When I learned I would be locked down indefinitely, knowing we were all heading into unknown territory, I looked for role models.
Who had handled such a situation successfully?
Nelson Mandela had been locked down for twenty-seven years, most of that time on a cold island, breaking rocks, with a bucket for a toilet. He negotiated with presidents of the nation that locked him up and emerged to get their jobs. I could see what was possible under lock down.
While he remained imprisoned, the world celebrated his seventieth birthday with a global celebration. Over six hundred million people participated. For my birthdays not locked down, I haven’t even gotten one million people to attend. I could see what was possible locked down.
Viktor Frankl was locked down in four concentration camps, including Auschwitz, tortured by Nazis in one of the most horrible environments humans have created for others. His book, Man’s Search for Meaning, speaks of the meaning he created for himself. Specifically, he wrote of bliss and love.
Mandela and Frankl have been among my most important role models for decades. Maybe more than anything else, being locked down this past year has brought me closer to them, motivating me to learn more of them personally, learning what they did to create meaning, love, bliss, and political success. I believe they wrote their memoirs knowing humans would face suffering forever and that facing it not with misery but with joy honors their legacies.
How I believe I honor their legacies locked down
When people started to lose their sh*t two months into the lock down, I felt “I have a quarter century to go before exhausting Mandela’s inspiration.”
When people remind me people are suffering and dying, I feel empathy and compassion. I also think of Frankl’s words
When we are no longer able to change a situation—just think of an incurable disease such as inoperable cancer—we are challenged to change ourselves.
Why did he write those words if not to enable us to change ourselves, not to evaluate our current situation by the values of the past that no longer exists. I might fantasize I could fly, but don’t feel bad that I live in a world where I can’t. Likewise, I might fantasize I could walk in public maskless without risking lives, but I don’t feel any worse that I live in a world where I can’t. Getting mad at gravity or the confusion of politicians and doctors at handling a new situation doesn’t improve my situation. Following Frankl’s advice does, so I do.
When people bemoan their physical situation, of course I feel empathy and compassion. I also ask myself how my situation compares with theirs. I have access to all the world’s culture that has ever been digitized, fresh fruits and vegetables almost whenever I want, video calls with billions of others globally at negligible cost, and so on. Mandela could not attend his mother’s or son’s funeral. Frankl knew everyone he loved was imprisoned and likely dying. He learned, in response,
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 own way.
Lockdown has brought me closer to my greatest role models
Of course I would prefer no pandemic and health, freedom, and prosperity for all. I don’t live in that world. I can change only so much. There was suffering before, there is suffering now, and there will be suffering in the future.
I have used this time to become closer to them. When I do my daily calisthenics I think of Mandela, who boxed in his youth. I learned he practiced his four-day-on-three-day-rest exercise throughout his imprisonment.
I have found what serves me best is to help others. There is no shortage of others to help. Early on, while recovering from nearly every source of income disappearing almost at once, I led a workshop Life-Changing Habits Even (Especially) Under Lock-Down. Throughout I kept my podcast This Sustainable Life on stewardship of nature bringing joy, fun, community, connection, meaning, and purpose. I’m working on my third book, on sustainability leadership.
Who are your role models?
My role models aren’t necessarily yours, but you almost certainly know people who have handled adversity. Who are they?
How can you connect with them?
What legacy did they leave for you to learn?
What did they do that you can too?
Whom can you serve?
If you can’t change your situation, how can you change yourself?
What meaning can you create?