An old friend of mine recently remarked that he feels that he is battling through the eye of a perfect storm. He then requested me to do a talk on resilience and coping skills for his employees at his small business. What do you say to people today; how do you inspire them? From an economic perspective thing has never been this tough. The Fourth Industrial Revolution and its threat of disruption now seems like child’s play compared to the devastation and havoc that the Covid-19 pandemic is causing. Insecurity and uncertainty are the only foreseeable scenarios. Inequality, inequity, and poverty is rising at an alarming rate. It looks like this whirlwind might tear apart the very fabric that is holding an ever more fragile society together. The 2020 UN Report on their Sustainable Development Goals estimates that 71 million people will be pushed back into extreme poverty this year. They predict that 1.6 billion already vulnerable workers will be affected. The effect on women and children will be the greatest. Feelings of hopelessness and helplessness are washing over people like a perpetual tsunami. For the average person it is becoming a battle for economic and emotional survival, with the intensity and pressure increasing exponentially.
What can we possibly do to successfully ride out the eye of this storm?
After thinking about this question long and hard, after soul searching and taking stock of more than 30 years in Change Management Consulting, this is my response and humble suggestions.
In searching for an appropriate response, I remembered a piece that I wrote on the importance of understanding our neurobiology in responding to any threat. I wrote:
”When we as human beings sense danger there is an immediate neurobiological reaction. We deactivate the Social Engagement System and the Self Engagement system. When we feel threatened and uncomfortable, we become primitively defensive, removed, and aggressive or even paralysed. It is a subconscious universal reaction to a perceived threatening situation.”
Daniel Goleman, in his well-known work on Social Intelligence, reminds us that this reaction to stressful situations impacts our production of hormones that massively impacts our immune system. Well, I simply think that for most of us the current situation is the most threatening, uncomfortable, hostile, and negative situation we have ever had to face on an ongoing basis. It is my contention that we have never been more under the strangle hold of the primitive flight/fight response that causes severe dysfunction.
We also need to remember that when people feel threatened, they like to blame. When we become primitively defensive and go into survival mode, we start to think in terms of us and them. In an Article in the HBR of January 2006 titled ‘Decisions and Desire’, Gardiner Morse writes extensively about our primitive knee jerk reaction to perceived threats and how it can lead to awfully bad decision making. Fundamentalism and polarisation are almost always the evil and primitive children of economic and social hardship.
There is not a lot that one individual can do to change the current chaotic and absurd situation we find ourselves in the world today. But we can take a hundred percent control of the world inside of ourselves. To do this, we first need to become aware of what we are thinking and the impact of our thoughts on us. With Mindfulness we can change how we react and feel about what happens to us. Daniel J. Siegel writes: “When we monitor with more clarity, openly attending to the waves of bodily sensations and not just being bombarded by them, we can modify our internal state with more strength and agility.” Mindfulness and heightened self-awareness can lead to a liberating sense making process that enables new possibilities. It breaks the strangle hold of the primitive flight/fight response that causes severe dysfunction and kills creativity. Siegel’s research shows a physical shift in activity in the brain, from a primitive non-integrative lower function to an integrated higher-level activity, when we practice mindfulness. If ever humankind needed this re-integration on an individual and collective level, it is now. An urgent evolutionary leap in our intellectual and spiritual development is inevitable if we want to survive as a species.
Awareness is the core ingredient of mindfulness and leads to sense making. In this process the individual shifts from a position of being trapped and determined by her circumstances to the author and narrator of her own story. Siegel explains that this process leads to massive neural integration, a prerequisite for creativity, agility, and resilience. This all sounds impressive but academic and not very practical. But how can this be implemented and used by the average person out there to become more resilient and to cope?
My very practical answer and suggestion is that we need to use this time to rethink and rewrite our personal and collective stories. To take control of our narratives. This means that we physically need to write down our stories; it can be as short as a one pager. A short paragraph on who you are and where you come from, what made you who you are? Where are you today, from a holistic perspective? How do you feel about who you are and where you are? Where do you want to be in future, with the emphasis on what kind of human being you want to become, and then your other goals? This process of sense making we now know, as confirmed by Siegel’s research, leads to massive neural integration. In Siegel’s own words:
“Making sense of our past frees us to be present in our lives and to become the creative and active author of our own unfolding life story.” He goes on to say: “Developing your ability to narrate the themes of your life in an open and flexible manner- to move from a cohesive, restrictive autobiographical story to a coherent one-is a form of narrative integration”.
In everyday language this simply means that we can choose to be the victims of our past and our circumstances; or we can choose to take control and decide how we are going to react to life’s challenges. We can decide whether we are going to be an actor in someone else’s play or if we are going to grab the pen and write our own story. When we do take the responsibility for our own lives in this way something profound happens in our souls, we unleash the trickles of so many hopes and dreams into one powerful stream of energy and action. No collective entity nor individual can survive without the oxygen of an inspirational narrative that they themselves own and actively pursue. Unfortunately, it seems that most people believe that someone else is responsible to write their stories for them. This to me is tantamount to giving away your God-given right to become and be who only you can be. We can be forced into unthinkable misery and pain, but nobody can take away how we choose to respond to it. Viktor Frankl’s timeless words on how he dealt with his experience in the Auschwitz death camp confirms this:
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms-to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Let us then not deny, minimise, or downplay the devastating and brutal effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on our societies and especially the marginalised and vulnerable, on our business and private lives. But let us respond individually and collectively to this greatest of human catastrophes of our time by embracing the uniquely human gift and ability; to dream and then to co-create the future. Jurgen Moltmann wrote: “Totally without hope one cannot live. To live without hope is to cease to live. Hell is hopelessness. It is no accident that above the entrance to Dante’s hell is the inscription: “Leave behind all hope when you enter here.” The very same Moltmann also gave the solution to what we need to do when he said: “Hope is lived when it comes alive, when we go outside of ourselves and, in joy and pain take part in the lives of others.”
I believe that we can, and that we should use this time to redefine ourselves and revisit our collective and individual purpose. The narrative is ours to write. The action is ours to take. We do have a choice.