This basic question seems strange in these times. How are we supposed to answer it? What I consistently hear is some version of the following: “I’m managing,” or “I’m coping,” or “I’m fine, I guess.” This is understandable. Our lives have been upended. We have been thrown into a state of uncertainty and change, unparalleled in recent history. So, of course we’re coping and managing, right?
I’ve thought about this a lot lately. And something about it isn’t sitting quite right for me. So I decided to write about it this week, albeit with some reservation. The reservation stems from a fear of being misunderstood. A fear that somehow my words won’t quite translate into the nuanced message I hope to express. And then I realized that fear and reservation are the signals that this is exactly the time to write. So here goes.
I am the grandson of two Jewish men who fought for Great Britain against the Nazis in World War II. My paternal grandfather served for almost five years in Africa as a reconnaissance solider in the Royal Air Force. My maternal grandfather spent time on the European front in the British Army. My great uncle was a medical doctor. He was killed by a bomb dropped by an Italian war plane as his medical convoy was traveling through Italy. His mother spent the rest of her life refusing to eat Italian food or to buy Italian clothing. My father — along with his brothers, cousins, aunts, and mother — spent the first four years of his life in camps in Wales to escape London, which was under siege for much of the war.
How would my deceased grandparents respond if they were alive today and were asked, “How are you?” How would Victor Frankl, the man who survived the Nazi death camps, reply? In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl gave us a clue. He wrote, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s way.” How would Admiral James Stockdale, who spent over seven years in a Hanoi prisoner of war camp, respond? In describing his experience of torture, he remarked, “I never lost faith in the end of the story, I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.” I’m convinced that my grandparents and men like Frankl and Stockdale, would choose to say, “I am thriving.” And that they would act in ways consistent with that answer.
Human beings are not just incredibly resilient. We are, if we choose to be, “antifragile.” This is the term author Nassim Taleb invented to describe the property of something that actually gets stronger from stress. As he puts it, “The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.” I believe that how you answer the simple question of how you are doing can radically transform your experience. Language has the power to create reality. Answering the question by using the word ‘cope” or “manage” suggests resilience at best, leaving you no better than where you started. Answering it by choosing to declare, “I am thriving,” will create the conditions for you to not just withstand the effects of change, uncertainty, and disorder, but to grow stronger because of them.
You may find yourself truly challenged in these times: dealing with a job lay-off, managing a business that is struggling, parenting school-aged children at home while trying to hold down a full-time career, suffering from illness, caring for a loved one who is ill, or some combination of the above. Here’s my invitation – one that I hope both honors the reality of your situation and the essence of what it means to be human. When asked how you are, choose to answer the question a bit differently….in a way that creates a new reality for you. That forces you to identify the many opportunities from which you can learn, grow, and become a better version of yourself in these trying times.
At the beginning of Amor Towles’ novel, A Gentleman in Moscow, we find the protagonist Count Rostov sentenced by the Bolsheviks to a lifetime of house arrest in a Moscow hotel (an historical version of sheltering in place, perhaps). As he reflects on his isolation, he makes the following powerful remark: “If a man does not master his circumstances then he is bound to be mastered by them.” Here’s to your mastering your circumstances and not being mastered by them. You can start with a simple declaration: “I am thriving.”