We Ontarians have the strictest Covid regulations in all of North America, our Premier recently announced. Was this a point of pride for his government? For me, it was the straw that broke my camel’s back. I’ve been thinking a lot about restrictions since being drenched in the first Covid wave, and now immersed in the third wave—a tsunami actually—I feel compelled to talk about it: How can we take back our freedom while in lockdown?
I know I have it so damn easy compared to many—the vast majority of people—across Canada and around the world. Retired with a pension, my greatest lockdown hardships have been my inability to see my two-year-old granddaughter and my 93-year-old mother and to travel to the beach on Lake Huron.
As Damian Barr says in his pandemic poem that’s gone viral (pardon the pun) on social media: “We are not all in the same boat. We are all in the same storm. Some are on super-yachts. Some have just the one oar.” I love this analogy and agree with it whole heartedly; I want to take it a little further. The poem speaks of us going through the Covid crisis with varying and widely differing perceptions and needs. But what if we can alter our personal perception to make the storm less stormy? That way, no matter what boat we’re in, our going will be easier.
To explain what I mean about altering our perceptions to take back our freedom, I lean on my mentor, Viktor Frankl, who was an Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist, philosopher, Holocaust survivor, and author of the best-selling book, Man’s Search for Meaning. I figure if someone had the ability to find freedom while imprisoned in a concentration camp, their insights may help us navigate our way through the Covid lockdowns.
I’ve taken liberty to adapt Frankl’s quotes by replacing anachronous “man” with “person”, and I’m sharing his wisdom in the format of steps to take to be free—or at least freer—in a locked down world. I know from personal experience the steps are anything but easy to take. They require practice, practice and more practice. But the greatest reward of the practice is that we get increasingly adept at altering our perceptions in any circumstance to calm whatever storm we’re caught up in.
Presently, we’re locked down by Covid restrictions, but there are so many other life circumstances that can keep us locked down until we learn how to take back our freedom. “Lockdowns” are essentially loss. With Covid lockdown we’ve lost our ability to travel, to work, to play, to visit. Health and wellbeing “lockdown” might be injury or illness restricting our ability to live fully. Financial “lockdown” would be a loss or lack of means to live comfortably. Relationship “lockdown” could manifest as inability to engage robustly and happily with others.
With Frankl as my inspiration, here is a step-by-step “how to” process for being free in a locked down world:
Step 1: Discern what you can and cannot change.
“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”
This step brings to my mind the “Serenity Prayer”, written by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971):
God, grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference.
Very often you cannot change your circumstances or other people, and when that’s the case, the one and only thing you have control over changing is yourself. Even to recognize and admit that—that you’re powerless to change the circumstance and therefore self-change is required—can take an immense amount of courage. It might take serenity to accept this fact of powerlessness as the poem suggests, but it’s also a fact that acceptance of powerlessness combined with courage brings about serenity, aka peace of mind.
A personal, Covid-related example of when I was challenged to take this step, was recognizing that I have no control over a loved-one’s anti-vaccination position. I may not agree with them, but once I changed my thinking that I needed to convince them to see the light to instead acknowledging and accepting that they’re a mature adult capable of making informed decisions, my anxiety dissipated, our head-banging stopped, and I was free to experience peace of mind.
Step 2: choose your attitude
“Everything can be taken from a person but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Shit happens. Really shitty shit happens, and it lasts and lasts and lasts, and stinks up every aspect of your life. Still, you have freedom to choose how you’re going to respond to the shit happening. You can choose to wallow in your stinking misery—complain, criticize, blame, be angry, be despondent. Or, you can choose to acknowledge the stink that you have no control over and choose to make the most of the situation, as elaborated upon in the next two steps.
There’s an important caveat that comes with this step. As quoted at the beginning of this article, some people are in the storm “rowing with just the one oar” while others are “on super-yachts”. This is metaphorical in two ways: Firstly, not everyone is equally adept at choosing their attitude. Personality, life experiences and opportunities position some people better than others to successfully choose a healthful, positive attitude in any given situation. For those experiencing mental or emotional disorders such as anxiety or depression, attitude adjustment may be a huge challenge. Secondly, some people are in much more dire circumstances than others. Using Covid as an example, the virus and related restrictions have widely variable impacts on individuals’ health, finances and connectivity. The more dire the circumstance, the greater the challenge can be to adopt a beneficial attitude.
For many, no matter your “starting point”, with practice, practice and more practice, you can become increasingly capable at altering your perspective such that you become more a master and less a victim of your circumstances; your foundational human freedom to choose your attitude becomes increasingly exercisable.
A Covid-related example of me taking this step is the attitude adjustment I chose to make in response to one lockdown after another being implemented with increasing strictness which has prevented me from speaking to live audiences to promote personal wellness to save the world. I chose to move from the victimy attitude of disappointment, frustration and valuable time wasted, to the mastery attitude of perceiving the lockdown as a great opportunity for me to develop the badly-needed comfort and effectiveness as a social media presenter.
Step 3: Find meaning in the madness
“In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning...”
As John C. Maxwell said: “Find your why, and you’ll find your way.” It’s been an enormous challenge for a lot of us to find our way through the pandemic shutdowns, to make sense of it all. We often feel the same senselessness with any loss, whether it’s the death of a loved one, the ending of a relationship, developing a chronic illness, getting fired or let go from our job. The challenge is to flip over that pain-inducing stumbling block into an empowering stepping stone. That means adopting the philosophy that something good can indeed come out of something bad and asking yourself “why—for what possible reasons—has the pandemic been inserted into my life?” Meaning helps destroy the despair of senselessness and its associated suffering.
As an environmental sustainability advocate, the meaning I’ve found in the pandemic is that it’s importantly demonstrating in what ways we humans are succeeding and failing in collaborating and cooperating to find solutions to a global crisis. As we’re facing a climate-change crisis with much graver implications than Covid, my found meaning in the pandemic as a valuable “learning experience” has helped diminish its senselessness for me. That doesn’t downplay the mental, emotional, physical, and financial devastation the pandemic has wreaked on individuals around the world, rather it gives meaning to our personal and collective loss.
Step 4: Focus on desired outcomes
“In a position of utter desolation, when a person cannot express their self in positive action, when their only achievement may consist in enduring their sufferings…in such a position a person can, through loving contemplation of the image they carry of their heart’s desire, achieve fulfillment.” (I’ve modified this quote.)
Despite your best efforts, despite taking the preceding steps, in prolonged circumstances of loss by lockdown of any type, there may still be times when your sufferings—your despondency, despair, anxiety, sadness, anger, fear, depression, exhaustion, confusion, imprisonment—persist.
Borrowing from a favourite poem, Desiderata, penned in 1927 by Max Ehrmann, I say: “Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.” Hug yourself in recognition of the efforts you’ve made to become freer during lockdown, and unjudgementally, gently acknowledge the realness of the hurting you’re nonetheless experiencing. But don’t stay in the suffering. Instead, change your focus away from it, direct your thoughts to that which your heart desires, to what makes it sing, to what impassions you and causes you to feel more fully alive. With that unwavering focus, everything you think and do and intend becomes aligned with that focal point. Tony Robbins said it this way: “Whatever you hold in your mind on a consistent basis is exactly what you will experience in your life.” What better time than in a period of lockdown to use the opportunity to begin to manifest the life you desire in the longer term?
For me, at times during the past several months of Covid restrictions when I’ve been focusing on developing my social media presence, I’ve been very discouraged and frustrated at the slow pace and setbacks in my efforts to increase my reach. When I catch myself in this suffering, I change my focus to envision myself as an influential social media and public speaker promoter of world healing through personal healing. I envision the steps I need to take to get there, and as I go about the tasks I’ve planned, I notice my unshackled heart singing.
It’s my hope these steps can help you be freer in a locked down world. I certainly don’t intend to imply working the steps is easy, but easy is seldom the way forward. And, being an ongoing work in progress—as we all are—I’m definitely not implying I’ve mastered the steps. I can say with assurance, however, there are rewards all along the way of practicing, practicing and more practicing.