The U.S. Surgeon General has called the coronavirus pandemic “our Pearl Harbor moment.” My mother sees it as a bit of déjà vu because she spent the three years after the Pearl Harbor attack rationing sugar and shoes and living behind blacked out windows at night in case the Germans decided to bomb the aircraft engine plant near her home. Meanwhile, my grandmother kept getting telegrams about her soldier son – my father – but each one told her that he was only wounded, not killed, so things were okay.
My mother and grandmother were part of a very resilient nation. We are resilient too; we just have not been tested. My parents and grandparents were coming off 12 years of the Great Depression, so they were hardened. We have been living in a 12-year bull market that has meant economic good times for many of us. The lead-up may be different, but the implications are similar – we have within us the ability to deal with the enormous challenges of COVID-19 and the many ways in which it impacts our lives.
Things are not going to be “normal” for the foreseeable future. We are going to need to be resilient to get through the remainder of being locked down and to cope with the changed economy and legal and social landscapes we will find ahead. With an unrelenting news cycle giving us the latest infection and death figures, we will be under constant stress. Even as things start to open up, it will be hard to relax. As in World War II when posters warned that “Loose Lips Sink Ships,” we will always be on guard as a masked server tells us the specials at a restaurant and we sit in half empty theatres and stadiums under the specter of social distancing.
To cope with this stress, we will need to be resilient. As an attorney, you are already resilient. You have stuck with it through three years of law school, the bar exam, and countless challenging issues and deadlines. Now you need to draw on that experience.
The key is to remain positive. You should embrace the concept that in putting up with restrictions, we are helping to protect the elderly, children, and those who may have underlying health conditions. As attorneys, it is our duty to protect those who need protection. You should also take comfort in the belief that ultimately civilization will get through this. The very fact that we are here proves that our ancestors survived every war, famine, natural disaster, and plague since Noah’s flood.
Resilience can be trained like a muscle, because it is a type of strength. The more you respond to situations with resiliency, the easier it will become. A good way to be more resilient is to push yourself during physical exercise until you are uncomfortable. Sprint the last 100 yards of your run or the last 20 seconds on your stationary bike. Do two more pushups than the 10 your routine prescribed. Then add two more to that the next day. Do not back off, even if it hurts. It feels good to blow it out and achieve a happy fatigue.
The more times you successfully deal with discomfort, the more confidence you will gain and the more pushing through and overcoming will become a habit. You will learn to embrace the challenge and see it not as something to be avoided, but as an opportunity to excel. The mental toughness born from exercise will carry over into how you deal with adversity in the financial, professional, personal and other aspects of your life. You will have an inner strength and be tough and resilient for all purposes. As Christopher Robin reassured Winnie the Pooh, “You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem.”
Exercise is also one of the best ways to reduce stress. It does not even have to be exercise in the traditional sense of running or lifting weights. Any movement will do. Your body does not know the difference between reaching down to pull out a weed in your garden and using an expensive machine at a boutique health club. All it knows is that it is stretching and pulling as it was designed to do.
If you are a regular gym goer, you should anticipate that gyms will not be the same, at least initially, so prepare yourself for some disappointment. They will likely allow in fewer people, impose time limits, and be ultra vigilant about wiping down equipment. Do not let that be a source of stress. Instead, deal with it. It is still better than having the gym be closed, so use it to the extent you can and find other ways to move.
If going to the gym is problematic or you want to enhance your current exercise program, you can do a mindful stretching routine where you focus on your breathing. As you stretch, concentrate on inhaling and exhaling to a count of three while staying in the moment. It will lower your stress, improve your flexibility, and get you centered so that you can take on the challenges of the day.
You will be able to withstand the pandemic and its aftermath. Like Rocky Balboa in Rocky 3 as he was being pummeled by Clubber Lange, you can taunt back: “You ain’t so bad, you ain’t so bad, you ain’t nothin’….I ain’t breathing heavy.”
Robert Herbst is chair of the Physical Well-being Working Group of NYSBA’s Task Force on Attorney Well-being, and a former chair of the Committee on Courts of Appellate Jurisdiction. He is a 19-time world champion powerlifter and a member of the AAU Strength Sports Hall of Fame.