Advice From Wise Elders About Navigating the Pandemic

Sage advice from spiritual teachers about how to steer through the pandemic

Posted Jul 18, 2020

At the start of the pandemic, I had a dream in which I was on a big yacht sailing across the Atlantic when it broke down in mid-ocean. A helicopter was dispatched to rescue us, and it was piloted by an elderly man.

In working to interpret the dream, it struck me that we're (appropriately ) expending a great deal of effort protecting and even avoiding the elderly during the pandemic. But it may be that elders are key to helping us weather it—and the turbulent times in which it's emerged, and which it's amplified—given that they have (at least theoretically, developmentally) something all of us need right now: wisdom. Perhaps especially the wisdom to know the difference between what we can change and what we can't.

It's the kind of wisdom that comes from having been around awhile, having lived through wars and depressions, pogroms and pandemics, gains and losses over and over again. In other words, they're more emotionally experienced in managing disruption, being resourceful and resilient. So maybe we should spend less time avoiding them and more time asking for their advice.

Below, then, is some sage advice from a variety of elders on how we can steer our course through this unprecedented event, hailing from the arenas of art, literature, psychology, media, philosophy, and spirituality.

“Part of the work, the calling now, is to stand really respectfully before how very unsettling and stressful this is.” —Krista Tippett, Host of NPR's On Being podcast

“I'm in a high-risk category, being 81, but I'm learning about millions of people around the planet who are in a high-risk category every day of their lives—not because of age or health, but because of race, religion, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, or poverty. They live in non-stop pandemics of racism, sexism, nationalism, homophobia, structural economic inequality, and armed conflict. I now have a tiny window to glimpse a bit of their experience for a little while. May I learn all I can, and may my learning stick.” —Parker Palmer, Author of Let Your Life Speak and Healing the Heart of Democracy

“We're in the midst of a highly teachable moment. We have a chance to go deep, and to go broad. Depth is being forced on us by great suffering, which as I like to say, always leads to great love. But for God to reach us, we have to allow suffering to wound us. Now is no time for an academic solidarity with the world. Real solidarity needs to be felt and suffered. That’s the real meaning of the word 'suffer—to allow someone else’s pain to influence us in a real way. The real question is 'What does this have to say to me?' Ask not whether or not you like it, but what does it have to teach you.' What’s the message in this for me? What’s the gift in this for me?'” —Richard Rohr, Franciscan friar and Author of Falling Upward

“The other virus spreading now is fear. We all feel it, calling us with its hypnotic frenzy. But one thing I've learned from almost dying from cancer is that fear is to be moved through and not obeyed.” —Mark Nepo, Author of New York Times #1 bestseller The Book of Awakening

“What if you thought of it
as the Jews consider the Sabbath—
the most sacred of times?
Cease from travel.
Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world
different than it is.”

—Lynn Unger, Poet and Minister at the Church of the Larger Fellowship

“Look, 'Figure it out' is not a good slogan. So just for today, let us feed each other patience and listening. Let’s get thirsty people water, even when it is scared clueless mealy-mouth us. It will change us. We are being changed. God is Good Orderly Direction, ie the next right thing. And It is right here, in our love for each other. This is going to save the world. We think we are starved for what we are not getting, which is the great palace lie, but we are actually hungry for what we are not giving. Rumi said that through love all pain will turn to medicine.” —Anne Lamott, Activist and Author of Operating Instructions, Bird by Bird and Help Thanks Wow

“If we were to be given a pill to be convinced, 'Don’t worry. It’s going to be okay,' would that elicit from us our greatest creativity and courage? No. It’s that knife edge of uncertainty where we come alive to our truest power.” —Joanna Macy, Environmental activist, Buddhist scholar, Author of Despair and Personal Power in the Nuclear Age and Coming Back to Life

“This is going to be a marathon, not a sprint. So pace yourself, pace your resources, don't over-give to the point where you collapse, because we're still going to need helpers two months from now, and six months from now, so find a steady pace and be willing to be in it for the long haul. There's a navigational system within you that, if you stay present in this actual moment, will tell you what to do one moment to the next. Now if you want to suffer, pop out of the moment and imagine a future, then you can suffer indefinitely. It's almost like a spiritual meditation practice, and anybody out there who's done spiritual meditation practices, this is what you were practicing for.” —Elizabeth Gilbert, Author of Eat Pray Love and Big Magic

“If there is something to be done—do it, without any need to worry; if there’s nothing to be done, worrying about it further will not help.” —The Dalai Lama

“We are all not our regular selves. We are all out of sorts. We don't usually live with such an ominous specter of terribleness hanging over us. It's just not something we've ever done before, as a species, so we're learning how to do it. We need to cut ourselves some slack.    —Sylvia Boorstein, Psychotherapist, Buddhist teacher, co-founder of Spirit Rock Meditation Center in CA.

“When a caterpillar enters its chrysalis, it dissolves itself, quite literally, into liquid. In this state, what was a caterpillar and will be a butterfly is neither one nor the other, it’s a sort of living soup within which are the imaginal cells that will catalyse its transformation into winged maturity. May the best among us, the most visionary, the most inclusive, be the imaginal cells—for now we are in the soup. We are both becalmed and in a state of profound change.”       —Rebecca Solnit, Author of Men Explain Things to Me and Hope in the Dark

“We have to move our bodies. Because we store trauma and grief and anxiety in our bodies. We have to exercise. We have to walk. We have to do yoga. We have to move our bodies. We have to sleep. And we have to absolutely monitor how much news we consume. We just can't do it ad nauseam." —Brene Brown, Professor, Author of The Gifts of Imperfection, Daring Greatly, and Rising Strong

“Those who cope well in a crisis aren't those who always look on the bright side, but those who cultivate an attitude of Tragic Optimism, a term coined by Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist from Vienna, which refers to the ability to maintain hope and find meaning in crisis. UNC Charlotte’s Lawrence Calhoun uses the term Post-Traumatic Growth to describe the best possible outcome of engaging in Tragic Optimism. Positive psychology calls this Benefit Finding, but I like how Mr. Frankl described it: 'The human capacity to creatively turn life’s negative aspects into something positive or constructive.' If we can cultivate Tragic Optimism, we have a chance to experience Post-Traumatic Growth. And if we do it together, we can become Collectively Resilient.” —Esther Perel, Psychotherapist and Author of Mating in Captivity and The State of Affairs

“I find it hard to be moved—or, therefore, transformed—when I’m racing around. One has to be still to begin to sift through things. Most of us, myself included, spend a lot of our time racing around to make a living, and we never have a chance to make a life. And I feel this moment is the time to make a life.” —Pico Iyer, Travel Writer and Author of Video Night in Kathmandu and The Global Soul

“This is a time when there's no more FOMO. There's no 'fear of missing out' during a pandemic. There's no great party somewhere else. It's all of us fragile, suffering, vulnerable humans trying to hold it together in sometimes frightening moments. In a way, the pretenses of the normal world we've put up with and suffer from have gone. No more pretending that everything is fine. No more FOMO. No more pretenses. Just vulnerability in abundance.”       —Alain de Botton, Philosopher, Co-Founder of The School of Life, Author of The Course of Love and The Architecture of Happiness

“Hope isn't the belief that everything is going to turn out well. Optimists imagine that everything will turn out positively, and I've come to consider this point of view dangerous. Being an optimist means one doesn’t have to bother, one doesn’t have to act. On the other hand, pessimists take refuge in depressive apathy or apathy driven by cynicism. And, as we might expect, both optimists and pessimists are excused from engagement. If we look at hope through the lens of Buddhism, we discover that wise hope is born of radical uncertainty, rooted in the unknown and the unknowable. And we are sure in the vise of a radically uncertain time. Wise hope requires that we open ourselves to what we do not know, what we cannot know; that we open ourselves to being surprised, perpetually surprised.” —Joan Halifax, Zen Buddhist teacher, Anthropologist, Author of Being With Dying and The Fruitful Darkness.

“My Native American friends are telling me that the pandemic isn't going to get better until we get better, that the virus isn't something outside of us, it's within us. The Earth will survive, and if we're going to survive with the Earth, it has to be deep, deep changes. If I'm wanting the world to change, I have to look in the mirror and say, 'How might I change myself?' ” —Terry Tempest Williams, Conservationist, Environmental Activist, Author of Refuge and Finding Beauty in a Broken World

“Feel the fear and move through it. The only way through this fire is through the fire. Not around the fire. Don’t resist, accept what is happening and then ask yourself, ‘What does it mean?’ To me, right now, the meaning is, ‘Why do we take existence for granted? ' ”               —Deepak Chopra, Author of Ageless Body Timeless Mind and The 7 Spiritual Laws of Success

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