Ten questions for self reflection (and what to do with the answers)
If you’re finding yourself with some extra time in lockdown, don't give in to boredom. Instead, see if you can give yourself some space and time to think about where you are in life — and where you'd like to be.
In the works of Jalal al-Din Rumi, the 13th-century philosopher and poet often encouraged others to look inside themselves to find answers. The act of reflection can be incredibly powerful. It can help improve self-awareness, deepen understanding, increase clarity of thinking, and provide general mental de-cluttering.
You may be hoping to change some things about your life after the Covid-19 pandemic subsides, or perhaps the idea has been with you for a while and it’s recently resurfaced. Either way, it can become an overwhelming thought. Some will feel a blank space, not knowing what options they might have. Others may have a wealth of ideas, thoughts, and options all swimming around in their mind. Some will find themselves somewhere in the middle, having some sense of direction but not enough to grasp.
Whichever scenario resonates with you, it can become overwhelming. The thing to remember is, change is all about taking small steps.
So if you’re willing to take a small step, with no right or wrong answers (there is no solution, you don’t need to come to a conclusion, just let your mind explore a little more) then keep reading.
Here are 10 questions for self-reflection, and some guidance on what you can do with the answers.
Find a quiet space and think through them in your own time or you may prefer to read through them all and answer them over time. Write answers as a list, write paragraphs, record voice notes, record a piece to camera, or partner with a friend and ask each other the questions, taking note of your answers.
Once you feel like you’ve answered the question, ask yourself ‘What else?’ You may be surprised with the extra thoughts that come up if you nudge your thinking a little more each time
Consider looking through the answers a few times when you are in different moods, as your mood may unlock extra thoughts and may provide different perspectives
Ten questions for self reflection (and what to do with the answers).
1. What do I enjoy?
Think about how much time you spend doing what you enjoy, and how you may be able to do more of it by increasing frequency or by expanding the methods by which you do it. So, for example, if you enjoy reading, you may think about setting aside regular time to read more often, joining a local or virtual book club.
2. What do I not enjoy?
Spending more time than is necessary on doing things that you don’t enjoy can cause unhappiness, stress, and anxiety. It can drain your energy, affect your confidence and will take up time that you could spend doing things you do enjoy. Looking at what you’ve listed, how can you reduce or entirely stop doing those things? Watch that voice in your head that says ‘you have to’ or ‘you can’t stop’. Challenge that voice. Will there be dire consequences or temporary discomfort and adjustment?
3. What goals do you have right now?
How can you work towards making these happen? Consider breaking the end goal down into smaller steps, picking one milestone, and focusing on how you can achieve it. For example, if you want to be healthier, what steps will get you there and which one of those can you start now?
4. What makes me happy?
This is a big question, so think big. Dig into your memory bank. Think into your past and your present. Anything goes on this one, big or small. Use the answers to help influence decisions you may need to make now or in the future. For example, if looking for a new job, knowing what makes you happy might help influence what jobs you look at or decide to apply for.
5. What have been the accomplishments you’re most proud of?
Reflecting on moments that we are proud of can help us understand what’s important to us and what drives us. Think about those moments in detail and what it was that makes them feel important to you. What do you notice? Are there any commonalities?
6. What haven’t you done yet, that you wish you had?
When answers come to mind on this one, which ones stand out for you? How do you feel when you think about those things? Are there any you still want to do? What’s possible for you?
7. When you think about change, what do you want?
This is an open question, so be honest with yourself and go as broad or deep as your mind takes you (And don’t worry about whether it’s possible and what it needs to look like, you’re just capturing your thoughts, there is no commitment).
8. How would it change your life?
Thinking about your answer to Question 7, if those changes did happen, describe how it could change your life practically, mentally, and emotionally.
9. What’s stopping you?
Again, thinking about your answer to Question 7, what do you think has stopped you from working towards those changes so far? Do you notice any trends in the thoughts or behaviours that tend to stop you?
10. What’s your biggest fear?
Calling your fears out is a good start to working on naming them and overcoming them.
11. What’s your incentive to change?
Similarly, being very clear on why you want change can help boost your motivation and confidence to make it happen. Think about what’s driving you to want what you want. Why is it important to you?
If you’ve worked through some or all of the questions, good work! Remember to go back through your answers and add to them by asking yourself ‘What else?’ I hope this exercise has helped you articulate some of what’s in your head and started to bring your thinking together on what small steps you might take to move forward.
Stop Preparing For The Last Disaster
READING TIME: 5 MINUTES
When something goes wrong, we often strive to be better prepared if the same thing happens again. But the same disasters tend not to happen twice in a row. A more effective approach is simply to prepare to be surprised by life, instead of expecting the past to repeat itself.
If we want to become less fragile, we need to stop preparing for the last disaster.
When disaster strikes, we learn a lot about ourselves. We learn whether we are resilient, whether we can adapt to challenges and come out stronger. We learn what has meaning for us, we discover core values, and we identify what we’re willing to fight for. Disaster, if it doesn’t kill us, can make us stronger. Maybe we discover abilities we didn’t know we had. Maybe we adapt to a new normal with more confidence. And often we make changes so we will be better prepared in the future.
But better prepared for what?
After a particularly trying event, most people prepare for a repeat of whatever challenge they just faced. From the micro level to the macro level, we succumb to the availability bias and get ready to fight a war we’ve already fought. We learn that one lesson, but we don’t generalize that knowledge or expand it to other areas. Nor do we necessarily let the fact that a disaster happened teach us that disasters do, as a rule, tend to happen. Because we focus on the particulars, we don’t extrapolate what we learn to identifying what we can better do to prepare for adversity in general.
We tend to have the same reaction to challenge, regardless of the scale of impact on our lives.
Sometimes the impact is strictly personal. For example, our partner cheats on us, so we vow never to have that happen again and make changes designed to catch the next cheater before they get a chance; in future relationships, we let jealousy cloud everything.
But other times, the consequences are far reaching and impact the social, cultural, and national narratives we are a part of. Like when a terrorist uses an airplane to attack our city, so we immediately increase security at airports so that planes can never be used again to do so much damage and kill so many people.
The changes we make may keep us safe from a repeat of those scenarios that hurt us. The problem is, we’re still fragile. We haven’t done anything to increase our resilience—which means the next disaster is likely to knock us on our ass.
Why do we keep preparing for the last disaster?
Disasters cause pain. Whether it’s emotional or physical, the hurt causes vivid and strong reactions. We remember pain, and we want to avoid it in the future through whatever means possible. The availability of memories of our recent pain informs what we think we should do to stop it from happening again.
This process, called the availability bias, has significant implications for how we react in the aftermath of disaster. Writing in The Legal Analyst: A Toolkit for Thinking about the Law about the information cascades this logical fallacy sets off, Ward Farnsworth says they “also help explain why it’s politically so hard to take strong measures against disasters before they have happened at least once. Until they occur they aren’t available enough to the public imagination to seem important; after they occur their availability cascades and there is an exaggerated rush to prevent the identical thing from happening again. Thus after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, cutlery was banned from airplanes and invasive security measures were imposed at airports. There wasn’t the political will to take drastic measures against the possibility of nuclear or other terrorist attacks of a type that hadn’t yet happened and so weren’t very available.”
In the aftermath of a disaster, we want to be reassured of future safety. We lived through it, and we don’t want to do so again. By focusing on the particulars of a single event, however, we miss identifying the changes that will improve our chances of better outcomes next time. Yes, we don’t want any more planes to fly into buildings. But preparing for the last disaster leaves us just as underprepared for the next one.
What might we do instead?
We rarely take a step back and go beyond the pain to look at what made us so vulnerable to it in the first place. However, that’s exactly where we need to start if we really want to better prepare ourselves for future disaster. Because really, what most of us want is to not be taken by surprise again, caught unprepared and vulnerable.
The reality is that the same disaster is unlikely to happen twice. Your next lover is unlikely to hurt you in the same way your former one did, just as the next terrorist is unlikely to attack in the same way as their predecessor. If we want to make ourselves less fragile in the face of great challenge, the first step is to accept that you are never going to know what the next disaster will be. Then ask yourself: How can I prepare anyway? What changes can I make to better face the unknown?
As Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy explain in Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back, “surprises are by definition inevitable and unforeseeable, but seeking out their potential sources is the first step toward adopting the open, ready stance on which resilient responses depend.”
Giving serious thought to the range of possible disasters immediately makes you aware that you can’t prepare for all of them. But what are the common threads? What safeguards can you put in place that will be useful in a variety of situations? A good place to start is increasing your adaptability. The easier you can adapt to change, the more flexibility you have. More flexibility means having more options to deal with, mitigate, and even capitalize on disaster.
Another important mental tool is to accept that disasters will happen. Expect them. It’s not about walking around every day with your adrenaline pumped in anticipation; it’s about making plans assuming that they will get derailed at some point. So you insert backup systems. You create a cushion, moving away from razor-thin margins. You give yourself the optionality to respond differently when the next disaster hits.
Finally, we can find ways to benefit from disaster. Author and economist Keisha Blair, in Holistic Wealth, suggests that “building our resilience muscles starts with the way we process the negative events in our lives. Mental toughness is a prerequisite for personal growth and success.” She further writes, “adversity allows us to become better rounded, richer in experience, and to strengthen our inner resources.” We can learn from the last disaster how to grow and leverage our experiences to better prepare for the next one.
One day, King Solomon, the wisest man in the world, wanted to test the integrity and wisdom of his faithful servant. The King summoned his servant and asked him to carry out a task, knowing that it could not be completed. King Solomon said: "The Feast of Tabernacles is in 6 months, and I would like to wear a magic ring for the holiday. Any person who is sad and looks at the ring will become happy and any happy person who looks at the ring will become sad.”
The faithful servant immediately went on the journey in the search of the mysterious ring. A month passed, two months passed, and the servant, who visited every jeweler and peddler in the kingdom, remained without the ring. Two more months passed, and the servant reached the limits of the kingdom, but he had yet to find anyone who had heard of such a magical ring.
Over time, the faithful servant became frustrated. With all his might he wanted to fulfill his master's wish, but no matter how hard he tried, he could not find the mysterious ring. He was depressed and almost gave up, until one day before the Feast of Tabernacles, he arrived at the small workshop of a poor jeweler in a small village.
The servant, who had nothing to lose, asked the old silversmith: "Tell me, sir, have you ever heard of a magical ring that causes the sad to become happy and the happy to become sad?" The old silversmith thought for a second, took out a small copper ring from one of the drawers, scratched it and handed it to the servant. The servant, who for the past few months had lost all hope, gave one glance at the inscription on the ring, and his eyes lit up. He thanked the silversmith, paid him a bag of gold coins, and hurried to the king's palace.
When the servant finally arrived at the King's Palace, Solomon was very happy and rejoiced. He did not believe that his servant would really come back to him with a ring. The servant handed the ring to his master, the wise king gave it one look and the smile immediately disappeared from his face. All the courtiers were curious to see what was written on the magical ring, and finally, when they looked at it, they saw the following simple sentence:
"Despite everything, this too will pass"
This simple sentence contains a truth that we must cherish in our hearts - even if it feels like everything is going great and were on top of the world, we must remember that all this might disappear one day. On the other hand, and this is the happy side of the rule, all the suffering, all the frustration, all the difficult times we sometimes experience, these too will pass and be forgotten.Send this story to all your friends, to remind them that even the most difficult moments pass in the end.
The playing out of events over recent months has caused many of us to experience a rollercoaster of emotions. Some of us may have felt distress, perhaps taking it out on others around us, some will have felt curious to learn new skills, while others may have felt like curling up into an anxious ball, worrying about what this means for the future.
The same event can cause quite different reactions in different people.
We could think that it’s the events – like the global pandemic – that have caused our reactions. In cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), the principle is that it’s not the actual event that has caused our reaction, but our interpretation of the event i.e. it’s our interpretation of the pandemic that causes our reaction and behaviour. Cognitive behavioural coaching (CBC) goes on to suggest that our reactions and behaviours are a function of our environment, thoughts, feelings, and physiology.
And so, if we were to change one — or a combination of — our environment, thoughts, feelings and physiology, we could change our reaction and our behaviour, demonstrating some choice and an element of control over a situation that we previously felt was entirely outside of our control.
This is where resilience comes in. Mawlana Hazar Imam has often spoken of our long-standing traditions of unity, generosity, and mutual support to move to a position of enhanced strength and resilience enabling us as a Jamat to look to the future with hope and courage.
It’s important to come together to build resilience as a community, and just as important to be aware of our own fortitude, and how we might build resilience for ourselves at times of difficulty.
What exactly is resilience?
Resilience is the ability to deal with adversity. It is a process where we appraise, cope, and adapt. And our ability to do this is influenced by what takes place inside us - our thoughts, our emotions, and our physiology.
Our ability to be resilient can enable us to demonstrate more positive reactions and positive behaviour when faced with adversity. The ability to display resilience is also correlated with optimism and is more likely to lead us to success.
And the fortunate thing is: resilience is a skill. Some of us may be naturally more resilient than others, but everyone has the capacity to build resilience and learn how to develop the capability.
How can I build resilience?
Resilience can be broken down into a process of three steps:
-The trigger situation or event - the adversity
-The beliefs that we hold and believe to be true about the event or situation
-The reactions and behaviours we display as a consequence of holding those beliefs
Notice how our reactions and behaviours are not a direct result of the adversity we are experiencing, but a result of the beliefs we are holding.
The ABC model, developed by Albert Ellis and adapted by Martin Seligman, is a model that highlights the opportunity in this process to build resilience.
If we were to take an example to apply this model, being made redundant might be an adverse event that someone is dealing with. And this has resulted in high levels of anxiety. The conclusion that could be landed on is: I am very anxious because I have been made redundant.
With this process, we have skipped the B - the beliefs. We have tied the reactions and behaviour directly to the event.
If we were to consider beliefs, we might come up with the below:
I believe I was not good enough at my job, that’s why they made me redundant
I believe I won’t be able to pay the mortgage next month, this is making me anxious
I believe I will not find another job in this climate, this is making me scared
This way we begin to understand what is driving the behaviours and this opens up options of what could be addressed to help turn reactions and behaviour from negative towards positive.
And the start of this is shifting beliefs. Sometimes our beliefs can be inaccurate, incorrectly assumed or influenced. Questioning our beliefs can help provide a space to open up different perspectives and gather evidence that might help us make the shift.
So for example, if there is a belief held that ‘I was not good enough at my job’ this could be challenged as much as possible by asking: What would the people you have worked with say about how good you are at your job? What did you do that was good enough or better at your job? What are the other reasons you may have been made redundant?
As alternative beliefs start to be considered, consequences can start to shift. Our reactions and behaviours can become more constructive as the focus shifts from what is outside of our control to what we can change.
With more resilience we can find a sense of positivity and optimism at times of adversity, and a way of being more productive and peaceful.
Why is it that some people seem to be hugely successful and do so much, while the vast majority of us struggle to tread water?
The answer is complicated and likely multifaceted.
One aspect is mindset—specifically, the difference between amateurs and professionals.
Most of us are just amateurs.
What’s the difference? Actually, there are many differences:
- Amateurs stop when they achieve something. Professionals understand that the initial achievement is just the beginning.
- Amateurs have a goal. Professionals have a process.
- Amateurs think they are good at everything. Professionals understand their circles of competence.
- Amateurs see feedback and coaching as someone criticizing them as a person. Professionals know they have weak spots and seek out thoughtful criticism.
- Amateurs value isolated performance. Think about the receiver who catches the ball once on a difficult throw. Professionals value consistency.
Can I catch the ball in the same situation 9 times out of 10?
- Amateurs give up at the first sign of trouble and assume they’re failures. Professionals see failure as part of the path to growth and mastery.
- Amateurs don’t have any idea what improves the odds of achieving good outcomes. Professionals do.
- Amateurs show up to practice to have fun. Professionals realize that what happens in practice happens in games.
- Amateurs focus on identifying their weaknesses and improving them. Professionals focus on their strengths and on finding people who are strong where they are weak.
- Amateurs think knowledge is power. Professionals pass on wisdom and advice.
- Amateurs focus on being right. Professionals focus on getting the best outcome.
- Amateurs focus on first-level thinking. Professionals focus on second-order thinking.
- Amateurs think good outcomes are the result of their brilliance. Professionals understand when good outcomes are the result of luck.
- Amateurs focus on the short term. Professionals focus on the long term.
- Amateurs focus on tearing other people down. Professionals focus on making everyone better.
- Amateurs make decisions in committees so there is no one person responsible if things go wrong. Professionals make decisions as individuals and accept responsibility.
Self-learning and wellness are an urgent personal responsibility. Being at peace with ourselves is a necessary pillar of our daily mindset more than ever before. Personal peace can be fragile, but sustaining it, can bring impactful results for so many.
Jeremy Gilley, an actor turned filmmaker, chose to make peace with himself many years ago, by shifting away from making pure entertainment films. He embarked on the journey of ‘Peace One Day’ which grew into a not-for-profit independent organisation.
In 2007, through a cease fire campaign with several organizations including the United Nations and the Afghan Government, 1.4 million children received the P3 polio vaccine in parts of Afghanistan on Peace Day. The commitment to non-violence resulted in a 70% drop in violent incidents on Peace Day, and by 2010, 4.5 million children in conflict ridden areas of Afghanistan were immunised.
Independently, the Institute of Economics and Peace (IEP), measures the peacefulness of countries via the Global Peace Index (GPI). The GPI measures the state of peace using three themes, namely, Societal Safety and Security, Ongoing Domestic and International Conflict, and the degree of Militarisation. This analysis includes 99.7 of the world’s population. The GPI serves as a tool to understand cause and impact of governance. This Year, the United Arab Emirates has risen to number 41 (from 47) of 163 independent states. “The UAE has done exceptionally well in the areas that are used to measure long-term improvements of peace. It’s improved in accepting the rights of others, the equal distribution of resources, as well as in the function of the government,” said IEP founder Steve Killelea.
For 11 years, the Ismaili Centre, Dubai continues to be a place of peace, as envisaged by the words of His Highness the Aga Khan before laying the centre’s foundation stone in 2008. “It is my humble prayer that, when built, the Ismaili Centre in Dubai will be a place for contemplation and search for enlightenment, where people come together to share knowledge and wisdom. It will be a place of peace, of order, of hope and of brotherhood, radiating those thoughts, attitudes and sentiments which unite, and which do not divide, and which uplift the mind and the spirit.”
The ethos of peace permeates through the six Ismaili Centres globally, the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), and the Global Centre for Pluralism founded by His Highness.
Karen Armstrong, author, and founder of the Charter of Compassion shared the significance and importance of compassion for communal and global peace at the Ismaili Centre, Dubai during a session in September 2018. She passionately spoke of how vulnerable street children were learning from their peers as a result of the compassion project in the province of Sindh, Pakistan. She further re-iterated how each individual can support global peace by practising compassion.
This year, the United Nations, celebrates its 75th anniversary. In support, ‘Peace One Day’ will be performing its annual music concert on a digital platform along with live panel discussions with some of the world’s game changers. Topics of the panels will include city-grown solutions to tackle violence, and technology’s role in saving humanity.
In 2016, McKinsey & Company, estimated that of the 940 million individuals who were aware of the Peace Day message, 16 million people behaved more peacefully. The 2025 goal is to increase the awareness of peace from 2.2 billion to 3 billion people, in the hope of reducing violence at home, the workplace, schools, communities, and towards our environment.
Too many people are still longing for their old routines. Get some new ones instead.
I attended a Thanksgiving dinner several years ago where the hostess, without warning family and friends, broke with tradition and served salmon instead of turkey, roasted potatoes instead of mashed, raspberry coulis instead of cranberry sauce and … you get the idea.
While a few guests mustered the politesse to say the meal was “something else,” most reacted with undisguised dismay. Some seethed. Others sulked. One young guest actually cried. No one had seconds.
It wasn’t that the meal itself was bad. In fact, the meal was outstanding. The problem was that it wasn’t the meal everyone was expecting.
When there are discrepancies between expectations and reality, all kinds of distress signals go off in the brain. It doesn’t matter if it’s a holiday ritual or more mundane habit like how you tie your shoes; if you can’t do it the way you normally do it, you’re biologically engineered to get upset.
This in part explains people’s grief and longing for the routines that were the background melodies of their lives before the pandemic — and also their sense of unease as we enter a holiday season unlike any other. The good news is that much of what we miss about our routines and customs, and what makes them beneficial to us as a species, has more to do with their comforting regularity than the actual behaviors. The key to coping during this, or any, time of upheaval is to quickly establish new routines so that, even if the world is uncertain, there are still things you can count on.
First, a little background on why we are such creatures of habit. Psychologists, anthropologists, neuroscientists and neurobiologists have written countless books and research papers on the topic but it all boils down to this: Human beings are prediction machines.
“Our brains are statistical organs that are built simply to predict what will happen next,” said Karl Friston, a professor of neuroscience at University College London. In other words, we have evolved to minimize surprise.
This makes sense because, in prehistoric times, faulty predictions could lead to some very unpleasant surprises — like a tiger eating you or sinking in quicksand. So-called prediction errors (like finding salmon instead of turkey on your plate on Thanksgiving) send us into a tizzy because our brains interpret them as a potential threat. Routines, rituals and habits arise from the primitive part of our brains telling us, “Keep doing what you’ve been doing, because you did it before, and you didn’t die.”
So the unvarying way you shower and shave in the morning, how you always queue up for a latte before work and put your latte to the left of your laptop before checking your email are all essentially subconscious efforts to make your world more predictable, orderly and safe.
Same goes for Tuesday yoga class, Friday date night, Sunday church services, monthly book clubs and annual holidays. We may associate these activities with achieving a goal — health, friendship, education, spiritual growth — but the unwavering regularity and ritualized way with which we go about them, even down to our tendency to stake out the same spot in yoga class or sit in the same pew at church, speak to our need to minimize surprise and exert control.
Routines and rituals also conserve precious brainpower. It turns out our brains are incredibly greedy when it comes to energy consumption, sucking up 20 percent of calories while accounting for only 2 percent of overall body weight. When our routines are disrupted, we have to make new predictions about the world — gather information, consider options and make choices. And that has a significant metabolic cost.
Dr. Friston said that our brains, when uncertain, can become like overheated computers: “The amount of updating you have to do in the face of new evidence scores the complexity of your processing, and that can be measured in joules or blood flow or temperature of your brain.” That exertion, combined with the primordial sense of threat, produces negative emotions like fear, anxiety, hopelessness, apprehension, anger, irritability and stress. Hello, Covid-19.
Our brains are literally overburdened with all the uncertainty caused by the pandemic. Not only is there the seeming capriciousness of the virus, but we no longer have the routines that served as the familiar scaffolding of our lives. Things we had already figured out and relegated to the brain’s autopilot function — going to work, visiting the gym, taking the kids to school, meeting friends for dinner, grocery shopping — now require serious thought and risk analysis.
As a result, we have less bandwidth available for higher order thinking: recognizing subtleties, resolving contradictions, developing creative ideas and even finding joy and meaning in life.
“It’s counterintuitive because we think of meaning in life as coming from these grandiose experiences,” said Samantha Heintzelman, an assistant professor of psychology at Rutgers University in Newark who studies the connection between routine behavior and happiness. “But it’s mundane routines that give us structure to help us pare things down and better navigate the world, which helps us make sense of things and feel that life has meaning.”
Of course, you can always take routines and rituals too far, such as the extremely controlled and repetitive behaviors indicative of addiction, obsessive-compulsive disorder and various eating disorders. In the coronavirus era, people may resort to obsessive cleaning, hoarding toilet paper, stockpiling food or neurotically wearing masks when driving alone in their cars. On the other end of the spectrum are those who stubbornly adhere to their old routines because stopping feels more threatening than the virus.
And then there all those hunkered down in a kind of stasis, waiting until they can go back to living their lives as they did before. But that, too, is maladaptive.
“You’re much better off establishing a new routine within the limited environment that we find ourselves in,” said Dr. Regina Pally, a psychiatrist in Los Angeles who focuses on how subconscious prediction errors drive dysfunctional behavior. “People get so stuck in how they want it to be that they fail to adapt and be fluid to what is. It’s not just Covid, it’s around everything in life.”
Luckily, there is a vast repertoire of habits you can adopt and routines you can establish to structure your days no matter what crises are unfolding around you. Winston Churchill took baths twice a day during World War II, often dictating to his aides from the tub. While in the White House, Barack Obama spent four to five hours alone every night writing speeches, going through briefing papers, watching ESPN, reading novels and eating seven lightly salted almonds.
The point is to find what works for you. It just needs to be regular and help you achieve your goals, whether intellectually, emotionally, socially or professionally. The best habits not only provide structure and order but also give you a sense of pleasure, accomplishment or confidence upon completion. It could be as simple as making your bed as soon as you get up in the morning or committing to working the same hours in the same spot.
Pandemic-proof routines might include weekly phone or video calls with friends, Taco Tuesdays with the family, hiking with your spouse on weekends, regularly filling a bird feeder, set times for prayer or meditation, front yard happy hours with the neighbors or listening to an audiobook every night before bed.
The truth is that you cannot control what happens in life. But you can create a routine that gives your life a predictable rhythm and secure mooring. This frees your brain to develop perspective so you’re better able to take life’s surprises in stride. You might even be OK with salmon instead of turkey for Thanksgiving — as long as there’s still pie for dessert.
The era of the Antonine Plague offers a reminder of what a powerful force nature has been throughout human history.
He was a child of privilege turned demagogue, a man who blurred the boundaries of politics and spectacle and seemed to think himself a divinity beyond mortal rules. His tumultuous tenure lasted longer than anyone expected. Then along came a pestilence that seemed a sordid reflection of the ruler’s arrogance and ineptitude. The disease revealed and amplified social tensions that had festered under the surface and brought back whispers of civil war. The people could stand no more, and even the fainthearted Senate at last showed hopeful signs of courage.
With the scoundrel gone, power was entrusted to a senior senator whose respect for decency had come to seem like the most reassuring virtue. The ship of state was now to be steered by a safe pair of hands.
I am talking, of course, about the Roman emperor Commodus and his successor Pertinax. Son of the emperor Marcus Aurelius, Commodus ruled as sole emperor for 12 years (A.D. 180-192), his reign marred by perpetual scandal. The emperor had disturbingly little esteem for traditional decorum. To the delight of some and dismay of many, Commodus participated in the gladiatorial spectacles himself. We can only imagine what he would have done with Twitter.
So when a vicious pestilence reappeared with tremendous ferocity — at its peak, it was said to have killed as many as 2,000 Romans a day — the tensions boiled hotter. In the words of one contemporary senator, Commodus himself was a curse worse than any plague. The unseemly emperor was finally strangled in his bath by a wrestler, Narcissus, at the urging of a group of conspirators.
Drawing parallels between ourselves and the Romans is a favorite parlor game of history buffs, though among professional historians, it can seem a bit uncouth to tap into our training to treat Rome as a mirror of our own times. But there is a serious side to these parallels, too: The way we understand the past inevitably shapes how we understand the present. What we can learn from reflecting on this chapter of ancient Rome is not so much an example to follow or neatly packaged solutions for our own crises, but a different sensibility, an awareness of what a powerful force nature has been throughout human history.
We inevitably bring our own anxieties and sensibilities to the study of the past. We also bring new tools and techniques to help us make sense of it. The result is that even the most turned-over pages still tell us things we had not expected. Today, we rightly worry that our ecologically reckless ways will have repercussions, and it sensitizes us to perceive dimensions of history that we had missed before, or passed by in too much haste.
The pestilence under Commodus was part of a pandemic known as the Antonine Plague. It first appeared during the reign of Commodus’ father, Marcus Aurelius. It was not the plague, in the sense of bubonic plague, a distinctly horrific disease that would appear in the later stages of Roman history.
Which microbe was responsible for the Antonine Plague remains unclear, though most specialists believe that the likeliest culprit is an ancestor of the smallpox virus. The Antonine Plague is one example of a broader lesson that becomes clear in the study of human disease: Many of the most vicious microbes of human history are not altogether very old. They emerged and evolved on human time scales, in recent millenniums and centuries — and in response to the opportunities we inadvertently presented them. A second lesson is that human health and animal health are inseparable. Our relationship with the environment reverberates back upon us, sometimes with destructive force.
The smallpox virus is less than 2,000 years old. The Antonine Plague may well represent an early stage of its evolution as a human pathogen. Like many viruses, the agent of smallpox belongs to a family many of whose representatives infect small mammals, like rodents. As human societies expand, and become more interconnected, we collide with animals and their diseases. Evolution relentlessly experiments with adaptations to new hosts, and some of these experiments unfortunately prove successful.
The Antonine Plague was such an experiment. Even without understanding the microbiology of the disease, the Romans knew that the Antonine Plague had come from without, that it was something new that had appeared with terrific fury. They believed that the pestilence had been unloosed by their own soldiers on campaign beyond Roman borders, inside what is now Iraq. More likely, the germ simply spread along the bustling trade routes that connected virtually the entire Old World. The Romans carried on a vigorous commerce with East Africa, the Near East and India and China beyond. As it happens, the first documented direct contact between Rome and China fell in the very year the Antonine Plague broke out under Marcus Aurelius. Though nothing compared with our “flat” world, the Romans lived through one of the most important phases in the long history of globalization. Then as now, exposure to disease was one of its unintended consequences.
The Antonine Plague might have been one of history’s first “pandemics,” if by that term we mean an explosive disease outbreak on an intercontinental scale. Living through a pandemic not only causes us to see different layers of the past, but can also inspire us to listen to our ancient sources more empathetically. For instance, Covid-19 has made the psychological import of daily death tolls in our ancient texts — such as the 2,000 per day that died in Rome under Commodus — far more real and vivid than ever before. Descriptions of corpses hastily cast into burial pits, the dead deprived of the sacred rituals that were so carefully observed in ordinary times, once read like hyperbole. Long after Covid-19 is over, it is such intimate trauma — of loved ones passing in anguished solitude, of respectful rites denied or deferred — that are likely to linger.
The final death toll of the Antonine Plague is unknown and unknowable, and respectable guesses have ranged from 2 percent to 25 percent of the population. I have ventured a tally somewhere in the realm of seven million to 10 million, in an empire of 70 million souls. One of the hardest paradoxes to reckon with, though, is that the Antonine Plague was as much a symptom of the empire’s success as its sins or stresses. Rome was struck at its apex of power and prosperity — precisely because that power and prosperity had made it ecologically more likely that such a microbiological challenge would emerge and disseminate.
In consequence of the pestilence, the arc of Rome’s growth was abruptly ended. Rome’s margin of military dominance was lost and never completely regained. Yet the Romans were resilient, and we would be fortunate if our country endures for as long as the Romans did after this deadly disruption.
Retracing the role that nature played in Rome’s history reminds us that we, too, are ecologically fragile, the fate of our society only partly under our control. A sense of our fragility should not make us fatalistic. Rather, it should inspire us to be less complacent. Even with all the tools of modern biological science, we could not have predicted exactly when and where a new pandemic would emerge. But we were warned, and those warnings went unheeded, in part because we told stories about ourselves implying that we had been freed from nature, that we were immune from the patterns of the past.
History’s role is humanistic. Its purpose is to help us see those patterns and take them to heart because they are human. History is powerful because we can identify with the hopes, follies and sorrows of those who have come before us. In recognizing the limits of their power in the face of nature, we can also acknowledge our own. It is a lesson we would do well to heed. The Antonine Plague wasn’t the last lethal pandemic the Romans faced. And Covid-19 won’t be ours.
A year into the pandemic, it’s finally possible to imagine a return to a semblance of our lives beforehand. While new coronavirus variants and fresh Covid-19 spikes could certainly change our current trajectory and foil our hopes, the quickly rising percentages of vaccinated Americans have many of us looking toward the far side of this scourge.
And I know more than a few people who aren’t ready for it.
They wish, as any sane person does, that the pandemic had never happened. They hate what it did to this country, to this world and to many aspects of their own lives and the lives of loved ones.
But its brutal winnowing of their social obligations and commitments beyond home? They actually didn’t mind this, at least not so much. Their movements had grown hectic and their schedules overstuffed.
The way in which shuttered schools, canceled extracurricular activities and closed offices compelled them and their children to spend more time together? There was stress in this, often proportional to a home’s square footage, but there was also intimacy. They liked how many nights everyone ate dinner together.
The halt to commuting? That was all upside and, along with the cessation of business travel, it produced a revelation: In-person meetings and the logistics that went into them weren’t as necessary as everyone thought. There were cheaper and easier alternatives.
Now these people brace for a resumption of social overkill, activity bloat, rush hours, staggered dinner times and airport metal detectors. They seem to regard that as inevitable.
But it’s not. At least it doesn’t need to be. From the unfathomable loss and grinding horror of this pandemic, shouldn’t we wring some positives, including a recognition that we don’t have to do everything as we once did, that bits of what was imposed on us over the past 12 months amounted to improvements and that some of the alternate routes, contingency plans and risk-conscious behavior that we latched on to have lasting merit?
I’m talking about big stuff like remote working — and the flexibility that it affords — but also small stuff, like hand washing. It shouldn’t take a pandemic to prompt us to do that repeatedly throughout the day, just as it shouldn’t take a pandemic to make us more conscious of our ability to spread illness. Why not wear masks when we leave the house with bad and contagious colds? (This has long been customary in parts of Asia.) Definitely, we should stay away from the office if we have any sort of potentially communicable bug and retire the idea that it’s stoic — valorous — to show up and soldier through our sneezing, coughing and such. No, it’s inconsiderate. Bosses must make that clear.
Did you find that extended contact and deep conversations with a tiny bubble of people was more fulfilling to you than brief contact and shallow chitchat with a huge, rotating cast of them? You can structure your life that way by choice going forward.
Did you discover that daily walks outside and more quiet, contemplative time did your soul good? Then don’t jettison them when the world whirls back into frenzied motion.
Did less fussing over your appearance feel not like a surrender but like a liberation? No rule compels you to fuss anew.
Most of us have made significant sacrifices during this extraordinary and harrowing period. Some have made profound, acutely painful ones. There may be more of those to come.
But while the trade-off isn’t in the vicinity of equal, we’ve also learned something (I hope) about our responsibilities to one another and what matters most to us. It would be a shame not to heed those lessons.
The donkey told the tiger:
"The grass is blue".
The tiger replied:
"No, the grass is green".
The discussion became heated up, and the two decided to submit the issue to arbitration, and to do so they approached the lion, King of the Jungle.
Before reaching the clearing in the forest where the lion was sitting on his throne, the donkey started screaming:
"Your Highness, is it true that grass is blue?".
The lion replied:
"True, the grass is blue".
The donkey rushed forward and continued:
"The tiger disagrees with me and contradicts me and annoys me please punish him".
The king then declared:
"The tiger will be punished with 5 years of silence".
The donkey jumped for joy and went on his way, content and repeating:
"The grass is blue"...
The tiger accepted his punishment, but he asked the lion:
"Your Majesty, why have you punished me, after all, the grass is green?"
The lion replied:
"In fact, the grass is green".
The tiger asked:
"So why do you punish me?"
The lion replied:
"That has nothing to do with the question of whether the grass is blue or green. The punishment is because it is not possible for a brave, intelligent creature like you to waste time arguing with a donkey, and on top of that to come and bother me with that question".
The worst waste of time is arguing with the fool and fanatic who doesn't care about truth or reality, but only the victory of their beliefs and illusions. Never waste time on discussions that make no sense... There are people who for all the evidence presented to them, do not have the ability to understand, and others who are blinded by ego, hatred and resentment, and the only thing that they want is to be right even if they aren’t. When ignorance screams, intelligence shuts up. Your peace and tranquility are worth more.
Eight steps to building resilience in changing times
The changes caused by the Covid-19 pandemic have impacted every aspect of life, and often leave us feeling physically and emotionally tired without understanding why. Our ability to recover after hardships, also known as resilience, is key in helping us to adapt to new situations in our lives. Read on for eight tips on how to build resilience in our rapidly changing world.
Trying to discern fact from opinion with the different and often changing messages we receive through the news and social media have also caused many people to experience greater levels of anxiety and stress. This has led many of us to experience change fatigue as we integrate these changes into our own lives in what is often called a “new normal.”
Some changes have been easier to manage than others. In addition to spending more time at home and online, we’ve also seen people get creative in how they interact – playing games on Zoom, talking to family through facetime, sending online greeting cards, or making videos to promote optimism and hope, not to mention discovering new apps such as TikTok.
Some people find making these changes easy, while others find it more difficult. What makes it easier for some than for others? And what can you do to make them easier to manage?
The answer lies in the concept of resilience. Resilience refers to our ability to recover after hardships. People with many personal protective factors, or ways of coping with stress, are able to manage change through personal resilience.
How resilient are you, and what helps you bounce-back? Below is a list of characteristics that can help build your personal resilience. Take a look at the list and see if there are areas in which you excel or areas in which you would like to grow.
1. Flexibility. Flexibility applies to one’s thoughts. Do you know someone who has very rigid thinking, who denies new perspectives or ideas? How satisfied are they with their lives? It’s natural to focus on what we’ve lost, to mourn the loss of passions, to feel sad that life has changed. However, having a willingness to learn and adopt new ideas can build one’s internal resources. The next time you’re feeling frustrated with change, ask yourself – is this in my control? If not, think about your thinking, and see if there are other perspectives or approaches that might be more helpful.
2. Hope, optimism, and faith. According to a study by the University of Houston, people who are hopeful and have strong faith often have less anxiety because they can imagine a positive outcome. They believe that things will get better. This perspective can be difficult to maintain for long periods of time, particularly in a situation that continues to drag on, such as the pandemic. How hopeful are you? Try to pay attention to or find good news stories to remind yourself that life has challenges and triumphs, and that there is a time for each.
3. Gratitude. Being thankful for and finding moments of gratitude each day can significantly improve mood. When we experience loss, we can struggle to remember our blessings. When we feel gratitude, it is easier to feel positive about our lives. What are you grateful for today? If you won an award, who would you thank in your speech and what would you thank them for?
4. Humour. Sometimes laughing at ourselves or funny perspectives can lighten the seriousness of a situation. We need to be careful that we’re not poking fun at people as this can be damaging, particularly among those with low self-esteem. However, there are times when a touch of humour can provide some relief from the stress of a situation, and help to ease the pressure that comes from the more difficult parts of life. Do you like to look at memes on social media that show the lighter side of current events? Try to find opportunities to laugh every day and notice any differences in your mood over a two-week period.
5. Meaning. Having a life worth living is a very important part of emotional wellness. Many of us find meaning through our faith, volunteering, participating in sports, being a good friend, and achieving goals. What makes life worthwhile for you? The value of helping others is a cherished tradition in our community. What gifts, skills, or talents do you have to share with others? Look for opportunities to give to others in a manageable and meaningful way. Even one hour per week can help you feel more satisfaction and purpose in life.
6. Self-esteem. The ability to accept oneself is extremely important to mental wellbeing. We all have times in our lives when we doubt ourselves or feel critical of our actions. Sometimes we compare ourselves to friends or people we see on social media and feel inadequate. Can you validate yourself? Can you have more compassion for yourself? You may wish to keep a collection of compliments or positive feedback you’ve received. You could also end your day by listing three things for which you are proud of. Doing this can help you remember your value when you’re feeling down.
7. Social support. We need to feel a sense of belonging and attachment to one another. We’re social creatures! Even those who consider themselves introverted need contact with other people. However, we sometimes get caught up in our own lives or feel embarrassed to ask friends for help. It can be difficult to show our vulnerability, even with the people closest to us. Who do you have in your life that makes you laugh? Who makes you think about things in a helpful way? Talk to a trustworthy, supportive, and non-judgmental friend about how you are feeling. Their response may surprise you. If they don’t respond in a supportive way, don’t give up! Instead, find another safe person to talk to.
8. Self-awareness. When in times of high stress and crisis, we can sometimes lose sight of ourselves. At these times, we need some perspective. We need to be aware of when we need help and use our strengths to help us overcome adversity. Are you aware of your needs? What are your strengths? How good are you at managing your emotions? The next time you are distressed in a situation, you may need to think about things rationally rather than react emotionally.
Resilience is not inbuilt, but it can be learned and developed. If you feel you are having a hard time coping with stress, change, or anxiety, reach out for support. Some people find therapy helpful, while others prefer to write in a journal or talk to friends and family. You don’t need to do it alone. Ensure you are getting the support you need.
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