gem in flashbacks of a beloved past, of great grandfather and father. Great-grandfather fought in the Second World War. Father spent the first half of his life in communism. In the second half, when realizing that the salary of a high-school teacher would not suffice to afford a good education for my sister and me, he learned the ropes of entrepreneurship and free market economy. 

Thinking of great grandfather and father triggered an overwhelming compassion for their struggles, of which neither of them spoke about. The compassion cloud which took over the space of my consciousness showered my heart in humbleness. In the last years of life, father fought cancer. His last intelligible words were, “I am glad.” When he couldn’t talk anymore, he would simply look into my eyes with smiling eyes. 

Great-grandfather didn’t talk about his war experience. I didn’t even know he took part in the war, until two years ago when one of us, his great grandchildren visited the old house. Somewhere in a wooden shelf, a letter was found. The pages had a yellow hue. The letter was written by great-grandfather’s captain, describing his bravery. Next to the letter, there was a small cardboard box where a medal should have been. The medal couldn’t be found though.   

Compassion smoothly arose in my being nowhere space. It connected me to the past and empowered me to make decisions in the present. How about you? What kind of clouds of the past might march through your sky? Allow yourself to observe and feel whatever content you glimpse. What might you notice? 

Being in the nowhere, we may discover that our life stories are at the intersection of others’ life stories. Our destinies are captured in a matrix of decisions and actions, which entangle our lives with the lives of the people who will ever matter to us. When we contemplate on their life stories, we can see our own lives in new perspectives. 

Beloved memories and hope! These are the most rewarding moments in being nowhere.

In week 7 of isolation, what do your hard times consist of? Do you miss giving a hug to close friends? Are you tired switching back and forward between work tasks and attending kids? Are you overwhelmed with the marathon of virtual work meetings? 

Exhaustion may have crippled in. How about asking yourself, “What would my grandfather have done in this situation?”, “What would I have done if I had faced grandfather’s challenges?”

Each generation copes with unexpected changes. You may have accepted that now it’s your turn to go through difficulties. But you may have reached a point when you feel you cannot bear any longer the physical distancing and all the consequences resulting from it. Ask yourself another two questions, “In what ways does the COVID-19 disrupt my life today?”, “Under the circumstances, how can I keep focus on what is essential today?”.

The corona virus outbreak may last longer than expected. And it may take unforeseeable turns. Manage wisely your energy. Spend some time in your nowhere space. You may find some inspiring thoughts. 

Update. In the New York Times article, How Long Will a Vaccine Really Take, published on April 30th, the earliest date for the distribution of an effective vaccine against coronavirus is August 2021.

How are you reacting to the COVID-19 pandemic?

“Is this an overreaction?”. This is the question that I have often heard and asked myself often, in the last two weeks.

Each morning came with this question, “What decision should I make?” about things which yesterday used to be routine. Things like, taking your kids to hobbies, meeting a friend for a coffee, having the usual business travels, etc

“Is it an overreaction to cancel face-to-face social gatherings?”

“Is it an overreaction to postpone my travel plans, whether abroad or within the country?”

“Is it an overreaction to self-isolate in our home, which will become home office and school?”

The world has always been polarised on different issues, in each culture and society. The outbreak of COVID-19 has brought the most global polarisation, so far. Some individuals under-reacted, “This is a flu like any other. Why panic?”. Up until 2 weeks ago, I was one of the people who underrated the spread of coronavirus. “Death happens every second. Seasonal flu deaths happen yearly. Let’s stay calm and carry on.”

Some other individuals, like my husband, overreacted by compulsively reading coronavirus updates. Every hour, he’d resort to reading some piece of news about the cases in China and Italy.

Change, especially the life threatening kind that coronavirus is bringing, is something the human brain dreads. Underestimating such a life threat, we postpone thinking about proactive measures. By overreacting, we bring so much panic and anxiety upon us that we fail to see the most constructive ways of action. What would be a constructive reaction?

What the human brain loves is the predictability and hope for a future. So, how about helping the brain do what it loves most instead of allowing ourselves to go down to an apocalyptic mode of thinking?

The new reality is that we are facing a dramatic and disruptive moment in our lives. How can we work with ourselves to identify some things to focus on towards a future that will bring back the sense of safety and certainty. Other than under-reaction and overreaction, we have a third option. We can choose to take this virus seriously and focus on adaptive strategies.

What can we do? How can we help ourselves and the communities we are part of?

Here are some ideas about how we can learn to manage ourselves, our thoughts and emotions under uncertainty.

1. Accept the change. How do you know that you haven’t come to terms with the new reality? Do you have a feeling of loss? We all had planned events we were looking forward to. Events that were about to bring joy and other positive feelings are now cancelled. Of course, we experience loss. Over the night, hugs and kisses turned into a sign of unfriendliness. How about giving ourselves a big hug instead. We are together in this pandemic. What else can we do?

2. We can learn to accept the change by practicing gratitude for the now. The explosive contamination brought a disruption to our daily routine. While new practical arrangements need to be sorted out, there is a feeling of chaos and confusion.

In my family, considering one of us is in the group risk, we chose to homeschool our 8 year old son. This decision led to spending more time on figuring out and doing the teaching. Consequently, I have less working time and I am tempted to fall into lamenting. Yet, in all the chaos of the 5th day of new routines, there is also a warm feeling of reinforced connection with my children who mentioned, “You’re the best mom teacher!” 

Instead of lamenting the things we cannot do anymore, we can appreciate the new things we’re doing.

Gratitude for closer connection with people we thought we were connected already.

Gratitude for finally having the time to do the thorough house cleaning and reorganising we kept postponing.

Gratitude for being able to breath!

While we’re cleaning our homes in self-isolation, we can take this opportunity to rethink our lives and envision other ways of living. What are the activities we could stop doing to make room for something new? What positive changes could we initiate, i.e., studying for an online degree, learning a new skill? What else could we do?

3. Take care of our immune systems, SEE: Sleep well, Eat well, and indoor Exercise. Have you been accumulating deficit hours of sleep? Now it’s time to bring back some balance. The time spent on commuting can now be time spent sleeping. Do you have a waiting list of healthy foods? Start eating blueberries, broccoli, garlic, ginger, honey, lemon, eggs, etc. When the gym is prohibited for the time being, how about checking up the online exercise offers on YouTube? What else could we do?

4. Stay close in spirit to family and friends, by phone, email and social media. Social media addicts, now it’s not a good time to quit the addiction. Quite the opposite, it’s high time we abused online communication channels. Fingers crossed for apps like WhatsApp, Skype, Slack, etc, to support all the users.

5. Lead yourself and your community through the lowest moments of panic by using your personal abilities. Are you a funny person? Please come up with humour and spread it abundantly. Are you a poet? Go ahead and read poems to others. Are you a musician? Sing or play cheerful songs to the rest of us. Whatever strength you have, start using it to bring positive emotions and connection.

An African proverb says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Now it’s the time to walk together fast to the farthest possible futures. To adapt, we need to learn to be alone and reassess what we can do and how we can help. It’s time to learn how to co-create through social isolation.What if social isolation were the norm? What kind of communities, supply chain systems, education, life, would we build?

The faster we adapt to the unwanted crisis, the better for everyone.

How about you? What proactive measures did you come up with? And, in case you’re wondering if we stock piled toilet paper, the answer is no. We wanted to leave some for others.