The Blessings of a Crisis

April 16, 2020

by Linda and Charlie Bloom

It might seem surprising to see the words “blessings” and “crisis” in the same sentence. But we believe that, more often than not, they do go together. Like so many other apparent paradoxes, it all depends upon the perspective from which you’re looking.

Don’t get us wrong. We are in no way denying or even discounting the seriousness of the circumstances in which we all currently find ourselves. We are unquestionably in the midst of a bona fide international crisis that has no precedent in our lifetimes. And so, yes, we are confronted with the need to meet the challenges presented by this crisis with clarity, wisdom, understanding, creativity, open-mindedness, and open-heartedness.

Doing so may require us to upgrade our ability to cultivate those qualities in order to more fully embody them in making the decisions and taking the actions that will serve our well-being and that of others. The key to doing this lies in the actual definition of the word “crisis.” It comes from the Greek krisis, which is defined as “a turning point in a disease that can mean either recovery or death.” The Chinese language represents the term for crisis with two characters, which translate into “danger” and “opportunity.” 

Because we normally associate a crisis with danger, we often forget that each crisis contains the seeds of opportunities for growth, learning, healing, and previously unrecognized possibilities. We are not suggesting that the COVID-19 virus calls for rejoicing and should be a source of happiness. And yet, it does offer gifts that can enlighten, inspire, and motivate us to look beyond our conditioned responses to difficult and threatening situations.

Our known “solutions” can be helpful in many instances, but when we are faced with circumstances that are outside the bounds of our familiar experiences, we are challenged to think and act outside the box. Such thinking enables us to see possibilities that were here but had not been visible to us until we were pushed beyond the limits of our imagination and were able to recognize that which had previously been invisible to us.

When we feel overwhelmed and possessed by distress and fear, it can seem difficult or impossible to calm ourselves or even know how to calm ourselves. Yet calming down not only helps us to expand our scope of possibilities, it also helps to defuse the anxiety of those around us. This is what the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh had to say about averting the spread and contagion of fear and panic using the power of a balanced mind:

“When the crowded boats that were filled with refugees fleeing Vietnam during and after the war met with storms or pirates, all would be lost if everyone panicked. But if even one person on the boat remained calm and centered, it would often be enough to avert total catastrophe.”

The ability to “keep your heart open in hell,” as the late spiritual teacher Stephen Levine reminded us, is one of the great strengths of those who have practiced the art of mindfulness. The opportunity to practice presence is always there for us, but if we wait until we are in the middle of a crisis to practice it, it may be already too late. The ability to recognize this opportunity and practice while we can is a gift that crises give us. Being housebound as so many of us are these days provides us with opportunities to engage in centering practices that can enable us to avoid states of panic when feelings of agitation become overly intense.

Crises can also serve as a vivid reminder of our need for physical and emotional connection with others. In our driven, fast-paced lives, it is easy to become distracted from the fact that we all have a need for deep and meaningful connection in order to be happy, fulfilled, and healthy. It’s often not until we slow down—usually not by conscious choice, but by an accident, illness, or a breakdown in our social order—that we experience the depth of this need. Remembering that we are all interdependent upon each other can make us feel vulnerable and at risk of loss or pain, but it can also be a powerful motivator to remind us of how important it is to deepen and strengthen our emotional bonds with others, and make doing so a higher priority in our lives.

A few years ago, we took a group to Cuba, where we heard a story from one of our guides. During the years that the Cubans referred to as the “special period,” from 1991–2000, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union when Cuba lost nearly all the material and financial support that it had been receiving from the Soviet Union, there was extreme deprivation and severe hardship in the country. There were great shortages of many basic necessities of living, especially food, for the entire country—but, surprisingly, there were practically no deaths by starvation. Our guide explained to us that this was due to the willingness of the Cuban population to share what little food they had with others, rather than keep or hoard what they had. Our guide herself had been pregnant during that time and believed that, were it not for the generosity of her friends and neighbors, she would not have had the healthy baby that she gave birth to—now a young woman in her 20s.

There is much wisdom in the lessons and reminders in times of crisis that these vignettes reveal. We all know, and have known since our earliest days, that we need each other. No man or woman or child is an island, and the key to our physical and emotional survival and health lies in the degree that we can extend our level of care, compassion, and generosity to each other, rather than limit it to ourselves and our closest relatives. Those times when we are most inclined to narrow our field of mutual support and connection out of fear and insecurity are the times when we most need to remember that we are social beings, and it is in our basic nature to act in accordance with that fact. To do otherwise is to risk putting ourselves in peril. 

It is neither naïve nor foolish to share with others when we are feeling most in need of support, food, or love. It is, in fact, the essence of “enlightened self-interest.” Being that which we look outside of ourselves to experience—embodying those qualities, rather than looking outside of ourselves for them—is the most direct path to the experience, not simply the belief, that we are not alone and forsaken. In doing so, we are reminded that we stand on common ground with every living being on earth. When we treat others from that awareness, there is a shift in our perception of them. We begin to see them as kindred spirits and partners, rather than adversaries. In recognizing that we are all, in our own ways, struggling to fulfill the same needs, manage the same fears, and realize the same hopes, it is not only our perception that changes, but our very experience of life as well. 

Take advantage of the opportunity that the coronavirus has given us. A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.