One common observation from psychotherapy and indeed life itself, is that many of the greatest opportunities for human growth and learning come from experiences we do not initially welcome or recognise. The potential for learning and transformation in any given situation is normally directly proportionate to the degree to which that situation stretches us or takes us out of our comfort zone!
The global crisis caused by Coronavirus is a good example of a situation none of us would have welcomed or sought out, let alone envisaged. As well as posing a serious threat to human life and health, the Coronavirus is also throwing up a diverse number of curved balls, which challenge our economic, social and individual wellbeing.
One of the reasons why an unwelcome or challenging situation, such as the Coronavirus crisis, create significant opportunities for new learning and growth is that it upends many of the usual assumptions and liberties we take for granted, such as being able to go outside our homes for a walk or to see our friends, without fear or restriction. Having these freedoms taken away, even if for a relatively short period of time, can help us perceive their immense value to us in a new way – a way which, when things eventually ‘return to normal’, we can still hold onto and value all the more.
The renowned psychologist, Abraham Maslow, once talked about a ‘hierarchy of needs’ that we have as humans, ranging from our basic needs, like food, water and safety, to affiliative needs, such as a family and friendship, to higher needs, such as beauty, creativity and spirituality. Maslow’s theory suggests that, for higher needs to flourish, basic needs must be met, and in situations where they are not, humans instinctively re-focus their energies on securing fundamental needs, before resuming the actualisation of higher goals. The current Coronavirus crisis is clearly a global situation where we are all being reminded of our most basic human needs. This of course can also help us feel grateful for privileges we have that many people, even in the UK, lack, such as secure homes, health and safety. However inconvenienced or worried we might feel about current world events, psychologists remind us that the daily experience of ‘gratitude’ can have a powerful effect on our ability to view situations that might at first seem unwelcome or anxiety provoking in a more balanced, positive and compassionate way, both toward ourselves and others.
We also know from psychology and human history that when a threat or challenge is faced by a group of people, in the case of Coronavirus the whole global community, this can bring individuals together for the common good in a powerful way that strengthens the bonds between them. Human society and relationships are unfortunately ripe with division and conflict – the recent preoccupation in the UK with all things Brexit is perhaps a good local example. Situations like Coronavirus force us to look at the bigger picture and transcend our disagreements or differences, even if temporarily, so that we can remind ourselves of our common humanity and protect what is most precious to us all. Hard times can also produce acts of extraordinary altruism and forbearance – as can be seen in the inspiring work undertaken by doctors and nurses across the world, putting their own health at risk in order to care for victims of C-19. What greater evidence do we need of our capacity to extend ourselves in the face of life’s challenges and to express the highest values found within the human race?
The current challenges brought about by C-19 also present opportunities for us to reflect on our collective life lifestyle and how caught up we normally are in the powerful routines and expectations that shape our daily lives. Being forced to slow down, stay in and work from home thus provides an opportunity to experience ourselves differently and, if necessary, ‘reset’ aspects of our lives to find a better balance going forwards. We all know that twenty first century life races along at an increasingly dizzying pace, often taking us away from our natural instincts and simple grounding experiences that can give so much pleasure and meaning to life – such as listening to the birds singing outside one’s home office window or being able to share lunch with loved ones.
Challenges and limitations are also known to be a great spur for human creativity – as the saying goes ‘necessity is the mother of invention’. When we are forced to make the best of a situation, we are thus presented with a chance to find a new way of seeing or doing things, which can be enlightening. For example, we may find we learn something new about ourselves or our abilities or be reminded of personal characteristics or talents we possess that we have lost sight of.
Although demanding and often unwelcome, difficult or challenging situations, can bring out the best in us and others. As human beings we are wired to be resilient, intelligent co-operative and self-aware. Drawing on our ability to take a step back to see the bigger picture can enable us to leverage the opportunities for personal and social growth and creativity that reside within even the most troubling and unprecedented of situations – in other words, to help us see the blessing in disguise.
Written by Dr Mark Donati (Counselling Psychologist)