10 ways my immigrant family prepared me for the coronavirus crisis

I’m reminded of the challenges my immigrant family faced and how their inimitable grace and resiliency in the face of hardship gave me the perspective I needed to face today’s challenges.

Teen depression (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Teen depression
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
You may feel that the unprecedented outbreak of COVID-19 has replaced your normal life with a dystopian one. News reports of increasing worldwide anxiety, including the suicides of anyone from a teenage girl to a German finance minister, seem to reflect and fuel a growing collective angst.
 
Yet I’m reminded of the challenges my immigrant family faced and how their inimitable grace and resiliency in the face of devastating loss and hardship gave me the perspective I needed to face today’s challenges. As a child I was often annoyed or embarrassed by their seemingly neurotic mindset - an alien worldview that made most North Americans look tame and carefree in comparison.
 
My family’s WWII stories of horror and survival were told and retold, their memories morphing into my own through osmosis until the sights, sounds, smells and emotions that accompanied these experiences became as familiar as if I had been there myself. 
Strangely, I am eternally grateful to them for it.  Why? Because during the good times my family gave me a priceless gift: the mindset I needed to survive the bad times with a sense of relative balance and even peace.  
 
Their keys to living well in every circumstance, as well as the awareness that not only do bad things sometimes happen to good people, but also that my North American residency would not inoculate me to this reality, has made all the difference.
Here are some of these invaluable truths that may help you to better cope with COVID-19 and future crises when you are feeling anxious:
1. We are not the first people who have ever had to self-isolate
Our predecessors had to practice social distancing to protect themselves from disease on numerous occasions. Yet, while working from home during the bubonic plague, Isaac Newton discovered Calculus and the law of gravity. 
During the times of the Underground Railroad and the Holocaust, hundreds of thousands of people silently hid in dark, confined quarters to avoid capture and death. Yet, while living with seven other people for 761 days in a 450 square-foot attic, the teenager Anne Frank wrote her inspirational diary.  
2. Helping others is as important as helping yourself  
Uncertainty creates urgency, fueling a scarcity mindset.  As basic survival instincts kick in, hoarding is often the default response. Concern about resources is normal, but remember that most people, especially the elderly or those who have lost their jobs, are experiencing equal or greater challenges. 
Supporting your neighbors by only taking what you need at the supermarket while leaving some items for others, donating funds to those in need, or delivering groceries to someone at risk, will make a difference in how our society experiences and recovers from this pandemic.
3. Time is finite
Don’t just pass the time; fill your time with activities that help you reach your goals or enrich your mind. Even if you aren’t working toward a particular career goal, you can engage in uplifting activities like journaling, reading an interesting book, or creating a new dish. 
4. Life is a gift, not a guarantee
Uncertainty is a part of life.  We may feel confident about our upcoming plans, but tomorrow is not guaranteed for any of us.
Prepare and plan, but remember that life has a way of surprising even the most equipped people. Don’t stress about things outside of your control. Practice living in the present while staying hopeful about the future.

5. Learn to love simple pleasures
The downside to living in a prosperous society is the tendency to require more and greater stimulation to feel content, and if removed, feeling emptier than ever. The taste of an apple, the sound of a woodpecker, or the feel of fresh bedding all have the potential to be either overlooked or enjoyed. Your attitude will determine how disappointed or satisfied you feel by your circumstances.

6. Meaningful, not superficial connections, are what matter
Unleashing your true thoughts and emotions is socially risky, but crises have a way of reminding us of our need for deep, honest connection. 
Whether quarantining with friends or family, or stranded by yourself in a foreign city, technology can help you check in on loved ones, reach out to others when you need encouragement, or encourage those who are having difficulty coping.  
7. Gratitude reduces anxiety and depression
Instead of focusing on what you may have lost, challenge yourself to see this as an opportunity to be thankful for what you still have. Your choice to consciously appreciate access to clean water, a meal, a good night’s sleep, or a phone call with a family member will help you to focus on the positive.
8. Your identity is bigger than your immediate circumstances
Life is fragile, possessions are temporal, and both can be lost in an instant. When hard times come, your character is what remains after the dust settles.
Prior to Hitler’s rise, my grandparents enjoyed an affluent lifestyle. In 1945, they were malnourished refugees fleeing to the West, and in 1953 they immigrated to Canada with a mere $25 to their name. If worldly possessions had shaped their identity, they would have felt incredibly discouraged. In spite of their bitter struggle to survive, they remembered that who they were as individuals was what ultimately mattered.  
9. You are stronger than you know
Know that you are not only capable of surviving hardship, but that you can start over from scratch if necessary. Unpredictable circumstances can disrupt our lives in a myriad of devastating ways, but humanity is stronger than we often give ourselves credit for. 
10. Faith brings inner peace  

Hard times give you the choice of either trusting that things will work out or becoming unhinged by uncertainty. 
My grandmother told me that the first time she truly remembers praying was when she was escaping Czechoslovakia with her sick, young daughter. Her newfound Divine connection ultimately gave her the strength to never give up.
The writer is an editor at large for the J'accuse Coalition for Justice.