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How to widen your mind in a pandemic

How COVID-19 proved the catalyst to launch an idea that had been bubbling away for years.

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I was on a flight from New York City to London when it first hit me that this virus they were talking about in China and Italy was something quite serious. It was late February, and just a few weeks later, the world began to close down as national lockdowns were announced. Working from home didn’t bother me – as a freelancer, I had my WFH routine, wardrobe and schedule down to a tee.

Then the cancellations started coming. Contracts cancelled, clients postponing, requests for fees to be cut. The worst part was that I thrive on being productive – I love dashing between giving a speech here, to submitting an article there – it lights the fire that fuels me on. I was about to launch a new project I’d been working on for months – a mission to go beyond Us vs Them thinking and encourage people to explore the infinite ways of living, thinking and making sense of the world. But my speeches and addresses were cancelled and the workshops all postponed indefinitely.

I looked into taking up new projects. Thanks to the fantastic knitters of YouTube, I was soon able to cast on, cast off and had knit a scarf and a blanket. I started a daily blog, chronicling life under lockdown, and my foreign languages got a good dusting off as I pored through grammar books that had laid closed for years.

But I needed more. I felt like a treacherous lover betraying the project I had been so excited to launch. It had come as a result of months of field research in conflict zones, from Northern Ireland to Syria, and years spent exploring why such a communication crisis had occurred – why we were simply unable to talk to people who think differently from us.

And then it came. The idea that would subsume my time throughout lockdown and propel me forward in a way I scarcely thought possible. I made some phone calls to experts I’d worked with over the last few years and who I thought could speak to the idea of widening one’s mind. I asked if I could record our conversations. Within a week, I started teaching myself all about podcasting and what I would need to do to share these interviews with the world.

After the fastest learning curve in history, I launched my first episode and hoped that I’d find more interviewees. Within weeks, the renowned philosopher A.C. Grayling was onboard, the awarding winner physicist and broadcaster Jim Al-Khalili had joined me in conversation, and Nicky Gumbel, the pioneer of the modern Alpha Course, which has introduced millions of people to Christianity, had recorded an interview with me.

This idea of widemindedness clearly resonated with the guests as much as it did with me. The historian and Arabist, Eamonn Gearon, who leads cultural training for US and UK diplomats, said “Widemindedness really is one of the most important ideas for our times.” A.C. Grayling told me that he thought we needed to widen our minds to understand others better because “other people see things from a different point in space, from a different point in experience, from a different point in the palette of their desires and interests”.

Listeners came from India, Spain, the USA, the UK, France, Lithuania, Australia and soon every continent was downloading the latest episode each week. I thought lockdown had put an end to my mission to encourage people to widen their minds. Instead, it allowed me to spread the message with more people than I could ever have imagined. Through widening my own mind to different ways of doing things, adversity created an opportunity I might otherwise never have seen.

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People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

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