Despite the troubles of our world, I have kept the love of the inner life in which I was raised and man’s hope in love. In life, there is a single color, as on an artist’s palette, which provides the life of meaning and art. It is the color of love.” – Marc Chagall
To many of us here in the United States and around the world, the COVID-19 pandemic seems a lot like the movie “Groundhog Day”. Every day, we wake up to the same news: the numbers of people infected doubling every three days; people on edge; businesses closing down; store shelves increasingly empty; parking lots and grocery stores packed; events shut down; endless alarming news cycles; more shelter-in-
place orders; the global economy collapsing; and nerves fraying to no end. This worsening situation — as though we are running in place and not able to move forward — is even more draining on our psyches than a repeating Groundhog Day was on the cynical weatherman Phil Connors (played by Bill Murray) in the 1993 movie. It may seem that we are living in a surreal, movie-like world. But, unfortunately, this is our new reality.
Most of us have never lived through anything like the Coronavirus before, with the restrictions on social movement, the imposing and dire implications for day-to-day living and commerce, and the potential life and death impact on many, especially the elderly. I know that those who survived the Holocaust (my parents included) and other genocides in Rwanda, Armenia and Bosnia knew what it was like living in a daily potential life or death struggle. In these trying times, we can learn a lot from those who lived through even more horrific times.
I had the opportunity to hear my parents’ perspectives on life during the Holocaust as well as the feelings of Paul Rusesabagina (the actual hotel manager depicted in the movie “Hotel Rwanda”) during the 1994 Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi tribe. Mr. Rusesabagina was Values-in-Action Foundation’s 2007 Rescuer of Humanity Award recipient. I wanted to share some of their guidance on living life in crisis-mode every day. Here goes.
Generosity, Kindness and Courage
Although running for their lives, both of my parents as well as Mr. Rusesabagina looked out for other people, and whenever possible helped them survive. My parents helped family members who needed to be hidden or supported. Hotelier Rusesabagina risked his life to hide more than 1000 Rwandans in his hotel. My parents and grandmother were hidden and harbored by five Christian families who put fear aside, placing their lives and the lives of their families at risk to do the right thing. When faced with a choice of ignoring people in terribly trying times, these families chose to help others.
Positivity, Calmness and Attitude
My father always reminded his three sons that he approached the Holocaust with calmness and positivity. He believed that he would avert the Nazis by running, hiding and surviving. He had many close calls, but every day he tried his best to have a positive outlook. Because of his attitude, he was able to plan and survive with diminished anxiety and with enhanced clarity. He advised me that anxiety and distress can be paralyzing to oneself and destructive to others.
In his seminal book “Man’s Search for Meaning,” iconic psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Dr. Viktor Frankl described how he visualized positive things while on a death march. Starved, exhausted and facing potential execution, he nonetheless pictured himself at a picnic in the countryside with his wife. In his book, he credits his survival to his attitude. His thesis is that, if we change our perceived reality, we can actually change our outlook on life. In the dark days of 1944, songwriter Johnny Mercer felt similarly when he penned the lyrics: “You’ve got to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, latch onto the affirmative and don’t mess with Mr. In-between. You’ve got to bring joy up to a maximum, bring gloom down to a minimum, and have faith or pandemonium’s likely to walk upon the scene.” Good advice for today, as well.
Living the Values: What Do We Stand For?
Pro football star Eddie Johnson once told a group of Project Love students that his father taught him, “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.” I heard much of the same from the rescuers of my family as well as from Paul Rusesabagina — they said they did what they did because their values told them it was the right thing to do.
David Brooks recently observed on “Meet the Press” that humanity is at an inflection point. We can ignore our neighbors, as Americans did during the Spanish Flu of 1918, feeling great shame in the aftermath. Or, we can look out for each other, encourage each other, not hoard simply for our family, and be kind to our fellow Americans and others around the world.
Little things matter. Last week, I called an elderly friend and asked her if I could drop a box of chocolates in her front door. I wrote on the box: “Sending love.” Everyday, I am posting positive messages on Facebook, Twitter, Linked-In and Instagram. Today, I received a virtual “kiss on the cheek” from a friend in France.
Our actions can be as simple as delivering needed items to someone’s doorstep, paying for one day of someone’s childcare, still supporting charities, thanking grocery workers or calling, emailing or texting others with words of encouragement. Or, it can be as difficult as keeping employees on the job while revenue is declining and the stock market is going to hell.
I was encouraged to hear that the Cleveland Cavaliers are paying all the hourly workers who would have worked at the now-cancelled NCAA Midwest Championship game in Cleveland and that CAVS player Kevin Love donated $100,000 to help. The Inn at Honey Run in Millersburg, Ohio, a small business, is paying all of its staff even though they are now shut down. Regardless of one’s capacity, pocketbook or circumstances, having an open heart and a kind tongue will help all of us in these unusual circumstances.
This past weekend, I watched a “Star Trek” episode, in which Mr. Spock’s words were telling and prophetic: “The fear in each one of them will be the beast that will consume them.” Fear can get the best of us by transforming our inner world and destroying our outward humanity. Let’s remember that we are not alone, and we all are in this together.
Call to Action: Just be Kind
To enable each of us to encourage one another by documenting stories about kindness, Values-in-Action Foundation is initiating a social media campaign under the hashtag #justbekind and the Instagram, Facebook and Twitter handle @justbekindusa. So that we are truly united, we are also asking our fellow citizens to take a Just Be Kind pledge, which you can do HERE. Let’s together document and pump kindness stories that can warm the human heart and prompt more kind acts here and around the globe. Kindness will change our reality and help lessen the human fallout from our current dire circumstances. And, like the movie “Groundhog Day,” life ultimately will move forward once again.
You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Stuart Muszynski is President and CEO of Values-in-Action Foundation, a character education and social-emotional learning non-profit organization based in Mayfield Village, Ohio, serving 2,500 K-12 schools in all 50 states.