As we all chase the bright elusive butterfly of release from infernal social isolation, it seems natural to regard what the pandemic has wrought as a curse to be, well, cursed.
Yet since mid-March, when our lives became bounded by the walls we live behind, I’ve spoken with numerous people going beyond putting a best face on an ugly situation. Despite the world offering all the allure of standing in 1950s Soviet-style food rationing lines, their minds actively turn to positive prospects emerging from the COVID-19 crisis.
Three in particular stand out if only because they are so comically divergent in their individual lives, yet so harmonious in the primary way they see the current circumstance. One is a Rotarian car dealer in southern Alberta. One is an urbanite psychologist in downtown Montreal. One is a devoutly Christian local family doctor. As a group entirely unknown to each other, they have all expressed the singular belief that good is in our power to grasp even as the tsunami of bad news crashes in each day.
“There are green sprouts popping up through the ground, and I like what I see,” Alex Baum told me recently. “People are looking outside themselves and asking what they can do to help others. It’s just been a wonderful thing to witness.”
Baum, the owner of Cochrane Toyota in the bedroom community of 30,000 northwest of Calgary, wasn’t referring to the hard labour that plants go through to push their way out of cold Alberta earth each spring. He meant the revitalization of a spirit of service that he’s seen over recent weeks in spite of the brutal economic downturn afflicting the province. He cites a data point Statistics Canada is unlikely to ever capture: membership in one of the town’s two Rotary Clubs has just tripled from 25 to 71.
That might not mean much to generations born after the growth curve for service organizations was flattened like Godzilla stomping Bambi. Before life was swamped by me-first-dancing-with-myself-worship-of-consumer-choice-über-alles thinking, however, a smorgasbord of such clubs were a good-neighbour staple of Canadian hamlets, towns, and cities. Rotarians have always been the walk-of-life club.
Their members have long represented a cross-section of the local economy, and a uniform commitment to community service. In fact, Alex Baum was to have been honoured for as a community builder at a local gala in June. Unfortunately, COVID put the kibosh on that but the bright spot is that Cochrane’s Rotary club for professionals under 40 is not just thriving but leading the way through the pandemic’s dark days.
“You should see these guys go,” Baum said. “What do you do when you’re on full lockdown? They’ve committed to raising $110,000 for the local foodbank, which is not only going to put food on the shelves but help retire its capital (debt).”
One initiatives is to get people to come out to the local drive-in to sit in their cars to watch movies on Canada Day, and have local businesess sponsor the event. Money has also been raised to sponsor a local chef, whose business closed down, cook meals for frontline health providers during COVID-19. Part of the impetus is an almost imperative to volunteerism that runs across southern Alberta, part of it is the neighbourliness of small-town life. But there’s also keen recognition, Baum said, that if the pandemic has left people with time on their hands, that time is best spent helping others. He is convinced the awareness will be an outcome, not an anomaly, of this spring of isolation and distancing.
“A word that keeps coming up again and again is kindness. Another is hope. There is more hope today than there was two months ago and as I watch it grow, I know that we, that our country, will be better for getting through it.”
Across four provincial borders from Alberta, Montreal psychologist Rachel Green used remarkably similar words as she discussed the world she sees from her balcony or her trips to stand in line waiting to get into a grocery store.
“I’m personally seeing a lot more generosity,” she told me. “There’s a long line up to get into the store, and a gentleman well into his 80s, all bent over, cuts the line, and no one says a thing. No one says ‘hey, buddy, get to the back of the line’, not even the youngsters. I’m seeing people volunteering I’m seeing people willing to communicate, to raise the level of care and community even at a distance.”
Green’s office on Boulevard de Maisonneuve near Montreal’s Concordia University is literally and figuratively a half-continent away from Alex Baum’s Cochrane at the edge of Alberta’s Bow Valley and the foothills of the Rockies. Nor is her Dancing Gecko Motivational Interviewing training likely to be on the lips of la plupart of Rotarians raising money for their local foodbank or other estimable causes.
Yet the very name she’s chosen for her company evokes the same spirit of being “better getting through it” as Alex Baum phrases it. As her website explains: The gecko is a symbol of transformation in Southwestern Native American cultures, in part because in times of stress, they drop their tails and confuse their predators while making their getaway. A few months later, the tail grows back. In Motivational Interviewing, we view our collaboration with our clients as a dance, rather than a wrestling match.”
In my simplistic grasp of it, Motivational Interviewing is a practice based on helping people “get through” their challenges and crises by guiding them with questions not to where the practitioner wants them to go, but to awareness, understanding, and wisdom, they already possess but just haven’t been able to get their arms around. The turning point, she said, is intention which can be the difference in how we come out of the COVID crisis.
No, we can’t, gecko-like, regrow tail feathers we’ve never had. But bountiful research demonstrates the way our renewable brains can recast themselves from old traumas that led us into counter-productive habits generating patterns of thinking we indulge practically unconsciously. Even the COVID-19 pandemic, Green said, can be treated as a re-creative opening to think about how we think and decide whether that’s actually the thought we want to have.
“When I am out in the world and thinking about not wanting to infect others, rather than whether they’re going to infect me, my behaviour is different. It might actually look the same, but my intention is different, and my mindset is different. One in the individual mindset. The other is the collaborative or communal mindset.”
Green said throughout the pandemic, we’ve seen a mix of the two minds. There have been, she noted, plenty of mixed messages from all quarters about what constitutes a threat and what constitutes an effective response. The melange can be confusing though they messages are not necessarily incompatible. We went into isolation in our homes, contrary to our desire as social animals to, well, socialize. But most of us have rapidly adapted and adopted new technologies to stay in touch, however touchless that might be.
“You can go into isolation and not even use the most basic technology like a telephone to reach out to people. Or you can use technology to call people that you are thinking about, to check in with folks to see how they’re doing. The circumstances remain the same: you’re still in your house. But you’re behaving differently. Where you set up a habit, it becomes your habit.”
The key is that we have a large degree of agency to choose which of those habits we wish to have. The agency emerges in large measure from our perceptions, which can be “interviewed” by asking ourselves questions about our beliefs and unexamined responses.
“Our brains probably have a bias for self-protection (editor’s note: see gecko, dancing, above). Our lizard brain says ‘Danger, Will Robinson, wait, back up, step away from whatever the heck that is.’ And our brains don’t really differentiate between an oncoming bus and our concerns about our jobs. It’s just danger: ‘Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god.’ But the sense of agency is a higher-level function that says ‘wait a minute, you’re not going to die from this so calm down, and think clearly about how you want to be in this world.”
There’s no question that “managed fear” has played a massive role in getting Canadians, indeed the global population, to accept the necessity for abiding by requirements for social distancing and isolation. Early on, the overwhelming message was what might be called “lizard brain directed” to motivate us to be afraid, very afraid, of the indecipherable fresh Hell coming at us. One of Green’s crucial messages is that while that produced a highly desirable civil response in the face of pandemic, there’s no reason it should dictate how we are in the world as the threat abates.
“Learning is learning whether you learn things slowly over the course of your life or learn them quickly from a crisis like this. It all depends on what you with your belief about what you’ve learned. There can be shifts between a person and an event that can change them completely.”
Outside Montreal’s downtown core, in a suburb on the city’s West Island, Dr. Paul Saba sees the very prospect for that shift at both the personal and societal level coming out of the pandemic. The long-time family physician, a social activist who helped lead a successful fight against the Quebec government to keep his local hospital open in the face of budget cuts and is veteran agitator for properly-funded public health care, believes strongly that emergence from COVID-19 will prompt a re-evaluation of the way we regard, and value, human life itself.
Saba was among a group of doctors in la belle province who fought hard to prevent Medical Aid in Dying becoming legally widespread in Quebec’s and Canada’s health care systems. When the battle was lost at the legislative level, he continued as a solo warrior through the court system, spending tens of thousands of his own dollars to stop the practice. Though a major factor in his opposition is his deep Christian faith, he’s also moved by what he sees making the rounds of his daily practice.
Deep into the current pandemic, he was contacted by a young patient suffering from severe depression who told him she wanted to receive MAiD or would probably commit suicide. Her depressive medical condition was exacerbated by the bleakness of social isolation and fear of the coronavirus itself. It was becoming too much for her to bear. But Saba believes the cumulative effect of constant MAiD messaging about some lives not being worth living was also a factor.
“Once you start putting a measuring tape against life, no one’s ever going to be tall enough,” he said recently. “We need to value every life because every life is valuable.”
The pandemic hit just as Saba was completing a forthcoming book Made to Live, a title coined by his youngest daughter who was born with a heart defect and whose unlikely survival he points to as the clinching argument against the current consumer-disposal mentality toward life. Out of the viral wave, he believes, there will emerge renewed recognition of the necessity for protecting life all along its continuum. Evidence is already available, he said, in the appalled reaction of Quebecers to revelations about conditions in long term care facilities in the province, including one not far from his house where residents were left abandoned to a COVID outbreak and lay for days in unchanged adult diapers, unfed, and in some cases so dehydrated they could not talk when rescue finally arrived.
It’s a moment of awareness to spread the message that care for such vulnerable citizens is a collective responsibility, and not one that can be shrugged off by the easy availability of MAiD.
“It’s not good enough to say they’re just old people in (nursing) homes so they’re expendable,” he said. “If you’re not taking care of your older population, sooner or later you’re going to come for the younger ones too. I think everyone experiencing what isolation is like will wake people up to what it really means. They’ll begin to see that the only difference between COVID and MAiD is the rapidity.”
And then in words that could have come from either of the others quote above, despite the myriad of differences that distinguish each of them, he said this: “We’re social beings. We need each other. We need to help each other. We need community.”
Vive la différence if that commonality grows because of COVID-19.