How to Thrive During a Crisis

What an unusual, unexpected time we’re all living through. How are we supposed to be ok – let alone thrive –  during this?

As humans, I believe we are made for unusual. 

Let me tell you a story.

I spent a lot of time traveling with the UN with my family as a kid. During a humanitarian crisis in a country, the local office would become a non-family post. Most families were sent back home or not brought along in the first place. The remaining group of colleagues would hunker down to serve. They worked closely during the day and formed a collegial group that had to rely on one another, respect each others space, and  find creative ways to get together to relieve stress: a makeshift bar that opened at 5pm, potlucks from whatever food was on hand, karaoke, costume parties, and storytelling. The result of being thrown together was always a crew of people who valued one another, reflected on the experience for decades after, and who all shared a sort of bonding, lots of laughter, and that rare ability to thrive together. I witnessed these delectable moments when I’d visit the office. I  saw it briefly in the late 80’s in Tehran during the Iran Iraq war, and mostly in North Korea in 2004 (when I was able to truly participate and observe) visiting the compound with the embassies and the international aid agencies. These are the posts I recall though there were many others. These groups felt like the best place on earth. I never wanted to leave. Everyone was fun and resilient and willing to help (and, of course, wine and chocolate taste better when they are rationed).

This is a phenomenon that happens in war, too. People who experience great trauma and hardship together get bonded, and a sort of brotherhood and sisterhood emerges from the crisis. 

I asked my dad, “Do you think people can do this while stuck in a crisis with families instead of colleagues?”

“Probably not,” he said, “because as colleagues we all gave each other space, and had a lot of respect for each other. At home, people are usually poking one another. The opposite happens, the more time you spend together, the less respectful it gets.”

That’s probably why some people become “disaster junkies” or long for the bonds of war and one of the many reasons why civilian life (and family life) can feel so bland. 

I wondered about this. Why do we have so much fun with strangers, so much so that we think about our bonds for years, “those guys really understood me”. While a small family living together for a few weeks can feel like the opposite: provoke anxiety, bring out serious relationship flaws, and become about irritation instead of cooperation?

What are the traits that show up during these times that we can recognize and cultivate? 

Vulnerability (speak up)

When we are faced with our own mortality we are unspeakably vulnerable. We are also totally connected to one another through our collective humanity. Think of the camaraderie and kindness in NYC after Hurricane Sandy or 9/11 or that builds briefly around us after a loss. While I don’t miss the first pangs of grief after a devastating loss, I do miss that camaraderie and raw openness that met me where I was. And similarly, in times of crisis when there is no option other than to survive, people have found ways to connect and speak about their experience. Social divisions usually melt away, everyone is in the same crisis. And we need one another to survive.

In these moments we get a glimpse of how connected and uplifted we could feel if we were always in this state. It’s not about obliterating grief or stress, but about what happens in us and in other people around us that makes the world a less lonely place for awhile.We talk, we share, we name our feelings when otherwise it would feel ‘inappropriate’ to name them. And others share with us in return. We hear stories of loss and hurt and pain.

Solidarity (work together)

Solidarity means a “we’re in this together” mentality. We depend on one another to stay safe and healthy. We need to have a plan and then trust we’re all on the same page. We need to be able to talk about how to feel safe over and over again. We need to talk about how we still all feel so exposed and fearful for our families. We are built to work together and to help one another. Little babies do it. We are wired for it. The world we ordinarily live in promotes the idea that we are all separate, that we all compete with one another, that we will step on one another to get ahead. These ideas are great for the economy. But when these ideas fall away (as they do during a crisis), we are instead connected, helpful, talking to one another, depending on friends, giving away free services, finding ways to make tele-commuting work, sharing our stresses. We were made for deeper connection and this is a chance to cultivate it over facetime and with your quarantine-mates.

Presence (be there for the experience)

Be present and experience the stress. Crisis can focus your mind on procedures, protocols, or just basic survival. It takes presence of mind to watch out for disaster. This can be exhausting, but if we take a break and are present with one another as well, to process and talk about the stress, we can get just as much out of the connection. This is why people feel that they really lived during hardship like they don’t normally live. They are present.

What I loved about my dad’s office culture during times of crisis was that people were working together and also playing together. There was no other choice. And everyone was there. No one was distracted. And it was accepted that everyone was dealing with great stress, and given the requisite space to deal with it. In the field, humanitarians are aware that they are on the frontlines. Whether or not they are successful at their mission (most of the time the work is frustrating), they have a sense they are doing the best they can. They have a sense their colleagues are doing the best they can. There is an awareness of the situation and of the stress, it is not ignored or downplayed.

Now, take action.

Have you had an experience in the past that you can look to as hard but also connecting? What did you like about it despite the difficulties? What left you feeling a soulful link to all of humanity?

What can you do now?

  • Call someone and share your grief or worry about how things are going (be vulnerable).
  • Get together with a group over zoom or facetime, or create videos (eg. for your kids school or exercise videos), give away a skill you have (like sewing or coaching).
  • Find ways to PLAY! If you can, delay chores or unimportant work and find ways to play. Include your kids, let them see you taking the time to play. Take a socially distant walk, do a puzzle, play online games with friends, have dinners and happy hours over zoom, take a dance class in your living room.

How do we build Resilience?

Resilience comes from a mix of all these factors above. The ability to connect with people even while stressed, being open about it, and being totally present to take in the bad and the good (the jokes, lightheartedness, gestures of play etc).

Let’s recap:

Speak up. Be present. Be connected.

Nothing is more urgent than survival. If you’re lucky and you can survive, then the next step is to connect.