Discovering the heavily-disguised blessings of lockdown
Liz Gilbert, author of Eat Pray Love, remarked in an interview with TED’s Chris Anderson that she’d noticed that the way her friends perceive life post-coronavirus tracks exactly to how they perceive life the rest of the time: the dystopians predict a dystopian future reality, and the utopians foresee a utopian one.
The truth is, none of us will have a lot of influence over what the world looks like as we slowly start to emerge from our corona-cocoons and creep back towards some kind of normality, but we do have a whole load of influence over what our individual world looks like.
Maybe some people want things to go back to how they were pre-lockdown, and if that’s where your head is, all well and good. If your personal world wasn’t broken, don’t fix it.
I have a different perspective. My world before wasn’t broken, exactly, but I also don’t think it can go back to being the same, and I wouldn’t want it to. I choose to be changed by what has happened these last few months.
Same Old or Different New?
Not everybody likes change. I absolutely love it. When I get to the end of a year, or a volume of my journal, I want to be able to look back and see how far I’ve come. I see my life as an ongoing work in progress, always trying to get things better figured out, understand the world better, understand myself better. Some might find the idea of constant change exhausting, but I find it energising, exciting.
This could be analogous to the difference between introverts and extroverts; introverts recharge their batteries with alone-time, extroverts recharge in company. So maybe I’m a change-overt, while others are same-overts, or, if you want to be more Latin about it, I’m a mutovert, as opposed to a conservovert.
There is nothing inherently better or worse about either option, although… I personally believe that the coronavirus is unlikely to be the last shock wave that we will experience in our lifetimes. I don’t know what the next one will be — if I had that kind of crystal ball, I would have had a much better plan than to make a living almost exclusively from speaking at conferences, and you can guess how that’s going (not) right now — but I’m fairly certain something will happen to disrupt us further, and it probably won’t be nice. So now would be a fine time to get good at dealing with unpredictability, and to learn to roll with the punches rather than yearning for things to stay the same.
Here’s how I’m going to work on developing my resilience to future shocks.
Take Time to Reflect
Rowing solo across the Atlantic was my crash course in personal development. The learning curve was so steep, I thought I would fall off the crest of it. There was no way I had time, as I was going along, to process and integrate everything I was learning about myself and how to cope with big, daunting challenges. I scribbled a few notes in the back of my ship’s log, and wrote daily blog posts, but the learning was still very superficial.
I desperately didn’t want to lose that learning. I had invested most of my life’s savings, and three and a half months of my life (plus fourteen months of preparation) into that voyage, and I really wanted those investments of time, money and energy to count for something.
I also had the sense that something significant had happened, that I had tapped into resources that I didn’t know I had. Cometh the hour, cometh the woman. I had risen to the challenge in ways that surprised me, and that I wanted to be able to replicate in the future, so I needed to figure out how I had done it. What had motivated me? What had kept me going? How had I managed to show up and do the job when I least felt like it?
I have a tendency to be very future-focused, and to hurtle from one thing to the next without taking much time to reflect, critique, and sometimes congratulate myself for a job well done. But I was determined not to pass up this opportunity for some self-analysis and learning. Towards the end of my voyage I had discovered a new sense of self-respect for this woman adventurer I was becoming, and I didn’t want to leave that behind on the ocean.
So I invested time. I went back through my logbook and my blog posts. I created short videos out of the limited amount of film footage I’d had the energy to shoot at sea. I journaled. I wrote a book. I’d been invited to speak about my expedition, which gave me another opportunity to offer some ocean-born wisdom.
By the time I’d done all that, I’d taken the lessons I’d learned, initially superficially, and truly integrated them into the fabric of who I was, and the way that I show up every day. It was a lot of work, but it felt really important. I had wanted to be changed by the experience, and positive change requires reflection.
Retreat and Recalibrate
I’ve also gone through a similar exercise when I’ve spent time on retreat. I’m not great at following other people’s agendas, so my favourite kind of retreat is to disappear for a few weeks to a cottage, or go somewhere like Holy Isle, a magical Buddhist-owned island in Scotland, for a self-guided course of reading, meditating, and reflecting.
I write notes as I’m going along, and at the end of the retreat I sum up my learnings. I go through several iterations, boiling it down and down to a few key points. That distillation process helps drive it into my long-term memory.
I totally recognise my privilege in being a child-free, self-employed person who can do such things, but even if you can only retreat in micro-doses, the magic lies in having a boundaried time, at the end of which you summarise your new insights, and figure out how you’re going to integrate them into the way you live. Reading a book is one thing, but actually embodying its wisdom is completely different.
Learning from Lockdown
Like my voyage or my retreats, the coronavirus lockdown also offers gifts, and a boundaried interlude outside of normality. And I want to make time to uncover those gifts.
I kept myself really, really busy during lockdown. The moment I finished my doctoral dissertation, I started writing a book, which I published last week. Then I moved straight onto working on my women’s organisation, coordinating weekly calls for my tribe.
But in between all the busy-ness, there has been Big Stuff going on, although I haven’t yet made time to examine it. With no disrespect to those who have suffered sickness or bereavement, or the medical staff who have been working insane hours and risking their lives for the greater good, I notice that I have started to feel a slight wistfulness about this chapter drawing to a close. I know that if I don’t pause to reflect soon, the opportunity for insight will have passed. So I’m going to take a few days to get away from my laptop screen and contemplate this crazy time we’ve just been through.
What Just Happened?
Humans are sense-making machines. Our brains like to come up with a story about what’s happening in the world at large, and our individual lives in particular. When there isn’t a coherent story available, our brains start making stuff up (which is how conspiracy theories get started).
If we weren’t in a country affected by SARS, MERS, or Ebola, we have probably never lived through anything like this before. We don’t yet have a story to explain to ourselves what just happened. Some aspects of it are outside our knowledge and our control, so it’s probably not fruitful to indulge in wild theories about how it started, why certain leaders responded as they did, or who got richer and who got poorer.
What is fruitful to focus on is what it meant to each of us personally. What did we learn about who we are? And what matters? And who do we want to be going forwards?
With some careful consideration, we each have the opportunity to come up with our own unique corona-story. Personally, I always prefer to focus on the positive — what did this experience show me about what I can do, rather than what I can’t do? How did it empower me, rather than victimise me? What were the gifts, rather than the losses?
Questions for Contemplation
I’m going to make some time to think about the following. Maybe some of these questions resonate with you too.
How did I respond when all my paid work evaporated more or less overnight? How has this affected my relationship with money?
How has this affected my relationship with death, and my own mortality? I’m sure every one of us has wondered, at least momentarily, if we or someone we love would end up being a statistic.
How do I feel about having almost no company for the last however-long-it’s-been? (Lockdown has definitely affected my relationship with time — which is behaving most strangely.) What have I discovered about my need for human contact?
Which global leaders have done a good job, and which haven’t? What have I learned from them about leadership?
Which workers have I most appreciated during lockdown? How well (or otherwise) are they paid? How does this affect my perception of how people are valued in our society?
What has seemed important during this time? How was it different from what seemed important before? What does that tell me?
Where have I felt strong? Where have I felt weak? What can I learn from this about how to be more resilient?
Where has society been strong — socially, politically, economically, logistically? Where has it been weak? What can I do to contribute to our collective resilience in the future?
A Better Story
If I’m honest with myself, I didn’t cope at all well on the Atlantic Ocean. I allowed the negative voices in my head far too much influence, and they gave me a really hard time. John Milton said:
“The mind is a universe and can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”
…and my mind definitely went for the “hell of heaven” option.
But even at the time, I knew I was learning a lot about how not to manage my thoughts, and that I would learn from my mistakes and do better next time around. And I did.
Although I still struggled on the later oceans, the Pacific and the Indian, I was able to draw on the knowledge that I had been through hard times before, and survived, that although it had been touch-and-go at times, I had hung on in there, and eventually got to the other side. I may not have thrived, but I survived, and sometimes that’s good enough.
So if lockdown has been a hard time for you — economically, psychologically, logistically — the fact that you have survived it and are still in a fit state to be reading this article is a cause for celebration, and will be a source of solace and strength in the future. Now you know that you can endure things that maybe you didn’t know you could, that you have the courage, strength, and resilience to keep on going when the going gets tough.
At the time it may have seemed like a blessing in such heavy disguise as to be unrecognisable, but I hope now you can see it for what it is — a gem.
I think of my Atlantic ordeal as a pearl. Like an oyster, I took the irritating grit of life and layered it with iridescence to smooth off its rough edges and turn it into something beautiful. Now it’s something I can keep in my pocket, and when times are difficult, I put my hand in my pocket and its reassuring presence reminds me I am capable of more than I believe I am.