James Cobb shares with us his perspectives on and experiences of isolating during the global pandemic…
The Covid-19 pandemic has undoubtedly been a tragedy for society; families have lost loved ones and friends have lost great friends. I feel deeply for anyone affected and am hesitant and sceptical to feel sufficient progress has been made to justify the current easing of precautionary measures.
Yet another observation has been the way isolation (lockdown) has been framed for some and the feelings of vulnerability and helplessness it has created. This has been the case especially I think for those with underlying health conditions, where additional caution is well advised.
I would like to share a different approach.
As a person with complex congenital heart disease (Fontan) being advised to ‘shield’ seemed sensible, but the terminology of ‘extremely vulnerable’ felt unhelpful. ‘Clinically at high risk’ would do.
At the start of isolation, I decided personally that I had a choice: respond with frustration over perceived ‘vulnerability’, building resentment for a situation out of my control, plans for 2020 gone. Or I could ask myself, what are the positives, what can I turn to positives and how can I best use this opportunity?
I chose the latter, and boy has it been worthwhile.
I have a complex medical condition I have dealt with from day one of life. Should this make me feel diminished, vulnerable and helpless? No doubt I should be cautious, but to allow myself to be engulfed in thoughts of unfairly feeling victimised by the situation would be catastrophic thinking.
I understand mortality, have been on the ‘edge’ of survival and do not need any time to adjust to understand that taking my time on the planet seriously is a good idea, as life is limited.
This helps me understand the necessity of keeping myself and others safe.
I have taken advantage of isolation in four ways:
1. Understanding myself
Spend time looking at my behaviours, thought processes and interactions in the world. Being totally honest with myself, seeing where I fail, where I am strong or even where an aspect of my personality can be good but must be tempered in certain situations is enlightening. More than this, with the right study and openness to personal honesty, it is possible to create tools to improve personal outcomes. Ask yourself, are you too agreeable, conscientious enough, reveal too much or too little and how appropriate are those traits to your own improvement within specific situations? Without the quiet of isolation, I do not feel I would have had the opportunity to reflect, study and learn so much about myself.
2. Setting a lockdown goal
Focusing on a ‘lockdown’ goal has provided something to aim for. For me, this is a calisthenics skill which requires specific strength and much time and effort to achieve. I identified the goal and then broke it down into the small steps required to work towards it. Importantly, I put the ‘end goal’ out of my mind when practising the small goals, since without perfecting these, the ‘big’ goal will not be achieved. This allows for a tremendous sense of achievement and satisfaction as one recognises progress in achieving the ‘next step’ rather than the distant, nearly untouchable end goal. It reminds me of the first-time ice climbing at an indoor facility. The idea of reaching the top was daunting. Instead I focused on how to place my axes solidly, learnt to trust crampon placements and then to coordinate these together and make the right decisions for each section of the climb. I was at the top of the climb without ever focusing on the end goal, but the steps to achieve it got me there anyway. Moving forward is awesome.
Engaging my mind in a non-work-related activity that would positively benefit me for plans deferred now to next year, has kept me moving forward. I am halfway through an online course learning as much as possible about climbing. When I next get to the mountains, I will know more than I would otherwise; essentially, I am building foundations in lockdown to serve me in the future. So long as I maintain humility and respect for the dangers, this is a real positive.
The quiet of isolation has presented a real opportunity to think about what we really want, and if a life that makes you happy or a life which feels meaningful should be the aim. I think contentment comes from the latter; happiness is fleeting, and cannot be expected to be a constant. We can hope that doing things makes us happy, but it is really the outcome from feeling useful that leads to long-term contentment and as a by-product, happiness. I believe we have a moral responsibility to do something that feels beneficial to society and that can require hard work and years of dedication. Thanks to the quiet time, I have been able to map out a set of true goals based on the impression I want to make in the world, the small shifts I can make to benefit society and how I might achieve them. Rather than focusing on making myself happy, focusing on what ‘matters’ to me (matters of the heart, if you like) ultimately will lead to knowing that any hardship encountered trying to achieve it, is worthwhile.
‘…[we]are perfectly equipped to stand toe to toe with a pandemic…’
If you live with an underlying medical condition which makes you feel vulnerable, ask yourself, what strengths and experiences have you got to deal with the situation? We may not realise it, but we have a capacity to understand serious illness and are perfectly equipped to stand toe to toe with a pandemic to protect ourselves and others. Understanding clinical vulnerability, or risk, is OK, but do not become a victim of it. Our experiences can allow us to rise and deal incredibly well with anything that life throws at us. We all are in this situation, irrespective of ‘clinical grade’ of vulnerability. For most of us this still means a waiting game – ‘healthy’ people who have never had to deal with life on the edge are at a disadvantage. We cannot control the situation, or time in which we live, but we certainly have a hand in how we choose to think through it.