The Silver Lining Behind the COVID Threat

Mr. Akhil Gupta

We are all deeply saddened by the threat the COVID-19 virus is posing to our health and way of life. But I am confident the coordinated actions of world leaders will minimize the hardships on the less fortunate and the elderly and restore our economy. This event has a finite end. And hopefully, that end will mark a new and brighter beginning.

As Albert Einstein once said,

“In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.”

Those words have never been more relevant. Can the COVID-19 outbreak be such an opportunity? Without diminishing the severity of the damage this pandemic is causing, we can still hold onto hope for a positive outcome. In the midst of this crisis, the deepest the world has faced, we should aim for the deepest possible transformation.

COVID-19 is an opportunity to reclaim the essence of our humanity. To do this we will have to shift some of our focus away from the external pursuits that occupied our busy lives to spend more time dwelling inside ourselves. Like Carl Jung said “Who looks outside dreams; who looks within awakens.”

When we look around at the stories of spontaneous love and generosity going viral around the internet, and even the stories we see in our own neighborhoods, it is as if people are finally waking up to a sense of humanity defined by compassion and greater recognition of our interconnectedness. There is a lot each of us can do with these examples to emerge better as individuals and as a society.

Till COVD-19 hit us, Our lives were fast-paced, competitive, full of anxiety and unsatisfied wants. Although this way of life gave us enormous material benefits and lifted billions out of poverty, it also crowded out something essential to our humanity, and that is pure awareness.

It’s the awareness of the interconnectedness of all things, that we are part of something bigger, that our achievements are due to cooperation, not antagonism. It’s the awareness that real beauty lies in the diversity of every aspect of creation, and that material objects are not what bring us real fulfillment or wellbeing.

Grand existential questions have started to surface again in our consciousness with renewed interest: What is the significance of our species on this planet? How should we view ourselves as individuals in the greater context of the planet and the universe? What matters most in life?

One tiny virus has brought human civilization to a halt and instilled in us a sense of humility that we should carry with us at all times. This crisis has shocked us into waking up to our profound interconnectedness, albeit in a very cruel way.

But how did we ever lose sight of this fundamental reality? Perhaps it was a simple failure to heed the age-old wisdom of sages such as John Stuart Mill, Bertrand Russell, and John Maynard Keynes, who advised a century ago to “value ends above means and prefer the good to the useful.” When we value ends above means, we prioritize what ultimately matters, which is the birthright of every human being to live a life that is meaningful despite inevitable pain and suffering at times.

Recently, I spent five years at Harvard University studying the accumulated wisdom of humanity, across eras, places and disciplines. It reinforced what I have learnt from personal experience and reflection, and led me to the conviction that there are three things that matter most in life: love, learn, and play (LLP). We can love infinitely, can play infinitely, can learn infinitely, which is why these are ultimate ends. In contrast, we can’t eat infinitely or have sex infinitely or intoxicate ourselves infinitely or work infinitely.

The big existential questions to which we seek answers are our minds’ way of bringing attention to these three fundamental pursuits of LLP, just as thirst and hunger are our bodies’ way of bringing to our attention our need for drink or food. Loneliness is our way of feeling that we need to reconnect to the community and overcome the feeling of separation, curiosity is for us to keep learning, and imagination is to induce us to play!

And insofar as this pandemic is bringing these things to our attention, it has truly been acting as an agent of LLP in the world that is desperately needed now more than ever.

In tech terms, the LLP mindset is an app that is compatible with all operating systems — meaning all religions, beliefs, self-help & positive psychology movements, and science. LLP is nothing new, but with all life’s complications we’ve lost sight of how it can bring us real fulfillment. This crisis is an opportunity to update the app, not to invent a new technology but to harness an existing one. Even though the circumstances are dire, we can use this unique moment as an opportunity to reconnect and engage in LLP.

As Einstein said,

“Out of clutter, find simplicity.”

It is easy to become distracted by the vicissitudes of life. Our obligations, desires and fears constitute a kind of mental clutter that obscures love, learning and play. If we were to clear this clutter, we could bring love, learning and play (what I call the LLP mindset) more fully into our lives and into the world at large, replacing discord with harmony.

Now that everyone the world over has been forced to slow down, none of us needs to fear losing our competitive edge. We are all in this together. It is, therefore, a golden opportunity to reflect on our lives and focus on what matters. COVID-19 may destroy a big part of our way of life but on reflection I dare say it will give us the chance to discover new, meaningful ways to engage in LLP.

I have always been mesmerized watching small children play. They are completely in the moment, without caring who is watching. They never hesitate to show their emotions or their affection, letting them flow freely, whether it is a loud belly laugh or a joyful hug. These bundles of curiosity are like sponges, soaking up everything presented to them. Like flowers that need air, water, and nutrients in the right proportions to blossom, children need love, learning and play.

Once a child is fed, dry and rested, he or she exists in a state of total wellbeing, doing little more than loving, learning and playing. I believe that like children, we can increase our wellbeing, flourish even, when we bring LLP to everything we do. During this COVID-19 crisis, let us become more childlike.

Recall beautiful moments from your childhood and take inspiration from them: the love we experienced with friends and family, the constant whys with which we exhausted our parents to satisfy insatiable curiosity, the awe and wonder with which we tried to understand the world, and the joys of simple play.

Doing everything with an LLP mindset has become my new mantra. I wish I had discovered it earlier. I hope some of you will be convinced to adopt it earlier in your life.

Each of us will find different ways of bringing LLP into our lives based on our circumstances, but the results will be the same — a greater sense of fulfillment and well-being. Here are just a few illustrations to love, learn, and play in the current circumstances.

Love

Our family and friends are some of our most important resources now as we all navigate this time of anxiety and uncertainty. We are realizing now more than ever just how important our loved ones are, especially with the specter of death hanging over many people’s heads. As New York Governor Andrew Cuomo reminded us, we can bring love to socially distant interactions by using these three-word sentences often: I miss you, I love you.

We are isolating ourselves not only to keep ourselves and loved ones healthy, but to keep others healthy too, including total strangers. We are doing it because we realize that keeping others healthy is how we keep ourselves healthy. It is the same with love. When we love others, we are really loving ourselves in the truest sense.

If we act like the person across the table from us (or in this case, across the street), when we treat people like we want to be treated, toxic behaviors and emotions don’t stand a chance. Dislike, envy, prejudice and selfishness dissolve. Empathy, compassion and altruism flow. This is the spirit of compassion behind a social media movement originating in Canada known as “caremongering” (meant as a reversal to scaremongering).

We also see many celebrities and athletes stepping up, using their fame and financial resources to not only make crucial donations to relief efforts and health care workers, but also to inspire their fans to do the same. Health workers and other essential workers are putting their lives at risk each day by acting out of love for us, and they deserve our love and help as well.

Learn

The most important thing we can learn in this crisis is the difference between means and ends and how we all became victim of means-ends inversion: our means — things like money and material possessions — became our ends without us being conscious of it. But in the face of this crisis, people are waking up to what matters most and realizing that we are at our best when we pursue our true ends: LLP.

The second most important thing we learn is our interconnectedness, not just of all human beings, but of everything that exists.

In these difficult times, we can learn to treat obstacles, challenges and failures as friends not foes. They’re some of our greatest teachers. Every situation and social interaction, especially the ones that seem difficult, offers an opportunity to learn and grow. And when you firmly focus on the learning rather than the difficulty, you end up with more peace and fewer problems.

As we get older, we’re often less inclined to learn new things — from people, situations, or in the classroom. That’s too bad because studies tell us that the more you exercise your brain the slower it ages. And not only does learning improve the physiology of your brain, it brings wonder, beauty, excitement and joy into your life. And we all need more of that and now we have found the time to do all that as we cope with the COVID threat.

Organizations like museums and zoos are providing virtual tours online as learning opportunities. Similarly, companies like Audible are offering free audiobooks for children to continue learning while stuck at home.

There is so much to learn on the web. Make it a group exercise. Find something everyone you’re confined with is interested in and explore it, enjoying the pleasure of discovery.

As comedian Trevor Noah quipped recently, “Spend more time looking at your phone, being on social media, and watching TV. You’ll never — there’s no other time in history when anyone would give you that advice.”

Play

Give yourself permission to spend time engaged in activities you enjoy. Play music, spend time with friends, cook, bake or make art. Do it the way children play, freely, and unselfconsciously, focusing on the process and not the end results. Simply put, embrace the joy of doing something for its own sake.

In other words, go with the flow — a term coined by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He described it as the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it for the sheer sake of doing it. This is exactly what it means for play to be a core end unto itself in life.

Laugh a lot, read and tell jokes, do crosswords, Sudoku, or play card games. And of course play Antakshari (a game played in India using Bollywood songs)!

A particularly touching phenomenon of neighborly love and creative play that seems to cropping up all over YouTube and other social media platforms is that of individuals in some of the most critically affected countries congregating together on balconies.

While keeping their social distance, neighbors in Italy, Spain, Germany, China, and other places are expressing solidarity with each other, keeping up their spirits while singing, dancing, and even playing games in unison. This phenomenon is an inspiring display of human LLP in the midst of a global crisis, hopefully one that foretells a state of things to come reminiscent of French theologian Teilhard de Chardin’s prediction that,

“Some day, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for the second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.”

Akhil Gupta is the founder director of Universal Enlightenment Forum. He spent five years at Harvard University as a Senior fellow/Guest. He was the chairman of Blackstone India from 2005 to 2014. He is on the Advisory Board of Stanford Business School, the Leadership Council of Harvard Divinity School, and the Advisory Board of Harvard University’s Human Flourishing Initiative. He is at work on a book on LLP.

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