The pandemic: will it make you, break you or set you free?

How are things? Are you having a good pandemic, “actually”? Was lockdown “great, in a way”? Did you get in touch with your inner sourdough, learn your kids’ names and zoom “back-to-back”?

Is your business “hugely” benefiting from the pandemic, “as it happens”? Sales up, like, who knew? Is “managing growth” your main problem, “frankly”?

Or are you waking each day feeling sick about “Q4”? Have you stopped “furloughing” and started exiting “your people”? Are sales down, “massively”?

Have you had a break, yet? Away from your screens, room, and routine? Have you had a chance to think? Or, better still, feel? You do not live, most likely, in a one-bedroom flat in a high rise with several children. You can afford to philosophise. I encourage you to use that privilege.

I turned sixty during the pandemic. I felt a deep sense of loss for months before this milestone, exacerbated I suspect by the dystopian background of the virus with its promise of a horrible death if you break the rules or if you’re unlucky.

The feeling of loss was specific: I had traumatic school years. I was mourning my miserable adolescence; outraged that time had sped by so quickly; my head still, in part, stuck in the past. I became pathetically obsessed with Normal People, desperate to switch places with Connell Waldron.

I also felt panic. The dawning and the sickening realisation that I had stretched myself over my working life without questioning for a moment that the lifestyle I was creating for myself and my family was an option, not mandatory. We could have lived in a smaller house, spent less, and lived life more fully.

My business has just about survived COVID-19, so far, but like all “one-person-band” consultants, I am fearful of the future and working hard to anticipate clients’ changing needs and to meet them.

Your life story will be different from mine and even if you are having “a great COVID” we are all in the same boat in that sooner, or later we are all going to die of a virus, illness or natural causes. That much we share.

We also share a responsibility – if we choose to accept it – to ourselves and to those around us to be what we can be, not because that sounds preachy and therefore must be right, but because only that way can our lives and organisations become sustainable and meaningful.

But what can we be at a time of pandemic? What can you as a CEO, leader, or board member do differently not just to survive but to thrive at a time when mere survival would do? What’s the point of high-falutin’ stuff about “being” given that we have tumbled to the bottom of Maslow’s famous triangle? You can’t eat wisdom.

Whether, to a greater or lesser extent, COVID-19 makes you or breaks you and/or your organisation there is a third possibility: the potential for the experience to set you and/or your organisation “free”.

Eckhardt Tolle in The Power of Now writes:

“So whenever any kind of disaster strikes…know that there is another side to it, that you are just one step away from something incredible…That one step is surrender”.

I and others struggle with the notion of “surrender”. Either it feels like giving in when one should “fight” or, when surrender means acceptance, that acceptance seems impossible.

Tolle continues:

“When your pain is deep, all talk of surrender will probably seem futile…But there is no escape…When there is no way out, there is always a way through…Give all your attention to the feeling, not to the person, event or situation that caused it…Since it is impossible to get away from the feeling the only possibility of change is to move into it; otherwise nothing will shift…Nonresistance doesn’t necessarily mean doing nothing. all it means is that “doing” becomes nonreactive…don’t resist the opponent’s force. Yield to overcome”.

So stop talking about COVID-19. Instead, talk about what you feel about it. “Feel it fully. Feel it – don’t think about it”. According to Tolle, if you do, your actions will come from a different place. A place, not from conditioned responses but from an acceptance of the present. Ask any soldier with battle experience. They’ll tell you about “living in the now”. Sure as hell.

I struggle with applying Tolle, but when I do it works. When I pass his and the ideas of other writers to clients, they too find that something shifts for them.

My 60th. Birthday came and went. It tuned out to be a great day. The angst that proceeded it dissolved as I realised that nothing had changed since the day before. I accept my losses in youth – my wife reminded me that Normal People is a but a TV programme – I accept the feelings around my mistakes in staying on a career high-wire act for far too long, and I accept my fear about what will happen next in my business over “Q4” and beyond during COVID-19.

Moreover, in the course of my birthday celebrations, I found that I am capable of being loved, loving and lovable.

Just like you. What’s not to like?

Ciarán Fenton

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