How do you cope with life when you're living in intense times?
For instance, today, a man told me he hadn’t been able to sleep last night due to fear over the current Coronavirus pandemic. He mentioned that he had never experienced entire countries get put under lockdown in his whole life.
I can empathize with this man’s fear. There are a lot of unknowns in the current situation, and for evolutionary reasons, we tend to be afraid of that.
While the situation we’re in is in some ways unprecedented, I don’t believe it’s more than humans can handle.
I believe humans are much more resilient than we give ourselves credit and that we can cope with life and its challenges.
Let me share with you how I came to that insight: recently, I almost lost my mother to a heart attack. While processing that, I realized how incredibly hard it can be to be a human.
Dealing with that scary situation made it clear to me that we’re all superheroes just for coping with life.
So, let’s explore the three main reasons why being human requires super-human strength.
We’ll also look at why we have the strength within us to deal with those things, and everything else lives throws at us, including a pandemic.
1. Coping with life requires learning to deal with death
“I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” ― Woody Allen
Let’s begin with some hard facts.
How do I put this politely?
Scrap that; I’m German, so let’s be blunt about it:
Forget Coronavirus. Life has a 100% mortality rate.
We’re doomed to live with the awareness that all our loved ones, and us, will die. (Yes, I know transhumanists play around with the idea of living forever. Do you know what would be worth than dying? Living forever. Just imagine the boredom you’d feel by the time New Year’s comes around for the 1037th time.)
Oh, and the cycle of destruction doesn’t end with humans.
In a few billion years (give or take), the sun will die, too, taking our beautiful home planet with it.
Yes, that’s beyond harsh. One might say it’s a cause for despair. And yet, humans somehow have the super-human strength to cope with death.
If you don’t believe me, consider the fact that we are currently part of a rather small minority. According to the Population Reference Bureau, there are 15 dead people for every living person. Billions and billions of humans have died before us. So, when we die, we’re joining the majority of all humans who have ever lived.
Plus, there’s a — dare I say ? — bright side to death.
Being aware of our own mortality can give meaning to our existence. It allows us to ask the question: “What truly matters? Given that my life is limited, what do I want to spend my time focusing on?”
2. Coping with life events that bring grief and loss
“You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up.”
Related to the last point, losing people we love is another part of human life that requires super-human strength.
When it comes to the Coronavirus situation, I’m not scared about my own physical safety. I’m not in any of the high-risk groups, so when I find myself worrying about the pandemic, I tend to be concerned about some of my loved ones who are likely more vulnerable than me.
I want to keep them safe. Hence I badger older relatives about social distancing. (Side note: I can now imagine what it must be like to be parents to a teenager.)
The only problem with keeping loved ones safe is that, ultimately, there’s no “safe” in life (see point 1: we’re all going to die).
Unless we somehow magically all pass away at the same time, each of the people I care about will either die before me or after me. Which means either my loved one or I will have to deal with loss and grief.
And unfortunately, losing people we care about is one of the hardest parts of being human. Just a while ago, I got more practice dealing with loss and grief than I ever wanted to have.
You may ask, how did this happen?
Well, Lunar New Year 2018-Lunar New Year 2019 is the front-runner for the not-so-prestigious title of “Sh*ttiest Year of my Life.”
Losing my beloved godfather and a family member within a fortnight (November 2018, you’re officially the worst!) and a total of four in the quarter of a year in various heartbreaking ways will have you feel that way.
While that year sucked, and while I lost people who I won’t ever stop missing, I’m also fully aware that other humans have been through worse.
Of course, people will tell you that you can’t measure loss, but it’s very well within my right to quantify my own loss and put it into perspective.
Just as we should put the Coronavirus situation in perspective.
One of my internet friends has been stuck in her Chinese apartment for over 40 days now. In addition to Coronavirus fears and the inevitable cabin fever, she has had to deal with economic ramifications too.
Her situation has been tough, and many of us might soon find ourselves in her shoes. I can’t tell you how much I don’t want to be stuck inside for that long.
And yet, when I consider the totality of human history, the current Coronavirus situation looks a lot less terrifying to me.
Consider that, in the 14th century, the Black Death killed an estimated 30–60% of Europe’s population. And, unlike today, when we get clear guidance by the World Health Organization, back then, people didn’t know how to protect against it and blamed it on witches or minorities such as the Jewish people.
In World War II, about 3% of the 1940 world population perished (an estimated 70 to 85 million people). If I should get stuck inside during the Coronavirus pandemic, I can at least be grateful that nobody’s dropping bombs on my house while I can’t go outside.
In the course of human history, some people have lost their entire families through wars, genocides, pandemics, natural disasters, or famines.
How do you cope with life when it looks like that?
I don’t know.
I hope I will never have to find out.
All I know is that, somehow, some people find the strength to do it. We do the thing we cannot do when we don’t have any other option. Humans cope with things one can’t deal with when they have to.
3. Becoming okay with our vulnerability
“Real dishes break. That’s how you know they’re real.”― Marty Rubin
We — homo sapiens — are the only living members of our human lineage. Our species will also survive this current pandemic, just as it did with previous ones.
One might wonder what happened to the rest of our extended family.
Did our ancestors play a role in their demise? Or were we just lucky to survive? Are we the “last ones standing” because of fratricide or fortune or something else entirely?
Whatever the answer, that we can even ask this question points to our vulnerability.
We’re born as extremely helpless babies, depending on others for our very survival for many years.
It’s not only our physical vulnerability that’s scary. We’re also vulnerable in other ways, recalling emotional rejection more strongly than physical pain. (Here's how to get better at handling rejection.)
It’s probably our fear of vulnerability that currently has people stacking up on toilet paper like there’s no tomorrow. The last thing we want is to feel vulnerable, so we’ll do whatever we can to stop feeling that way.
And yet, perhaps our very weakness is our superpower and the secret to our success as species.
Is it not our vulnerability that can lead us to form bonds with each other, practice kindness, and find ways to make ourselves more resilient?
What other species would react to a global threat the way we have (for instance, through lockdowns) to protect strangers?
In other words, isn’t vulnerability the very quality that makes us more social, and that encourages us to become better people?
Perhaps, our vulnerability is a good thing. After all, as Brené Brown put it:
“Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity.”
Dealing with challenges that require more strength than we possess is what allows us to find our super-human strength.
If the challenges you’re facing seem impossible, take heart.
After all, being a human is the hardest thing you will have to do in this lifetime. But you can cope with life!
Yes, life has a 100% mortality rate. But that doesn’t mean you won’t get to enjoy a great ride.
While I wouldn’t necessarily take life advice from Hunter S. Thompson, his following quote is spot-on:
“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride!”
Just, you know, wear a damn mask!
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