Surviving COVID-19 & Learning from Survivors of Genocide
By Guila Clara Kessous, PhD
Why does it take a pandemic to bring humanity together—and realize our interconnectedness as a collective humanity in a global society? As a UNESCO Artist for Peace, I have spent over two decades of my life serving survivors of globally devastating events, ranging from the Holocaust to the Rwandan Genocide. Through a virtual interview, I have made the effort to share some of my theories on how to survive COVID-19 by applying insights I have learned from assisting the survivors of such genocides.
In times of remembrance of Holocaust victims, I would like to remind us all that some of the most important philosophies of humanity have been derived during times of crisis. For example, Newton conceived his law of gravity during the Great Plague in the 1600s. Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel became a Nobel Laureate for his many insights on the nature of mankind, offering perspectives such as, “The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference.” Now, in the face of COVID-19, we find people taking a stance towards love, such as cheering at night in New York, Paris, and Italy for healthcare workers, and governors standing up for state justice.
With the upheaval imposed by the coronavirus, we find ourselves developing a perspective of survival functioning linked to the reptilian brain, whose instructions were defined by Walter Bradford Cannon as the "3 F's": Fight, Fly, Freeze. In the face of a threat, the brain dictates a spontaneous behaviour that is almost impossible to anticipate, linked to a reaction of either aggressiveness (fight = combat), dodging (fly = escape) or seizure (freeze = amazement). The extreme frustration in the case of the coronavirus is that no matter how hard the brain orders us to fight, our threat is invisible. It can order us to flee, but we are forced to confine ourselves to our homes. I have explained it as, “We are left with only one option: inhibitory stupor. This is the one we can read on the faces of the officials who speak to explain the situation in the media. It is the one that animates us all. We are all shocked by the speed and intensity of this epidemic that brings back to mind the ‘memento mori’ of the Ancient Romans: ‘Remember that you are mortal.’
It is at this precise moment that we must call upon the leader within us—the one who "shows the way", who creates enthusiasm, who is inspiring—the one we want to follow. Overcoming sudden fear presupposes three specific lines of thought, two of which are linked to what I will call "personal leadership". These have been consciously or unconsciously chosen by many genocide survivors (Shoah, Rwanda, and Bosnia), of whom I have had the chance to follow during my specialized coaching work in post-traumatic speaking. Today, I advise any leader, but above all, the leader that everyone is for themselves, to be able to follow these three key guiding principles. (The third recommendation is directly related to the position of leader in an organization.)
1. PHYSICAL INSIGHT: FIND A NEW HOMEOSTASIS & CONNECTION TO YOUR BODY Just fifteen minutes a day can save your life in terms of resetting the fluidity in your body. Like most post-traumatic stress syndromes, attacks on the joints can scale from the bottom to the top of the body. Moving the ankles, knees, hips, shoulders, wrists, and the neck in small circles can be fundamental to finding your healthy and new homeostasis under quarantine. Originally discovered by the scientist Claude Bernard, the term "homeostasis" comes from the Greek "to hold", "equal". It refers to the body's ability to self-regulate despite imbalances caused by external factors. It thus refers to the body's ability to balance itself despite adversity. This homeostasis, this "rebalancing", supposes an awareness of the body's reality; and, as in the Russian martial art systema, it suggests not to "stiffen" oneself in front of the blow under the influence of astonishment, but to "get out of balance" in front of the threat by spending as little energy as possible. Since we can't fight the virus, nor flee from home, let's make this home—this body that is ours—a conscious, alert, and adaptable entity by being attentive to what it tells us. Sporting activity, of course, is a very good illustration of this, but a simple slow movement in a deep choreography related to what the body needs, or a simple balancing exercise at least once a day, would be very highly recommended. Take a moment to stretch, spin, and dance!
2. MENTAL INSIGHT: BUILD A MINDSET OF TRAGIC OPTIMISM
People often speak of resilience. "Resilience," a notion so dear to ethologist Boris Cyrulnik, implies a willingness to rebuild after a trauma has been accepted and experienced. Unfortunately, with COVID-19, we are still undergoing the trauma. Victor Frankl's notion of "tragic optimism" would be more appropriate to the situation. Otherwise, if we pursue “resilience” during this storm, it could evolve into “resignation.” As such, we need to fuel ourselves with this sense of tragic optimism. It is not a question of "happycracy" by forcing oneself to be happy in a superficial way. It is the "optimistic attitude to the tragedy of existence [that] allows. . . to turn suffering into a motive for fulfillment and accomplishment.” This "tragic optimism" tries to enable us to seek within ourselves the resources necessary to cope with a tragic existence that is beyond us. "Changing suffering into a motive for fulfillment" means daring to do what heroes and icons have done; it means maintaining positive psychology and keeping a watchful eye on the situation; neither being too fatalistically nor naively in denial of danger, and keeping a belief that the best is yet to come.
3. ORGANIZATIONAL INSIGHT: BUILD A CIRCLE OF COLLECTIVE INTELLIGENCE
What about the “collective body” in terms of teamwork? How could managers continue to create a link with employees when there is no longer any face-to-face presence? Leadership needs to be reinvented from an organizational point of view, especially if you are not used to virtual collaboration. There is an even greater need to find common goals in virtual teams, and to reinvent storytelling. Storytelling is a common myth to the group, a necessity for team cohesion. The appreciative inquiry method is an excellent example for re-creating collective intelligence in times of crisis, and is fully applicable via videoconferencing. It involves identifying the successful factors that differentiate the collective in order to strengthen the links, particularly in times of difficulty, and to show that leadership is not just a question of pyramidal authority management, but rather, a means of managing people in the service of common values, and who must face hazards such as the coronavirus together.
Combined, these three insights create a notion of "collective humanity" to replace "collective immunity,” which in some ways is a much more Darwinian perspective of the world. For humanity consists of a body, a spirit, and a living-together, as the three dimensions of this article show. It also points to Nobel Prize winning existentialist, Albert Camus, in his reminder in an eponymous book of another famous epidemic: “The only way to put people together is still to send them the plague.”
Not even halfway through 2020, this year presents such a compelling and exciting time for all people, from the United States to Nigeria to China to France, to apply these concepts of collective humanity. Rosian Zerner, who not only survived the Holocaust but was reunited with her family in Lithuania, illustrated this resilience best in her poem reflecting on the nature of the mass genocide, “When Our World Stood Still”: “My hope is that the meaning of our inward pause will not be lost, that we will see this great transition as opening a different, better road ahead, that we return to or reinvent the meaning of what truly being human is in our wonderful creation.” By observing and reflecting on these insights from survivors of traumatic events, each person around the world is faced with the opportunity to be leaders of positivity in designing and building a post-COVID-19 world.
Guila Clara Kessous, PhD, is a Harvard University teacher and certified coach applying positive psychology through theatrical techniques and role playing.
She received her doctorate under Elie Wiesel’s direction and was appointed UNESCO Artist for Peace in January 2012, in recognition of her commitment to promoting and defending human rights through art. She is also certified in positive psychology by Tal Ben Shahar and became ambassador of the World League for the Right to Happiness in 2019. She is co-author with Bruno Adler of "The Great Book of Positive Psychology", published in French by Eyrolles.