There are many roads through the coronavirus crisis. One is denial, which only makes things worse. Another is service and self-sacrifice, a choice we honor in the medical professionals putting their lives at risk every day. For most of us, however, the best course of action is non-action—staying home and isolating ourselves from others. Days bleed into weeks, weeks into months. It can seem like life has come to a complete halt. It hasn’t, of course. All sorts of things are happening inside us. We don’t know how long this will last; current courses of action don’t bode well. What do we do with the fear, anger, loneliness, grief, and buzzing, ever-present anxiety?
Maybe the first thing to do is to accept that we have those feelings and feel them, instead of stuffing them down, covering them up, or pushing them onto someone else. Then we can recognize we aren't by any means alone. That’s easier said than done in quarantine, but psychologists and inspirational writers and speakers like Elizabeth Gilbert have come together under the auspices of the TED Connect series, hosted by the head of TED Chris Anderson, to help.
TED, known for showcasing “thinkers and doers [giving] the talk of their lives in 18 minutes (or less),” has wisely recognized the need to dig much deeper. Anderson and head of curation Helen Walters’ conversation with Gilbert, above, runs a little over an hour.
As for that ceaseless anxiety, Gilbert suggests we should all give ourselves “a measure of mercy and compassion.” We might feel like we need permission to do so in societies that demand we constantly justify our existence. But admitting vulnerability is the beginning of strength. Then we find constructive ways forward. The kind of resilience we can build in isolation is the kind that can outlast a crisis. Still, it is hard won. As Anderson says above, in addition to the external battle we must fight with the virus and our own governments, “there’s this other battle as well, that is probably equally as consequential. It’s a battle that’s going on right inside our minds.”
Rather than killing time waiting fitfully for some acceptable form of normal to return, we can build what psychologist Susan David calls “emotional courage.” In conversation with TED’s Whitney Pennington Rogers, above, David reveals that she herself has good reason to fear: her husband is a physician. She also understands the consequences of a collective denial of suffering and death. “The circumstance that we are in now is not something that we asked for, but life is calling on every single one of us to move into the place of wisdom in ourselves… into the space of wisdom and fortitude, solidarity, community, courage.” We move into that space by recognizing that “life’s beauty is inseparable from its fragility.”
Themes of courage and connection come up again and again in other TED Connects interviews, such as that above with Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks and below with author Priya Parker. Elsewhere on the internet, you’ll find similar kinds of advice.
On the Tim Ferris show, you can hear interviews with Jack Kornfield on finding peace in the pandemic, Esther Perel on navigating relationships in quarantine, and Ryan Holiday on using Stoicism to choose “alive time over dead time.”
Stoicism has gathered a particularly rich store of wisdom about how to live in crisis. In his own meditation on isolation, Michel de Montaigne drew on the Stoics in advising readers to “reserve a backshop, wholly our own and entirely free, wherein to settle our true liberty, our principle solitude and retreat…. We have a mind pliable in itself, that will be company; that has wherewithal to attack and to defend, to receive and to give: let us not then fear in this solitude to languish under an uncomfortable vacuity.” In other words, the road through isolation, though fraught with painful emotions and uncertainties, can be, if we choose, one of significant personal and collective growth.