Living Through a Pandemic

It has been said by many that great companies, leadership and character are forged through crises. But how do we put COVID-19 in this context? What do those who’ve lived through some of the greatest catastrophes and turning points in the history of humankind know that many have yet to discover?

Cornell University gerontologist Karl Pillemer interviewed more than a thousand older Americans (average age of 77) who had been through enormously difficult times – such as the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, the Great Depression, the Second World War and the Holocaust – in search of their unique and invaluable advice on how to live through a crisis. He published his findings in a book entitled 30 Lessons for Living (2012). Here, in brief, is the recipe he formulated from their experiences:

1.  Take the long view.  “Life is the way it is. If you don’t accept it, you go down the drain. Be calm, go with the flow” (from Hannah, 97, who lost her entire family in the Holocaust). The present will one day become a memory. Crises occur, societies change – we recover, recalibrate and move on. How we survive a crisis becomes part of the stories we tell and only we can determine how they will end.

2.  Be generous.  Assisting others to the extent we can gives us a sense of control. So the motivation is as much one of self-interest as altruism. With COVID-19, social distancing is a generous act of solidarity. Minimally, we have the gift of time and space to give to others.

3.  Don’t worry about today; prepare for tomorrow.  Focusing on every little thing that might go wrong is frittering away life. Worry is the antithesis of freedom. It’s a total waste of time that could be spent more productively. It’s self-inflicted suffering. Those who have been through a crisis overwhelmingly agree: the antidote to gnawing worry is taking action. Planning for a new day makes us feel empowered.

4.  Enjoy small daily pleasures.  Never take them for granted. “A morning cup of coffee, a warm bed on a winter night, a brightly colored bird feeding on the lawn, an unexpected letter from a friend, even a favorite song on the radio. Paying special attention to these micro-level events forms a fabric of happiness that lifts them up daily. The same can be true for younger people.”

Pillemer’s research highlights the wisdom of the disappearing generation of elders among us. So, with no small amount of urgency, ask them your questions while you can and find comfort and guidance in their stories, acquired resilience and perspective on living through such unprecedented and challenging times.