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What COVID-19 Taught Me About Freedom, Crisis, and Myself

How to Stay At Your Best During A Pandemic

a person with a backpack climbs from one rock to another

OK, I admit it. I’ve been suffering from unconscious narcissism. At least that’s how a friend of mine termed it.

It all started in early March when COVID-19 began appearing here in the US. Almost immediately, people on the evening news started telling me what I shouldn’t do, like being with other humans.

I figured they were exaggerating. After all, the news media is known for occasionally sensationalizing things. Getting people’s attention is their schtick.

So I assumed they were blowing things out of proportion again. But this was my freedom they were messing with — my basic right as a self-authoring American to go places and do things. With other people. Whenever I want.

Plus my week-long Baja Mexico adventure was now in jeopardy. I’d been planning it with family and friends for a solid year, and it was slated for the last week of March.

This was going to be a magnificent adventure — exploring the backcountry, soaking up the scenery, breathing in the culture, practicing my Spanish. Not to mention scarfing down tacos.

Then the NBA suspended its season. There was no denying it any longer: COVID-19 was bringing the entire globe to a screeching halt.

I started feeling a bit irked. I had moved from denial into anger, the first two stages of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ classic Five Stages of Grief.

Yes, grief. With COVID-19, we’ve all lost a significant chunk of our freedom. That’s a major loss and it comes with grief and all of its stages.

But for me — a resourceful guy with a can-do attitude — a weird new virus was not going to mess up my Baja plans. I’d dealt with some hairy challenges before. I’d figure this one out too. Besides, I really, really wanted to go.

So right about the time I was moving into the third stage, bargaining, my wife told me I was being selfish.

“What about the people you could infect?” she asked. “What about people with little or no medical care?”

She had me there. Between her wisdom, the deluge of grim data, and the emerging stories of suffering even in my own town, I finally saw that we’re all in this together. I have to do my part.

Since then, I’ve been sheltering in place, along with everyone else I know. It’s not fun, but it’s the right thing to do. Of course, I miss seeing people and getting out and about. I miss going with my wife to movies, the theater, and ethnic restaurants. I miss working out with my boot camp group. I miss traveling and yes, I missed my vacation.

Add to this the never-ending river of pandemic news, and it can get downright depressing. As it happens, Kübler-Ross’ fourth stage is depression.

Some twenty years ago I discovered that I’m susceptible to depression. As the years have gone by, I’ve learned how to keep it in check most of the time, and how to better deal with it when it overtakes me. As a result, I lead a happy and normal family life, and I’ve enjoyed two successful careers — first as a CFO at companies like Microsoft and Novartis, and now as an executive coach.

Being cooped up and barraged with an endless onslaught of nerve-wracking news, I’ve found I have to work extra hard to stay mentally and emotionally healthy. But it’s been working.

Some days, doing my part to flatten the curve feels more like climbing a mountain. It requires focus, consistency, and some sacrifice. But like cresting any summit, it's worth the effort. Here are the practices I’m working on these days.

How to Stay At Your Best During the Pandemic (or Any Crisis)

  1. Clip Your Harness to the Line. Mountain climbers know they’ve got to stay tethered to a safety line. Figuratively, you need to do the same thing. In times of uncertainty and chaos, hold fast to your core values and your dearest truths. They’ll give you peace and calm amidst the chaos. They might include your faith in God, humanity or the universe.

  2. Climb With Buddies. Whether it’s rock climbing or any other adventure, it’s always wise to partner with someone who can look out for you, and vice versa. You might need to keep six feet apart, but you can still “be there” for each other during trying times. Choose buddies who are loving and strong, and who honor your values and truths.

  3. Stay On Your Toes. Weather conditions can dramatically change in an instant and mountaineers need to quickly adjust to stay safe. Keep your eye out for changing conditions, including opportunities as well as dangers. Stay alert to the possibilities and work to master new skills to keep moving on your journey.

  4. Stay Fit and Strong. I remember watching Alex Honnold doing finger pull-ups in the climbing documentary Free Solo. They were part of his astonishing exercise regimen. Like Alex, you need all your strength in times of crisis. Physical exercise has to be an important element of your fitness plan, but so do mental and spiritual exercise. Be sure to include intellectual stimulation and spiritual practices, like prayer and meditation, in your workout plan. You’re going to need those muscles too.

Keep at these practices and you’ll find they help you reach the fifth and final stage: Acceptance.

These days, I’m touched by how people are stepping up to the challenge. In my work as an executive coach, I continue to talk with many people every day (over the internet, of course.) Almost everyone tells me they’re hunkering down, making do, and finding their rhythms.

Many people are finding silver linings too — no commuting, more heartfelt conversations between parents and kids and spouses, video calls with distant loved ones. My friends who live alone connect electronically with others so they don’t lose touch. My introverted friends luxuriate in a new world that favors their alone time.

I’m also admiring humanity as we pull together and show our resilience. It’s inspiring to me to feel our shared determination to overcome, and our undaunted optimism that we will.

The brave professionals fighting on the front lines of the pandemic, the brilliant minds working behind the scenes to design a vaccine, the countless hands keeping things running, and those who valiantly suffer insolation, as well as those who mourn for them — all these remind me I’m part of a beautiful and courageous human family.

I feel good about life, despite everything that’s going on. Sure, I’m sad about my cancelled Mexico trip, but I know we’ll get there when the time is right. More importantly, I’m proud to be part of a world community working together to overcome an obstacle. I realize that this crisis — and the way we deal with it — are surely making history.

Every experience in life teaches us something if we have the courage to examine it. My challenge to you is to take a look at your experience right now and consider these questions:

  • Which core values are you clipping your harness to?

  • How are you staying connected to your climbing buddies?

  • What are you practicing to stay physically, mentally, and spiritually strong?

The answers to these questions will define the role you play as we make history together.


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