It's a bit of an anticlimactic birthday, turning 49, just one year away from a big milestone, celebrating via text, Facebook and Zoom. Yet I've never been more grateful to see another day, let alone another year. My gratitude multiplies with the well-wishes of family and friends who are themselves well, who are trying to help health care workers by staying home with good grace and positive attitudes.
Seven or eight years ago I fell ill with strange autoimmune issues that went undiagnosed for a long time. Emerging from the pain and fear of that illness, I resolved to rest in gratitude and remember that health and well-being - for myself and my extended family and friends - were truly the golden ring. For the most part I retained that life lesson, but should I ever forget, the experience with COVID-19 has for sure highlighted and underlined the gift of health, the gift of life.
What a gift to see crow's eyes form and grey hairs sprout, to feel new aches when I climb of bed but to stretch and exercise until they (temporarily) go away. I'm also grateful to be quarantined in a tree-filled suburban neighborhood where we have room to walk six feet apart, work in the garden and watch birds and squirrels through our kitchen windows. Space that gives rise to the far-fetched notions of cultivating chickens (not allowed by the HOA), planting a victory garden (in clay soil that desperately needs amendment), and re-landscaping the front yard (obvious physical limitations).
Putting aside dreams of living off the suburban land, my real birthday wish is for everyone to prioritize their health and wellness and that our country prioritizes the health of all its people, especially the health care workers who are risking their lives for us all every day.
Stay safe and well.
Your losses are real. Your disappointments are real. Your hardships are real. I don’t mean to make light or to minimize the difficulty ahead for you, your family or community.
But this isn’t like other illnesses and we don’t get to act like it is. It’s more contagious, it’s more fatal—and most importantly, even if it can be managed. It can’t be managed at a massive scale—anywhere. We need this thing to move slowly enough for our collective national and worldwide medical systems to hold the very ill so that all of the very ill can get taken care of.
Because at this time of severe virus there are also all of the other things that require care. There is still cancer, there are still heart attacks, there are still car accidents, there are still complicated births. And we need our medical systems to be able to hold us. And we need to be responsible because our medical systems are made up of people and these amazing healthcare workers are a precious and limited resource. They will rise to this occasion. They will work to help you heal. They will work to save your mother or father or sister or baby. But in order for that to happen we have very important work to do. ALL OF US.
So what is our work? Yes, you need to wash your hands and stay home if you are sick. But the biggest work you can do is expand your heart and your mind to see yourself and see your family as part of a much bigger community that can have a massive—hugely massive—impact on the lives of other people.
I remember the feeling of helplessness after 9/11 and after Hurricane Sandy. I remember how much people wanted to help. I remember how much generosity of spirit there was about wanting to give, wanting to be helpful, wanting to save lives. And many of you have had experiences since then—whether it was a mass shooting, or the wildfires, or floods. There have been times you have looked on and wondered how you could help. And now we ALL have that chance.
You can help by canceling anything that requires a group gathering. You can help by not using the medical system unless it is urgent. You can help by staying home if you are sick. You can help by cooking or shopping or doing errands for a friend who needs to stay home. You can help by watching someone’s kid if they need to cover for someone else at work. You can help by ordering take-out from your local restaurants. Eat the food yourself or find someone who needs it. You can help by offering to help bring someone’s college student home or house out-of-town students if you have extra rooms. You can help by asking yourself, “What can I and my family do to help?” “What can we offer?” You can help by seeing yourself as part of something bigger than yourself.
When the Apollo 13 oxygen tank failed and the lunar module was in danger of not returning to earth, Gene Kranz, the lead flight director overheard people saying that this could be the worst disaster NASA had ever experienced—to which he is rumored to have responded, “With all due respect, I believe this is going to be our finest hour.”
Imagine if we could make our response to this crisis our finest hour. Imagine if a year or two from now we looked back on this and told the stories of how we came together as a team in our community, in our state, in our nation and across the world.
Your contribution to the finest hour may seem small, invisible, inconsequential—but every small act of ‘not doing’ what you were going to do, and ‘doing’ an act of kindness or support will add up exponentially. These acts can and will save lives. The Apollo 13 crew made it their finest hour by letting go of the word “I” and embracing the word “we.” And that’s the task required of us. It can only be our finest hour if we work together. You are all on the team. And we need all of you to shine in whatever way you can.
This post originally appeared here.
Gretchen Schmelzer, PhD, is a licensed psychologist and a trauma survivor who has worked for twenty-five years with the complex issues of trauma, integration, and behavior change across every level, from individuals to groups to large systems and countries. She has also been a senior consultant with Teleos Leadership Institute, an international consulting firm serving leaders of fortune 100 businesses and major not-for-profit organizations such as the United Nations. She is the founder and editor of The Trail Guide, a web-mag featured on www.gretchenschmelzer.com dedicated to healing repeated trauma and the author of Journey Through Trauma (Avery, 2018).
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