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What a mind-blowing, gut-wrenching reality show we are witnessing. For weeks I was glued to my seat as a mesmerized audience member without comprehending this act of genius, which involuntarily, simultaneously cast me as participant.
This coronavirus reality show appears to have no boundaries, rules, common goal, timeline or referee. Like other spellbound audience members, I watched dramatic plot twists, with heroes, villains and victims; I consumed anxious observations and frantic predictions. Is anyone measuring the ratings on this?
And then, ever so slowly, each of us awaken to what magicians and TV-show producers call the Big Reveal: Every audience member is actually a participant in the game. In fact, without our participation, there is no show and the audience would have nothing to watch.
Isn’t that what makes Reality Show: COVID-19 agonizingly addictive? Our favorite storylines unfold - nature against humanity, freedom against equality, science against religion, fear against courage, life against death – while we are forced to participate against our will.
“All the world’s a stage,” Shakespeare wrote, “and all the men and women merely players ... ” Every move we choose to make, or choose not to make, has an impact. The plot is ever-changing: Who will live? Who will die? Who will prosper? What will be learned? When (not if) can we expect Season 2?
Throughout March, 2020, I observed 24/7 news feeds spread fear faster than the virus itself. I watched financial markets get body-slammed. I clung to the occasional retort, “It’s the flu, what’s the big deal?”
I fought to preserve my normal: work commitments, family priorities, vacation plans. I intellectualized how to insulate my life from change, instead of emotionally processing the irreversible chain of events already in motion, disrupting every person on the planet. My brain produced a predictable vat of emotional quicksand: frustration, blame, denial, worry, doubt, panic and despair.
All emotions connect our thoughts to meaning based on significant events or patterns experienced. These signals alert and invite us to shift our thoughts from “what happened before” to possibilities for “what might happen next.”
That’s what makes Reality Show: Covid-19 so compelling and potently disruptive – because we have no immediate frame of reference and our first reaction is to fear what might happen next.
That’s how I entered April, 2020. Overwhelmed with what I was seeing, saturated with fearful emotions, dismayed and paralyzed by my own fearful responses.
And then it hit me.
This situation is unfamiliar, but not entirely without precedent. It took us by surprise because we got complacent. For decades, we’ve pretended-away warning signs from infectious-disease experts and global philanthropists: Laurie Garrett’s, The Coming Plague, David Quammen’s, Spillover, a Bill Gates TedTalk, The Next Outbreak? We’re Not Ready – to name just a few. We missed the societal, medical, psychological and political lessons of Ebola, SARS, Zika, to say nothing about HIV, influenza or cholera.
But to now plan, hope or wait for a “return to normal” – in two months or 20 years – is to rebuff the universal truth of change. Change is painful, agonizing, heart-wrenching. It is not fair. Endings are sad. Beginnings are messy. But already, we’re seeing it’s not all bad. We’re reminded that change is necessary.
If we pause long enough, the artists, philosophers, inventors, scientists and storytellers from around the world will remind us of the power of change, the preciousness of life. The Four Noble Truths. The seven stages of grief. Rites of passage. The hero’s journey. Identity crisis. The Divine Comedy. The drama triangle. Stoic dichotomy of control. The Serenity Prayer. This is the best of times, and this is the worst of times. Spiral dynamics. Heck, even Simba knows the Circle of Life.
Reality Show: COVID-19 might be the most brilliantly designed human-behaviour experiment ever conducted – or it might just be life.
Either way, by remaining a passive audience member and fearful participant, I become what Victor Frankl would call “the plaything of circumstance,” thus forfeiting my right to complain as the plot unfolds. The choice to take the stage as a willing participant restores my “response ability” to choose my own way.
As I enter May, 2020, this perspective shift releases the grip of fearful emotions. Instead of sinking in emotional quicksand, I am buoyed by the power of possibility. I now feel present, aware, curious, innovative, resourceful, courageous and self-trusting.
I see COVID-19 as invitation to something bigger – an adventure. I need to let go of expectations of how the world is supposed to be and accept new game parameters that are beyond my comfort or control. I need to commit to the challenge of growing and evolving with change.
Beyond physical distancing, virtual everything, face masks and cheap gas prices, I am on a new adventure. I am slowing down, noticing and listening. I am spending and consuming less. I am connecting and creating more. I am asking for help, receiving support and giving generously. I am distinguishing between wants and needs.
I am decluttering the space I inhabit, and recalibrating professional and personal goals. I am pivoting my professional skills. I am making a new bucket list. I am seeing the world as smaller and my part in it as bigger.
This is my moment to participate, my time for adventure. There will be plenty of audience members who are unable to participate - we will find a way to look after them with dignity and compassion. And there are always those who will clamour and criticize from the sidelines.
COVID-19 brings so much change. What is your response ability?
Michael J. Boydell lives in Toronto.