When Fear Runs High

When Fear Runs High

Last Friday my husband went to the doctor. He had a mild fever and occasional cough. In ordinary times, he would have just pushed through. But these are no ordinary times.

He had flown into Singapore two days earlier from the United States where three of our four children are living. He had no fever on arriving into Singapore’s Changi airport, which has tight measures in place to identify who could be infected with COVID-19. But when he woke up the next day, unusually tired from jet lag, I suggested he may want to take his temperature. This is not something I’d ask, or even think of, at other times. But again, these are not ordinary times.

He had a mild fever. He laid low but as the day wore on, his throat grew sore and head began throbbing. I was out at the time but encouraged him to get a test. I am glad I did. Six hours later he messaged me. “I have tested positive.” Within hours he was in an isolation room in one of Singapore’s large public hospitals.

My husband is a healthy guy who exercises regularly and takes good care of himself. In fact, he’s about as fit and strong as any 53-year old I know. And I am very confident that his immune system will fight off this virus and that he will make a full return to strong health. I’m also confident that he’s getting excellent care equal or better to any in the world in the midst of this pandemic. So as I write this now, I am grateful to be living in Singapore, a country that responded to the coronavirus outbreak swiftly and decisively, putting in place comprehensive protocols to contain its spread in Singapore’s densely urban population. All of which have proven to be highly effective.

In fact, before I even heard from my husband that he had tested positive, I received a call from Singapore’s Ministry of Health. Where are you? At home. Do not leave your home. No one is to leave your home. My son Ben and I are now under a strict 14-day quarantine order. Violating it would not only mean losing my employment pass, but also a $10,000 fine and six months in jail. I’ve no quarrel with this. This virus is not one to be messed with.

My family on the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro.

I’m a relatively resilient person. I’ve had to deal with a lot of setbacks and heartaches throughout my life. In recent years I’ve also dealt with immense disruption as our family has been relocated, and dispersed across the globe, with my husband’s employer. Having three children (aged 16, 20 and 22) living 10,000 miles from me at a time like this had already left me unsettled. Having my income reduced to near zero, as events have canceled en masse, has also caused me some anxiety. So you might say that my “coping coffers” were already running on low when I got that message Friday night, “I have tested positive.”

Not one to be stoic when I feel like crying, I rang my three sisters and did just that. Then I messaged a few close friends to let them know. Within hours I felt like I was being enveloped by a virtual “group hug” from friends and family living around the world.

The following morning I decided to share my news in two Facebook live videos (two, because a friend called midway through the first one!). That virtual hug just grew firmer. Within hours friends in Singapore were dropping care baskets at my front door. Flowers. Scented candles. Art supplies, bread, cereal, wine, chocolates, gourmet nibbles, more wine (they know me well), even a very large leg of lamb which my 6’3” meat-loving son Ben held to his chest lovingly and, injecting much-needed lightness to the moment, declared, “We should get quarantined more often, Mum.”

Ben, a senior at Singapore American School, is missing his spring break. Originally, he was headed to Bali with friends. When those plans canceled a few weeks ago, he designated himself “Chief Activities Coordinator.” But even his friends are now feeling reticent to venture too far from home.

This is, after all, no ordinary spring break.

It is no ordinary anything.

As I shared in the videos I filmed on day one of my quarantine (which you can view here and here), while we are all being asked to practice social distancing, the better term is physical distancing. Because right now we need to be socially more connected than ever before. We need to reach out to people, to share how we’re feeling, to ask how they’re doing, and to lift them up the best way we can. As research shows, acts of kindness aren’t just good for others, they give our own immune systems a shot of love.

It may not feel like it right now, but these dark days won’t last forever. This crisis will pass. As Arne Sorenson, CEO of Marriott shared in a message to Marriott employees posted to LinkedIn, “Together we can, and we will, overcome this, and thrive once again.”

Yet Sorenson didn’t sugarcoat the situation. Marriott has had to temporarily close hotels and lay off thousands of valued employees. Yet Sorenson did what all exceptional leaders do in times of crisis and peril—he confronted the brutal reality of the situation while steadfastly maintaining faith in ultimately triumphing over it.

As my husband lays in a coronavirus isolation ward, cut off from visitors and still battling a fever that has left him utterly devoid of the energy he usually exudes in spades, I hold on to that same optimism.

Yes, these are dark times. The darkest of times. Yes, people are suffering, people are dying, people are wondering how they will feed their families, pay their bills and keep their businesses afloat. Their fears go well beyond actually contracting this virus. We are all wrestling with our fears right now. All working to keep them in check, safeguard our families and navigate a future mired with uncertainty.

Yet I know that we human beings have an enormous capacity for life when we dig deep into ourselves, come together to support our tribe, but also reach out to help the most vulnerable whom we wouldn’t ordinarily consider being part of it.

But yet again, these are no ordinary times.

As I wrote in this Forbes column following my evacuation from Australia’s bushfires in January (yes, it’s been quite the year—and it’s only March!), life’s storms introduce us to ourselves in ways that calm waters never do. It’s in the moments when our spirit is tested the most that we can discover within ourselves reserves of courage, compassion, resilience and ingenuity that may otherwise have lain dormant.

Next week I was due to embark on a speaking tour across the U.S. Instead, I will be facing a very different sort of week, holed up in my apartment, my husband with COVID-19 (hopefully having turned the corner by then, hopefully, me not having contracted it) and my children all physically distancing themselves from others.

As I trust you will be also.

This is not the way any of us wanted to be spending this time. Schools closed. Vacations canceled. Businesses closed. Our lives shuttered up. Yet it is in turbulent times like this, when our fear runs high, that the need for courage runs higher.

So acknowledge the fear you are feeling. It is real. And it is valid. But don’t let that fear overtake your thinking.

Rather choose to show up right now with the courage you want to instill in others. Show up right now with the generosity and compassion you wished you’d seen more of in recent times. Show up right now as someone others can lean into, and lean on, for assurance, for connection, for friendship, or for laughter over a virtual glass of wine.

Right now you have to be braver than you want to be. But in looking within yourself for the certainty you cannot find elsewhere you will, like me, discover new realms of strength you may never otherwise have come to know.

“Let me not squander the hour of my pain,” wrote Rainer Maria Rilke. Let us instead use our hour of pain to connect to our shared vulnerability, to own the fragility of our humanity, and to use the gifts that have been given to us—our talents, our time, our money, our creativity, our relationships, our social platforms, our courage—to weather this dark stormy time better and to emerge from it better off.

We owe that to ourselves. We owe that to each other. We owe that to our children who are missing out on the experiences we want for them and they want for themselves.

Whatever your creed, or even if you don’t have one, take a moment right now to lean into faith; that within every adversity, to quote Napoleon Hill, “lies the seed of an equal or greater benefit.” Then feel the ground beneath your feet from which the seeds of new beginnings and brighter days will grow.

We all share that same earth. We must all do our part to nurture seeds for brighter days.

So breathe in faith, breathe out fear.

Breathe in faith again.

As Abraham Lincoln said to Congress in the dark hours of 1862, “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise with the occasion.”

Let us lift each other up and rise to this occasion.

Our future is depending on it.

Originally published in Forbes, March 21, 2020