Yesterday I was out early. As I asked the question: ‘what will the universe teach me today?’ I noticed my footprints in the early morning dew – just as clear as if I had been walking in snow. This was today’s message to me, I thought: we have a choice about where we walk and wherever we go, we leave a mark.
‘What will the universe teach me today?’ is a question I’ve asked more in the last couple of weeks than I probably have in the last 10 years. Everyone I speak to seems to agree that ‘things will never be the same again’ – a little like a death in the family. We are told ‘time heals’. The truth is, life is never the same again and we begin a new way of being.
There are so many tragedies associated with Covid19 – but that can’t be all we learn. I have been ashamed to realise how much I have always taken for granted in my daily life. ‘I think I’ll go and stack shelves at the Sainsburys instead’ is a phrase I’ve heard from time to time, from those who are feeling overburdened by their leadership role. Now I know what a valuable contribution to society those people would be making in their changed role. The NHS are doing a wonderful job, as everyone acknowledges; schools are remaining open for the vulnerable; but there is so much more: the post arrives daily, as it always has; warehouse managers and drivers continue; shop workers; refuse collectors; farmers; factory workers; the list goes on. These are not people that I have stopped to be grateful for in the past: I hope I will continue to do when all this is over.
So what is the universe teaching us in spreading Covid19?
The need to find meaning and purpose in life is pretty much universal.
There is an irony that a pandemic that requires us to isolate ourselves also has a clear message that we are all connected. John Donne was right when he declared ‘no man is an island’. While needing to care about others, though, we are also thrown back on ourselves. Take a deep breath, stop, and listen for just 30 seconds – if you dare. You may notice wonderful things ordinarily buried amongst the busyness of life.
This morning I read an account of the Prime Minister’s response to his time in hospital, which recorded those closest to him sharing their experience of his intolerance of ill-health (and not just his own). I spend much of my time talking about resilience, which you might interpret as ‘keeping on keeping on’. It’s a characteristic that is much admired in our always-on 21st century society. It can also be a survival strategy, unconsciously designed to prevent us from having to accept our own vulnerability. Leaders often need to be strong; indeed followers expect it. No-one wants a leader who falls apart under pressure; but no-one is invincible. In my interpretation, at the heart of our capacity to cope is emotional resilience, because when our emotions overwhelm us, we lose our capacity to make reasoned judgements. Emotional resilience entails acknowledging our own vulnerability and being able to sit with it: to be able to retain emotional connnection without being overwhelmed. If our self-image depends upon our invincibility, for example, when that image is challenged, we are left with a vacuum. The challenge we are facing is magnified by our own self-talk that tells us we ‘should’ be able to cope. There is a deeper challenge: to adjust to a new understanding of ourselves: acknowledging that to be human is to be vulnerable. Vulnerability is one thing that connects us to the whole human race, however different from us others may seem.
Perhaps one of the things the Coronavirus outbreak might teach me, is to take time to consider what it means to be someone else: to be in a high-rise flat with young children and nowhere to play; to be a wife unable to say goodbye to her dying husband; to be a health worker unable to see his children in the interests of keeping them safe. With understanding comes compassion and with compassion comes greater understanding. If we are to build a kinder more compassionate world, we need to start with ourselves – today.