“Everything can be taken from a man, but one thing: the last of the human freedoms, which is to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
– Viktor Frankl
You might have seen the message doing the rounds on WhatsApp which says: “If you can’t go out, go within.”
The words “Lock Down” sound so oppressive and confining and we may well experience it as such.
Alternatively, we may choose our attitude in all of this and these next 21 days may yet prove to be a very freeing time – freeing us from the confining “busy-ness” and necessary activity that easily ensnares us and pulls us away from the people and things that truly matter.
This period could be a precious gift we have been given to spend quality time with ourselves and our families.
Would any of us ever have afforded ourselves the “luxury” of time away from all the “busy-ness” to reflect on what is important to us if it had not been forced upon us?
Possibly not. Time is money
During this time, the messages conveyed by two books resonated with me: Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning and Steven Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
Viktor Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist who spent time in the death camps during World War II.
He tried to help his fellow inmates find meaning and purpose in suffering, and gave a very honest and precise account of his experience in the concentration camps.
In one account, he makes mention of some inmates grabbing the last piece of bread or the last cigarette out of another inmate’s hands, whereas the opposite was also true: he witnessed inmates giving others their last piece of bread or cigarette. The latter showed great selflessness in the face of lack and impending death.
The stories on social media of people grasping and grabbing in the shops – leaving very little on the shelves for the vulnerable and the poor – reminded me of some of the stories in Frankl’s book.So too, did the heartwarming stories of people cooking meals and shopping for the elderly and ill and people offering their services free of charge to the brave and exhausted emergency workers in our communities.
How are we to respond? Can we look inwardly and reflect on some of the following questions.
What kind of person am I? Am I a grasper or a giver? How can I do good with my gifts and talents during this time?
How can I be a person of integrity within my sphere of influence, and live a life that means making a positive difference?
Am I living according to my values? Would I be proud of my legacy? Am I “settling” in my job and my relationships?
If all was stripped away from me today, what would I cling to?
Can I choose my attitude and behaviour in these weeks ahead? What can this time mean for me personally?
In answering these questions, I am reminded of Covey’s second habit in his book.
The habit to “Start with the end in mind” provides us with a sobering way of getting to the nitty gritty of what is important to us and which values we truly hold dear.
He suggests imagining that we are attending our own funerals and that a few of our loved ones and work colleagues are about to deliver eulogies about us.
What would they say about us? Would what they say reflect how we would have liked to have been remembered?
This exercise is useful because, as Covey says, it is easy to get caught up in the activity trap – to work harder and harder to climb the ladder of success – only to discover it is leaning against the wrong wall, and that in our drive to achieve a better income, more recognition and to achieve professional competence, we may find that we have been blinded by our drive to achieve our goals – only to find that the things that really mattered most, are gone.
Covey explains that to “Start with the end in mind” means to approach every role in our lives with our values and directions clear so that when the challenges come, we can make decisions based on these values and we can act proactively and with integrity – rather than just reacting to the emotion or to the circumstance.
He also encourages us to examine our deepest values to decide whether we are living a life based on a script created by others in our present or past or by circumstances, or whether our life is a product of our own design, and we are truly the captains of our own ships.
These next few weeks can prove to be a wonderful and meaningful time: we can re-evaluate our lives and how we are living personally and collectively; we can look at what legacy we are leaving through the values we are teaching our children and whether these are congruent with what we hold dear.
We can, as Covey says, “visualise the uncreated worlds of potential which lie in each one of us” – and in some instances, we can reinvent and be more creative and intentional in the way that we go about our days.
We can practice being more caring and reach out to anyone who has to self isolate – particularly those who are lonely and in medical quarantine.
We all need social support at this time – particularly the latter.
According to a research article in The British Journal of Psychiatry (Vol. 184, No.4, 2004) people in medical isolation may experience increased symptoms of anxiety and depression, as well as feelings of fear, abandonment, loneliness and stigmatisation.
As they lack access to standard coping strategies such as spiritual or religious practices, work or exercising outdoors, they may experience a powerful sense of losing control. We can help to mitigate this by reaching out to them via social media and virtual platforms.
If we cannot go out, let’s go within, and unlock the parts of ourselves which are weighing us down and creating dissonance. Let’s keep busy with what really matters, and let’s hold ourselves to a higher standard so that on the other side of this, we would be more caring, kind, authentic, resilient and humane.
Sharon Steyn is an educational psychologist who lives and works in Somerset West.