Staying sane in insane times

staying sane in insane times

“We sit here stranded, though we’re all doing our best to deny it.” – Bob Dylan (Visions of Johanna)

This is only the beginning.

It’s been something of a cliché for the last few years to say that we’re living in VUCA times. And then, just when we thought things couldn’t get any more uncertain, almost out of nowhere came the corona-virus. Within a few months, this virus has come out of nowhere and turned the already crazy world upside down.

We watch in horror and anticipation of worse to come as death rates rise all over the world, and our personal freedoms are increasingly restricted. We wonder what will happen next – will it be a global wake-up call as some of the viral videos are suggesting, an opportunity for us to see the folly of the way we’ve put the world together, to actually start acting on climate change? Or will it lead to even greater state control and dystopia?

In the UK, we watch as our historically individualistic laissez-faire prime minister turns into the most statist, high-spending, freedom-curbing government we’ve seen in my lifetime, and remind ourselves that it’s really happening. And that it’s only the beginning.

On a personal level, we struggle to cope with the surreality of it all – most of us are stuck at home, rationed (mercifully this hasn’t been taken away from us yet) to one outing per day for exercise or essential shopping, trying to make sense of what is happening. Some talk about it as being a bit like Christmas – the one period in “normal life” when everything is closed and we’re forced to stay at home, and then catch ourselves wondering when it will end. We tell ourselves that we’ll use the time wisely; we share tips and videos about working from home, about the need to be creative, to clean out the cupboards, take up a new hobby, write a book, learn a language. And then the next day, we wake up and stay in our pyjamas until lunchtime and slump on the sofa and watch tv and snap at our loved ones, or scowl at panic-buyers, and the days blur into one. And we wonder how long this can go on for?

And this is only the beginning.

In the UK, things are bad, but they are going to get a lot worse – more and more people will get sick and more and more people will die, and those rising death rates will touch us – they’ll include people we know and care about, they might even include us.

It’s not surprising that most of us are feeling a bit mad at the moment. Most of us haven’t seen anything like this in our lifetimes. Commentators keep saying that this is like the Blitz – we have to adopt a blitz spirit – to do our bit to bring the country (the world) back from this disaster. We’re being asked to stay at home, to volunteer, and many of us are stepping up. We’re finding new ways to be in contact with each other – everything from work and client meetings to yoga classes, 12-step meetings and family gatherings are moving online.

In times of crisis, we turn to each other. We gather in our families, in our communities, we go to synagogue or church, we go to the pub with our friends, or to the beach. It’s not surprising that so many people are finding it hard to obey the requests to stay at home, and to risk being fined for ignoring the inevitable orders and laws that follow the ignored requests.

How will we survive? That’s the unspoken question – how will we get through this? And, if we do get through it, what will be on the other side? What will have changed? Will there be another virus that comes round sooner rather than later? Will we learn from this how to live differently – to be slower, to be kinder, to focus more on what matters most? Or will we simply try to live as we’ve done before? Already, we can see some political figures globally talking about getting back to normal within weeks, even in the face of expert advice. And easy though it is to judge them harshly for this, which of us doesn’t long to be able to get back to normal, to make this insanity go away.

And yet … this is only the beginning – the beginning of the crisis, but also the beginning of whatever changes it is going to bring into our lives, both externally and internally.

There are no easy ways through this – perhaps the most helpful thing I’ve heard since this all kicked off was that “there is no way to make this not strange”. Perhaps the real insanity in insane times is in trying to remain normal. The more we can accept that these are strange times and that we won’t always be able to stay positive or upbeat or focussed, the easier it will be. There will be times when we see the best in ourselves and humanity, and others when we see the worst in humanity. We need to be compassionate towards others who are struggling, but also to ourselves.

The other we need is to recognise our vulnerability and to ask for help and let people know. I was talking about the crisis a few days ago with a friend who’s been going to AA meetings for years. I asked him how he was getting on, and he told me that “in AA, we’ve been doing this for years – we have our fellowship community, and we’ve learned to just pick up the phone when we feel low, or are having a bad day”. Strange times require us to act in ways that aren’t always familiar to us.

I bumped in to one of my neighbours, with whom I have been barely on “good morning” terms the other day. I asked her how she was getting on in the crisis and if she needed anything. She said she was fine, but admitted that she worried about getting lonely – this from someone whom I barely know, remember. We exchanged numbers and offered to help each other out if we needed any supplies (we both live alone), and I reflected afterwards that we had started to do exactly what my friend was speaking about – building connections by sharing our vulnerability. I do believe that, however hard this journey we are on is going to be, the best thing we can do is to stop “doing our best to deny” that we are stranded.

Connecting is key – connection to others (ironically the very technology that we have been decrying as destroying interpersonal connection has become a lifeline), connecting with nature while we can, and connecting with spirit (however you interpret that) will be what helps us to find our way.

Stay connected, and stay compassionate to others, but especially to yourself in the days and weeks and months to come.

There will be good days and bad days for all of us.

Aboodi Shabi is one of the ECC’s executive coaches, and a Lecturer in Coaching and Behavioural Change at Henley Business School. 



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