Advancing Through Crises

They can be opportunities for personal growth and cultivating compassion toward others, writes Adriana Bankston.

May 11, 2020
 
 
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I recently saw a tweet from mental health advocate Jordan Brown, which said that the coronavirus pandemic has made people act in one of two ways: by exhibiting either extreme kindness or extreme selfishness. That got me thinking about human nature and how to balance taking care of our own needs while freely giving ourselves to others. It is something that I personally struggle with, and seek answers to, especially during these uncertain times.

On the one hand, adversity brings out the true nature of a person’s character. But on the other, adversity can also reveal a side of someone that they might not have known they had if it hadn’t been for this situation. To the pessimist, this may be despair, hopelessness and a general feeling that things will never get better. That is so because the pessimist only sees the short-term impact of the situation and will only focus on the adversity in front of them. As a result, they may also be more selfish and put others down to make themselves feel better.

Meanwhile, the optimist realizes that every adversity is an opportunity for personal growth and may focus more on encouraging others. The optimist also has the ability to look into the future and realize the long-term consequences of their choices. They are also more outwardly focused, looking at how they can use this adverse situation to make the world a better place.

So which one do we want to be, and what will it take to get there? And how do you strike a balance between meeting your own needs while also being compassionate toward others?

As an overachiever who is passionate about certain things in life, I am most definitely selfish at times and focused on my own needs -- which I believe is necessary, to an extent, in order to get ahead in life. Selfishness is also necessary to ensure that we practice self-care, which in turn makes us better able to help others. At the same time, being kind and compassionate toward other people and putting their needs ahead of our own is also incredibly important for building strong relationships and making a true difference in someone else’s life. But the paradox is that being outwardly focused requires giving up a part of ourselves in order to help others, which most of us are reluctant to do. So which is the way to go?

While contemplating this question, I am reminded of a quote from Albert Einstein: “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” That brings up the point that our attitude about small things really makes a big difference -- which also suggests that we have the power to create the kind of life we want by merely thinking certain things and properly acting on them.

This is a powerful concept that I’ve grappled with recently. In a time of crisis, it is especially important to remember that we have power over how we live our lives and that we need not be victims of our external circumstances. And in fact, it is fundamentally true that “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so,” as William Shakespeare said. So, then, our actions and behaviors come down to what we think, and that can perpetuate down to future generations -- which is why it is so important that we remain positive and grateful while not taking anything for granted.

Yet in today’s world, one filled with injustice and cruelty at times, it is becoming increasingly difficult to remain optimistic -- mostly because people feel they don’t have control over their lives. As a consequence, they are victims of their circumstances, which may lead them to ultimately become bitter and resentful toward other people. And while blaming others for our problems is often much easier than taking responsibility for our choices in life, realizing this fact requires us to face ourselves and maintain control over every situation.

We can, therefore, choose to live the kind of life we want to have and carve that out for ourselves. It is a never-ending quest to craft ourselves into the person we want to become and to continually seek personal growth. Achieving that level of consciousness requires taking time away from the business of life in order to be alone, to think and to sit in silence with ourselves. In fact, the recent pandemic has forced me to slow down and be quiet, which has been invaluable for gaining both insights into myself and a greater awareness of who I am.

This introspection has also helped me re-evaluate priorities in life, see the value of being independent from others and act based on my own truth in the world. But this is often difficult to do, as we learn early in life to depend on other people. That brings up another conundrum: How do we effectively live in an interdependent society while maintaining our independent, true selves with those around us? While this is not easy, it is necessary to get to know ourselves first, especially if we are going to have relationships that are honest, meaningful and deep. And this ultimately comes down to working on bettering ourselves as a general goal in life.

Certain Guiding Principles

The need to constantly look inward to improve ourselves can conflict with focusing outward on other people and prioritizing their needs over our own. Thus, we must balance the idea of meeting our own needs and those of others at the same time, if we want to have meaningful connections in life. Every person has to decide for themselves what this balance looks like and how they ultimately want to live their lives. But certain principles can guide us in how to be a good person and be kind to both ourselves and others.

For starters, we must be willing to show vulnerability and honesty in every situation, which is necessary but difficult to do if we don’t actually know who we are. That may also be particularly challenging during a time of crisis, when our negative behaviors tend to dominate. If we interact with other people under these circumstances, this negative side may be all they see and know about us. Therefore, introspection and stepping back before such interaction can go a long way in showing people who we really are and then letting them decide whether or not they want to be around us.

Making others want to be around us is best achieved by being outwardly focused, which will ultimately make us kinder, more compassionate, positive and fun to be around. In a time of crisis, showing such positive qualities can go a long way toward those less fortunate. But this needs to happen within certain boundaries, where we only do things that both parties are comfortable with. Therefore, if others overstep those boundaries, we have a choice as to whether we want to forgive them or we will walk away from the relationship. Compassion is vital, but so is self-respect, and only we can decide where the line is between what we are and are not willing to tolerate from others.

In the end, it comes down to considering ways for us to be a good person on a daily basis, which is particularly important in a time of crisis. Many elements go into this, including showing empathy for other people’s experiences, being genuine and speaking your mind, while also thinking about the consequences of how your words and actions affect other people. During these times, it is also important to be generous in a lot of ways, to be there for others and to admit mistakes when we are wrong and use them to learn from and improve our relationships.

We must also be independent and self-sufficient, without needing anything from others, and not allow any external circumstances to sway us from who we truly are. We must realize that we are in control of our own lives, trust in our abilities to make a difference and use the power of our character to lift others up and help them be the best person they can become.

Last, I want to say that we often forget to do less talking and more listening, both to what people are telling us and not telling us. Being a good listener requires further introspection into the other person’s needs and desires and being able to empathize with them. Ultimately, it comes down to treating others with respect and decency, according to the well-known quote that you must “do unto others as you would have them do to you.”

I want to conclude this post with a list of inspirational movies with important life lessons to learn, because one thing we can do while at home is to better ourselves, and watching these movies may teach us something. And to end on a positive note, during this time of crisis, we must realize how blessed we are to have certain people in our lives and be able to work from home while also engaging in other activities that we may not otherwise be able to do.

In the end, I think that we can also effectively use this time to reflect on who we want to be, and work on becoming that person every single day. Ultimately, we must strive to be better each day than we were the day before. In this way we can realize the value that each moment brings to our lives and to our ability to change ourselves and improve the world around us.

Bio

Adriana Bankston is a principal legislative analyst at the University of California Office of Federal Government Relations and a member the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing an international voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders. The views expressed in this essay are her own.

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