Today is my 23rd day of isolation in my apartment in Shanghai, my 23rd day of living in solitude and not going outdoors, not speaking with anyone in person. This has been the longest silence of my life.
When the coronavirus first struck China, I entered a deep panic, as did next to everyone I knew. After some days of cloistered existence, however, the crisis started to show us its instructive side. In Chinese, the word for ‘crisis’, 危机, is composed of two characters, one representing danger and the other representing opportunity. Like the union of Yin and Yang, everything has two sides: there is opportunity behind every crisis, but it takes courage and wisdom to see it.
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Opportunity #1: To slow down
China has been on hyper mode for many years. GDP growth seems to be the single measure of success here and the country operates like a machine set at maximum speed. As an individual I am a part of that machine. I know it’s important to slow down to review and reflect, but I don’t have the courage to pull the brakes when the system around me is spinning crazily. This winter, the brakes of the system itself were pulled suddenly, by the coronavirus.
The whole country ground to a halt. We had the longest holiday in history. Putting away anxieties about GDP growth and about climbing the social ladder, people stopped being cogs in a machine and returned to being human beings.
My own experience has been that I have been able to ask myself what is truly important to me. I have started to read books not about productivity and how to get to the next level in my career, but about humanity and the meaning of life. No longer on autopilot, I have been able to step out of my programming and to live more consciously, to make more deliberate choices.
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Opportunity #2: To bond with family
In the busy modern lives we live here in urban China, each of us always has our own agenda to follow, our own bucket list of things to do, our own personal ambitions to fulfill. Spending time with our elders perhaps does not even make it into the top five of our priorities. But the coronavirus cleared that obstacle for us. It brought us the unexpected gift of precious time with our families, time that many of us had not realized we had been missing.
The voice of one friend of mine trembled as she shared with me her feelings after getting to spend two weeks with her parents. My friend is 55 and her parents are in their nineties. “It’s the first time in my life that I have been with them like this and I had never before this imagined myself connecting with them so deeply,” she said, “No rushes, no agenda, no to-do list, just spending time with them, listening to them, teaching them to meditate, sharing my world with them, and understanding their fears and joys. It felt like a life gift.”
For a younger friend the shut-down was an opportunity to get to know his grandparents. “Like most Chinese families, my parents moved out of their hometown to a big city when I was four years old. I haven’t been back for years, but this year I got to spend extra time with them, hearing their stories from when they were young. For the first time, I got to know their full names and came to see them as human beings and not simply as a ‘grandma’ abstraction.”
For another young friend, the virus scare recalibrated her relationship with her parents. “I have been very independent since college and enjoy the freedom of being on my own after years of restrictions. I used to call my parents only once a month. But because of the coronavirus I could not go home to celebrate Chinese New Year with them, and I also worried for their safety. The coronavirus made me reflect on my relationship with my family. I realised that I wanted to be in touch and to know more about what is happening in my parents’ lives.”
Many others have shared with me such stories of “first times” with their families. When things slowed down, we came to recognize our human need to connect and to share with the ones we love. The virus shed light on the things that we take for granted and reminded us of how precious they are.
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Opportunity #3: Community
Modern life has trained us to live in isolation: to compete rather than collaborate, to be independent rather than interdependent, individualistic rather than community-minded. The crisis has taught us the opposite. Instead of thinking about personal achievement, in this moment of shared difficulty we have thought about how we can connect with others and make things happen together.
Though most people are keeping indoors, online communities have been more active than ever. Numerous WeChat groups were created overnight, offering free online coaching, counseling, meditation, and all manner of nurturing support. Various organisations provided recordings of talks aimed at helping people relieve anxiety. Some groups offered simple online fireside sharing, which was healing for people and helped them stay connected.
Once again, the crisis reminded us that we were human beings, not robots. And that human beings have a deep longing for love, belonging and connection, that these things matter more to us than career advancement or material gain.
The evolution of personal awareness and consciousness, as we have seen happen in many ways during the coronavirus scare, leads to our being able to contribute to creating a better world. This is why I see the crisis as having a huge silver lining. May it be instructive and teach us to start the new decade in a reflective, fresh, and new way. Stay strong, China.
I would like to share a poem written this week by a friend:
In the days I was kept indoors
I saw myself start
To smell the scents of a flower
To feel the rhythm of rain drops
To see the light of sunrise
To see beauty in every small thing in life
Also, I reminded myself to start
To see the truth as it it
To grow myself inwards
To make a difference with my presence
To speak to my heart
To love, truly and authentically.
Marcia Chen is a business professional based in Shanghai.