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Cope, survive, thrive

Two days ago, I looked away from the screen and rested my eyes on my bookshelf. I noticed a book that I had read more than fifteen years ago when I was discovering my newfound love of outdoors—Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why by Laurence Gonzales. It recounts “true stories of miraculous endurance and sudden death” of people who found themselves stranded after natural or human-made disasters, climbing accidents, airplanes crashing in the mountains, and similar. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the book has shaped my adult life and me as a person.

  • survive (verb): continue to live or exist, especially in spite of danger or hardship

In the appendix, the author distills twelve points that stand out concerning how survivors think and behave in the clutch of mortal danger. I’ll list them here and add my thoughts that are relevant to the current global situation.

1. Perceive, believe

The first point is about recognizing that you are in a dangerous situation. Denial is the first step, and often the biggest hurdle, in denial - anger - bargaining - depression - acceptance chain. We’re all aware of people who were, or unfortunately still are, dismissive of the virus. Survivors rapidly go through all steps in the chain, realizing that everything, good and bad, comes from within. They often see opportunity in their position.

When I realized the situation is going to get worse and that we’ll have to work from home, I wrote down several positive things on which I could focus. Two of them are:

  • Short commute and more time with kids.
  • Participating in a paid months-long experiment of working from home.

2. Use humor to stay calm, use fear to focus

It took me a while to understand that the deluge of jokes and memes about the pandemic is not making light of the situation, but trying to cope with it. The book mentions many subcultures that use (often dark) humor to get through stressful situations. I wrote about them, and other example like concentrations camps in an earlier post about humor and meaningfulness.

3. Think, analyze, plan

Survivors quickly organize, set up routines, and institute discipline. There are so many things that you can’t do in a situation like this, but you shouldn’t dwell on them. Instead, focus on things you can do. Agency nurtures hope.

When we got the recommended work from home directive, my wife and I sat over the weekend and worked out the plan for when we get sick: how will we quarantine, do we have enough protective equipment, how will we clean the apartment, and how to handle kids if we both get sick at the same time. Instead of panic-buying food and toilet paper, we made inventory of what we have and bought only items to fill in the gaps.

4. Take correct, decisive action

From the author:

  • [Survivors] are able to break down very large jobs into small, manageable tasks.
  • They set attainable goals and develop short-term plans to reach them.
  • They are meticulous about doing those tasks well.
  • They deal with what is within their power from moment to moment, hour to hour, day to day.

This whole situation is overwhelming and volatile. Anxiety runs rampant. Trying to take it all in in one go will just lead to a breakdown, so think about one small thing that you can do next, privately or professionally, and then do it. This reminds me of how writer and artist Austin Kleon tackles building a substantial body of art work—one day at a time. Focus on days and you’ll get through.

5. Celebrate your successes

Take joy in completing tasks, even small ones. I almost high-fived myself for cleaning my work desk.

6. Count your blessings

Here’s a note I sent to several people this week: My wife and I are generally OK on our own, but it’s more challenging with kids because they don’t go out and they don’t play with their friends. It’s also impossible to explain to them what is happening because they’re too young. At the same time, I’m happy that we’re all healthy and that I still have a job.

When I see how hit some people are with the whole situation and the flexibility I get at Google, I can only be grateful (and see how to extend that luck to others).

7. Play

In terms of outdoor survival, the author describes play as “sing, play mind games, recite poetry, count anything, do mathematical problems in your head.” It’s mostly to use rhythm to move forward and to stimulate, calm, and entertain the mind. However, even in this situation you can (should) dedicate time for fun and play, and even gamify some of your activities. For example, team up with a work colleague and keep a score of how many times per day you’ve walked away from your home desk and stretched for three minutes. As there is no walking between meeting rooms, any kind of movement while working from home becomes critical.

8. See the beauty

The author says: “[…] attuned to the wonder of the world. The appreciation of beauty, the feeling of awe, opens the senses. […] relieves stress and creates strong motivation.” I’ll admit it might be easier to observe wonders of the world when you’re not locked at home :) At the same time, the well-known adage says that the beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I’m looking out of my window and see trees ready to bloom. It’s going to be a different dance of colors every day for the next two months.

9. Believe that you will succeed

I’m deeply convinced that humanity will survive this pandemic. It’s the first time in human history that 7.8 billion people have a common enemy. We’re armed with modern science, technology, and determination to overcome it. The virus is weak—soap destroys it, and it can’t mutate fast. Although we can’t ignore the virus, we have demonstrated that we can influence the course of this pandemic through our individual choices and actions. I’m glad we’re trying to buy time and reduce the number of people affected by the virus through social distancing. It means the situation might last a bit longer, but it gives more opportunities to scientists and medical workers to do their part. We’ll get through this. We won’t be confined to our homes forever.

10. Surrender

By surrender, the author doesn’t mean give up. Instead, it’s the full acceptance of something undesirable but inevitable; surrendering yourself to reality. The closest term I could find to explain it to myself is stoicism. Or in other words: it is what it is.

11. Do whatever is necessary

Don’t wait for permission to act, at work or at home. We’re in uncharted territory and there isn’t a guidebook to help you. Help your neighbours before someone asks you to do it. Attend a meeting from home with your kid in your lap. Standard rules don’t apply anymore.

12. Never give up

The last point is the easiest to comprehend and the hardest to put into action. There’ll be setbacks, the environment will change, and we’ll stumble. However, every time that happens, we have to pick ourselves up and remember that there is always one more thing we can do. Never give up.

Be kind to yourself and others. Stay safe.

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COVID-19 pandemic

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