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From “alone together” to “together alone”- how to find purpose in times of a pandemic

By Dr. Nicole de Paula

For a while, the witty title of the book “Alone together” made a lot of sense. This book interestingly brought to light several dimensions of the complex and evolving relationship between humans and technology, alerting us to some of the unknown consequences to human psychology. The current COVID19 pandemic radically flipped this title and opened new questions. The calls to “stay at home” transformed social media and digital platforms into the only windows to the outside world. Now we chant a new motto: “together alone” but are unsure about how to best cope with loneliness and isolation.

“Together alone” is a catchy way to call for solidarity and demonstrate the global nature of this crisis. However, such a fashionable hashtag reveals some shortcomings. While we might all be navigating in a common dark ocean, we are sitting in different boats. Some have just a raft, while others are powering on a speedboat. The radical global inequalities reveal who has more chances to reach the shore first. Unfortunately, this race to safer lands has been impacted by irrational leadership. Many leaders around the world are failing to be role models and protect their citizens. Brazil is an emblematic case with President Bolsonaro being perhaps the most dangerous person around the whole world when it comes to responsibility and empathy. Countries led by women, curiously, have been doing better.

With so much confusion, despair and a sense of abandonment, it is inevitable to reflect on the meaning ofCOVID19 from a personal standpoint. More than exposing the weaknesses of an ultra-interdependent world and the danger of unprecedented environmental degradation, COVID19 weakened our sense-making skills. When isolation is the new normal, how can we find purpose and build resilience to navigate the COVID19 times? Here I suggest three tools to smoothen the burden of negative thoughts during these blurred times.

Act, do not fear

Paradoxically, the scary COVID19 calls us to let go of fear. This is not the same as disrespecting safety rules and being careless. While a good dose of fear is good for self-protection, an overdose paralyses us. For cultural reasons, it seems that women are more prone to succumb to the traps of perfectionism and therefore are more exposed to poisonous fear. This pandemic, however, calls for a complete unlearning experience. Nobody was really prepared for this and, consequently, no one has the perfect formula to navigate these uncharted waters. Each day, ask yourself the famous question: what would you do if you were not afraid?

When we let go of fear, a new world opens and we can bravely take more risks. Only through a large sequence of failures we can learn and build resilience. Indeed, the obstacle is the way! This means that COVID19 can also be empowering, if you are open to taking new risks either at the professional or personal level. By applying new lenses to an old problem, our learning speed increases. Hence, this pandemic can empower all of us to discover new skills and a sense of worth in our jobs and within our social circles.

Believe in the sense of possibility

My second point is about mindsets and mental health. A lot has been said about how the hardships of these uncertain times are fueling a tsunami of anxiety . One of the best ways to cope with it is to fuel our sense of agency. In other words, be active!

Right now, it seems smarter to focus on people instead of systems. When we separate ourselves from the anxiety and let go of fear, we have more chances to make a change in society. Nowadays, contributions can be as simple as listening and volunteering. When we see small progress in whatever area, chances are that we regain motivation given we activate our sense of agency. By keeping ourselves busy and making ourselves useful, we can enhance our sense of belonging. This can also be powered by becoming part of a new network, where experiences can be shared and there is a feeling of being supported by others. This is one of the goals of the Women Leaders for Planetary Health , which exists to make sure we can help to build a more equal and sustainable world.

Value nature deeply

Covid19 gave us a choice. We can either go back to business as usual or we can build back better.

There won't be a second chance. We are the first generation to know about the existential threats due to dangerous environmental degradation and probably the last to be able to act to promote a sustainable future.

Our most important task as a civilisation is to find space in our hearts and brains to promote self-interested enlightenment. We need to ensure that our economies will move from grey to green. Only through truly valuing our natural world will we be able to let go of the old system and instead make progress towards a decarbonised, equal, safe and clean society for all. In this darkness, I still see a brighter future.

One of the most transformative experiences for human beings, especially for vulnerable populations, is the feeling of being ‘heard’ and ‘listened to’ by those in power. I personally find meaning by using my voice to call for serious consideration of Planetary Health as an effective development paradigm in the post-Covid world. I would invite all of you to do the same, given this is the only way to promote a sustainable future and leave no one behind.

In these difficult times, you are not alone and we should act together.

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