We have a habit of thinking that the challenges we face today are more complex than those faced by our ancestors. This is normal because we have more options available to us—more technology, a more globally connected society, more sophisticated systems of handling money and goods. So, yes, we are dealing with more factors than people in Ben Franklin’s time did.
However, we also have the benefit of progress that eliminated some of the concerns of the late 1700s. The technology, the connected society, and the marketplace innovations have made life easier for us as well. The events that Benjamin Franklin and his contemporaries dealt with were as novel to them as confronting Covid-19 is for us.
The ingenious thinking that made Ben Franklin resilient and adaptable in the face of monumental odds and led him to become one of the best known and best loved of the American founding fathers is the same kind of thinking that will help us to thrive—not just survive—in a post-pandemic world.
To understand resilience and adaptability, and how to use them to craft our own ingenious solutions, it helps to understand a bit about something that was not known in Franklin’s era: how we biologically respond in times of stress.
As animals, we are programmed to care first for the immediate needs of the body and the preservation of the species, meaning physical safety, food, and procreation. We develop patterns and routines to preserve ourselves—the habits that unconsciously run our day to day lives and help us move efficiently through the world. The brain is the master organizer, coordinating the countless synaptic connections that make thought and movement possible. (Did you know you have enough neurons in your brain to wrap around the earth four times, end to end?)
The fact that each human has quadrillions of neuronal connections explains why we are all different, why faced with similar circumstances some people thrive and some people fall to pieces. Our patterns and routines are woven together in a system that works well to get us through most day-to-day issues, like a problem at work, and more challenging events, like the death of a loved one. Occasionally, though, we hit a situation that is so unusual, so outside of what we know that we have no patterns or habits to fall back on in order to figure out how to make it through the day.
People then revert to behaviors that make them feel safe, regardless of the underlying truth of the situation. It is what we are programmed to do. If you are worried about your health or the health of a loved one, then an extended quarantine might make you feel safe. If you are worried about your health, but also worried about your income, then opening businesses might make you feel safe. If you aren’t worried and are stir crazy from boredom, then returning to the footloose and fancy free way of life before Covid-19 might make you feel safe.
It is no wonder that people, with our nearly infinite variety of thought and feeling and synaptic connections would produce widely differing opinions about the “right” way to handle this novel situation. It is pretty clear, though, no matter which side of the spectrum you are on, that life has changed and will continue to change for all of us. I find myself thinking about the skills I will need to move myself forward. One of them I have been practicing lately is the skill of noticing.
Noticing trains my mind to see things I might have missed before. For example, I am practicing making note of people’s eye color as I talk to them while at the grocery store or for a walk around my neighborhood. I make an extra effort to acknowledge the human being behind the mask, and I usually get a warm greeting in return. That small moment of connection reminds me that we are all in this together, behind the masks, and we all look forward to getting back to a familiar routine.
Next week: How resilience + ingenuity = change.