In studying historical events, we benefit from knowing what happened. We are able to read the world backwards, aware of how it will eventually all unfold. We don’t have that option when we are actually living through unprecedented, difficult times. We have no choice but to try to cope with a highly unpredictable future.
With this current COVID crisis, we don’t know how or when it will all end. We are not in control, and that is stressful. But there are things we can do to help us get through it, even when we don’t know how much more of it is still in front of us.
As I experience the uncertainty in my own life and wonder how to best deal with it, I think a lot about my father and am more than usually reminded of the stories he told.
On 7 December 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, my dad had just turned 18. He was living in Indonesia with his parents and two younger siblings. The fact that he was now officially an adult meant he became a soldier. Very soon thereafter he was a prisoner of war. What followed were years of incredible hardship, including work on the infamous Burma Railway. He was 21 when the war ended. I still vividly remember feeling so young when I was 21, and realising what he had already behind him at that same age.
My father often said that not knowing when it would all end was one of the toughest things about the war. The seeming infinity of it was almost more stressful than the concrete threats and huge challenges.
Clearly, we are not in a war, but we are all enduring highly unusual hardship. We all have our personal experience of this, and every day or week seems to bring new and different problems. It is becoming painfully obvious that there is no clear quick solution out of this crisis. Even worse, issues beyond the COVID infection, such as economic difficulties, increased poverty, the threat of societal instability, mental health issues and lack of health care availability for other medical conditions, all seem to exacerbate an already very complicated situation. What may be our toughest challenge though is not knowing when it will be over.
There are three things I have learnt over the years that help me through periods of uncertainty that are of unknown duration. I felt I should share them with you in the hope that they are helpful.
The first is to be in the present and take it one step at a time. That sounds trite and perhaps even a bit too obvious. It is, however, very hard to do when, like me, you are prone to worrying and imagining myriad things that can go wrong. Even if you are only partially successful, this approach helps make the present more manageable and ‘bite-size’, and it stops you from getting lost in scary fantasies of doom and gloom. The biggest problem with imagining disaster in the future, is that we cannot do much, if anything, about it in the now. It is paralysing and leads to going around in circles in our mind. Focusing on what is right in front of us gives us agency and helps us be effective. Of course we should keep planning for the future, but that is different from worrying about abstract, threatening scenarios.
The second is to be grateful for what we do have, however hard that may be. In every tough situation there are those things. For me, just being happy about being healthy and alive, can be a good start. Enjoying things we can still do, such as the time we can spend outdoors or with others, even if there are limits and constraints, will help too. We can all think of things to be grateful for, even if it does not always come easy and we are in bad shape. There is solid evidence from psychology that making a conscious decision to be grateful regularly, can improve mental health.
The third is to try feel connected to others, and look for opportunities to do this. We are all in this together, within our University, locally, regionally, nationally – even globally. We all have compassion and we can all give to others, both in our private lives and in our work. Being part of an academic community makes this so obvious. We can play a large role in working towards a post-COVID era where the local and global population can be strong and thriving. I feel hugely connected to my colleagues and in fact the entire University of Leeds community in this crisis. And I get so much back from so many people when I share my humanity and vulnerability, like I did in my previous blog. And that is amazingly comforting and empowering. I hope others who have shared their experiences in response feel that way too.
None of these things will make the crisis go away, nor will they make it clear when exactly the end will come. But they can make it easier to cope with the uncertainty and the stresses that stem from not knowing.
My father came out of the war mentally strong, but it had clearly been an enormous challenge. I think that, probably without being aware, he used the three principles above, and perhaps others. He certainly spoke of the mentoring he had received from older POWs and the satisfaction he got from taking care of sick colleagues. He knew the war had made him grow up. There was no money for university education when the family came back to Europe and he completed his law degree years later, while in a full time job. I don’t remember him ever complaining about that. I cannot prove it, but I have always believed that the hard years made him the kind, caring and empathic person that he was. He died 15 years ago, but I think about him often. Right now I am more aware than ever of the lessons he passed on.
About the Author
Simone Buitendijk is the thirteenth Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leeds, a major Russell Group University with a commitment to high quality education, a strong and dynamic research base and a track record of social, economic and cultural development. Before joining the University, she was Vice-Provost (Education) and Professor of Maternal and Child Health at Imperial College London.
This blog post was originally published on the University of Leeds blog and has been republished with permission.