With the arrival of COVID-19, we are all experiencing some degree of disruption to daily life. For most of us, these disruptions are thankfully not life-threatening and consist of things like school and event cancellations, working from home, and postponed travel plans. Our specific circumstances vary, but we share this opportunity to find meaning in this new and surreal experience.
Anytime we are forced out of our routine and habits, we have opportunities for growth. The very act of successfully adapting to change and unpredictability creates psychological flexibility, an essential component of good mental health. COVID-19, which is forcing almost all of us to adapt to a different daily routine, also offers the gift of time for reflection.
I urge you not to waste your self-quarantine panicking over the latest COVID-19 news or scrolling through social media (though binging Love is Blind is understandable!). Instead, use this experience to clarify what's important in your life and to ready yourself to move on after COVID-19 stronger, calmer, and clearer than before.
Start by pausing to really absorb the magnitude of this moment. It is almost unthinkable that life as we know it grinds to a halt like this. When else has this happened in your lifetime? It is a powerful reminder that there are forces greater than ourselves that don't bend to our will. It is humbling and humanizing, and can even be a meaningful turning point in our lives if we give ourselves time to absorb the lessons of this experience.
So what are those lessons, and how can we make the most of them?
1. Impermanence: The first lesson of COVID-19 is a reminder that we are vulnerable to illness and death. Although the death rate of this particular disease is considered relatively low, already thousands of people have lost their lives, with many more to come. Coming to grips with our impermanence is a powerful way to liberate ourselves from fear and live more fully. Pausing to acknowledge the fragility of our health encourages us to take stock of our lives and reflect on how we are spending our limited time on Earth. To make the most of this lesson, take some time to complete the following exercises:
- If someone were to write your obituary, what would you like him or her to say about you and how you lived your life? How well does your current life reflect those values? How can your behavior and lifestyle align better with those goals? Write it down!
- Notice what goes well during your lockdown, personally and professionally: Maybe you really enjoy skipping your commute or having extra time with your kids in the mornings. Maybe a phone call or email is a reasonable substitute for a meeting. Consider what innovations you can take with you after this disruption ends.
2. Interdependence: Our interdependence as humans becomes suddenly undeniable in the face of a phenomenon like COVID-19. Your health is no longer just yours to safeguard; your neighbor's behavior, your workplace's policies, or the sanitation practices of your grocery store or local restaurant might now help determine your likelihood of contracting the virus. Similarly, whether you choose to fly or travel and become an unwitting vector of the disease affects those around you. We are all truly in this together!
We must care for ourselves and make choices that show consideration for those in our communities. To make the most of this lesson:
- Take care of yourself: Obviously, wash your hands. Take the extra time afforded in your lockdown schedule to lower stress through self-care practices like meditation, gentle exercise, fresh air, warm baths, board games/puzzles, music, etc. Paint your house, organize a closet, make a scrapbook. Spend the extra time at home doing something calming and pleasant for yourself, and build habits you can take with you when "normal life" returns.
- Take care of others: Stay home if you can. Check in (via phone/email) on elderly neighbors or relatives to see if they need help. Pick up a bag of groceries or medications for someone at higher risk than you. Pause to think about the impact of your behavior, not just during this period of disruption, but moving forward, by asking yourself: What impact do I make on the world? How can I be a source of positivity or support to others?
- For a deeper look at this lesson, read this brief, comforting piece by Jack Kornfield about our place in the world.
3. Gratitude: The prospect of serious illness reminds us to be thankful for our health and other blessings. Seeing others struggle with illness can inspire us to better care for our bodies and appreciate more—and judge less—our physical capacities. Pause to give thanks for the various aspects of life with which you are blessed (for example, the opportunity to spend more time at home with your family during the pandemic). Other ideas for making the most of this lesson:
- To get started thinking about the many things you have to be thankful for, practice a short (5-minute) guided meditation.
- Write down 10 things you are grateful for throughout the day—perhaps keep them in a note on your phone or in a journal. Pausing to notice and write down what you are grateful for in the moment is a great way to practice mindfulness, too!
- Speak words of gratitude to someone you appreciate (by phone/email/TikTok.) Take the time to video chat with a loved one and offer them an emotional connection, which is as important for our health as exercise and diet.
Life will be different moving forward. Some facets of that are yours to determine: What will you take with you from this experience? How can the lessons of COVID-19 mark a positive turning point for you? These are powerful questions I hope you take the time to answer in these coming weeks.
Even with an intention to make the most of it, the reality is that COVID-19 will create grief and hardship in the coming months. I wish you and your loved ones good health, and I hope these lessons and exercises offer you meaning and purpose during this time.