CORONAVIRUS 2020: UPDATE OF THE ANTHROPOS SYSTEM

Or the delicate art of contactless hands-free connection. A reflection on the world after COVID-19

By Guila-Clara Kessous, PhD, Harvard University
Edited by Kyra Johnson

Peter M. Friess
A screenshot from CORO1, a visionary interpretation of the COVID-19 realized by Brussels-based Conceptual Digital Artist PETERMFRIESS based on the LAMAφ improvisation ensemble. Watch it on our #CreativityWillSaveUs Series HERE. For more info about PETERMFRIESS click here: www.petermfriess.com.

As the world continues to undergo the effects of the coronavirus in all aspects of life, it becomes necessary to recognize what a post-COVID world looks like, as well as to consider it to be a sort of separator of space and time. Such a world-altering event, after all, is so extreme and drastic that it reflects an almost messianic importance. 

Imagining oneself in a post-coronavirus future is already to recognize the pandemic’s role as a separator of space-time. After all, aren’t we in 2020 AD, or even 1441 A.D., 1441 Hegira, Chinese 4718, or 5780 in the Jewish calendar, to name but a few? All these calendars base their point of departure, the year 1, on a founding event which radically separates the coming era from the preceding one. Most importantly, the new era also “updates” the cultural, territorial, social, behavioural, and economic system. We now must seek out a global meaning in all civilizations, which comes from a posteriori to the event since the year zero does not exist. We therefore begin to count long after the event, which only takes on its meaning once we choose its meaning. Therefore, in the current case of COVID-19, we are still in the year zero. Let us try to see what societal norms we are radically leaving behind in order to go towards year one, Post-COVID, and what this new era of ours will potentially look like. 

Another screenshot from CORO1 by PETERMFRIESS

Turning to a New Sun

In our society prior to the coronavirus, human beings shared in the tropism—the natural turning towards an external stimulus–exhibited by many plants; we are like sunflowers, following the rays of the stimuli we have grown accustomed to in order to support our own social growth. What we are leaving to go into the Post-COVID world is above all an anthropological tropism that acted as an irresistible and unconscious force, a reflex behavior that seemed so natural to us.  This behavior that seemed so natural to us and pushed us to use all of our five senses fearlessly in our relationship with others is now absent in lieu of our inability to psychically reach out. Whether they were close or unknown to us, accepting the other meant bringing them into our social “spheres”: the professional sphere, the family sphere, the personal intimate sphere. Each of these spheres has required some sort of a contact greeting. This human-to-human “recognition” seemed so natural to us–whether it was a kiss, handshake, or hug–that it had become a tropism. 

We collectively failed to realize how physical contact norms may endanger us if we had to consider the other or oneself as “potentially contagious”. In the face of the virus, us metaphorical sunflowers are forced to find a new type of sun to turn to in order to achieve and maintain our social growth.

For example, this “new sun” is already somewhat adopted by Asian cultures, where it is custom to avoid touching each other during greetings, particularly in China, where salutations are exchanged at a distance, with heads bowed. We are therefore encouraged to follow the Chinese example in our professional spheres, where even prior to the pandemic, physical exchanges were rarely intimate, and are therefore the most appropriate type of contact greeting to undergo procedural changes in our Post-COVID Year One. The choice of the “elbow” salutation (widely remembered as the “Ebola Shake” salutation, born during the Ebola epidemic) is appropriate, and even already common, in several cultures. What does this mean in terms of anthropological tropism of finding a new stimulus in which to grow from? We would orient our physical interactions to a much more “Asian fashion”: less touching, interruptions, and emotions, and more observation, silence, and neutrality. Adopting foreign greetings may lead us to culture shock, and feelings of “Fear and Trembling” may await us in this “Asia-tization” of our methods of greeting, and perhaps even our modes of societal functioning.

Another screenshot from CORO1 by PETERMFRIESS.

Learning from Porcupines: A New “Hands Free” Connection

If we cannot enjoy our typical experiences of physical contact anymore, does this mean that we all need to find an “inner warmth” to replace what no longer comes from others? This is what philosopher  Arthur Schopenhauer recommended in his famous parable of the porcupines in “Parerga and Paralipomena”, in which he used this group of animals to explain the paradox of human contact. During a frosty snowstorm, the porcupines huddled together in tight-knit groups to keep warm, but ultimately suffered from each other’s sharp prickles, since they were too close together.  They were forced to find a “medium distance” where they could benefit from their collective warmth yet avoid harming others with their spikes. Schopenhauer then writes: 

“Thus the need for society, born of the emptiness and monotony of their inner life, pushes people towards each other; but their many unsympathetic ways and unbearable defects scatter them again. The average distance they eventually discover and at which living together becomes possible is politeness and good manners.”
Arthur Schopenhauer

What we come to understand from this example is that, during this pandemic, we must learn how to benefit from one another’s metaphorical warmth while still keeping our distance, as the infectious disease has become our own set of sharp spines that could damage others, should we fail to maintain a proper distance. Would we have failed in the principle of “politeness” by abruptly changing our socially “average distance” into a brand-new “sanitary distance”? There are no more possible contacts to fall back on once the pandemic has passed, because it is the aggregation of the whole system that is changing. The anthropological system described by Arthur Schopenhauer assumed that groups of humans push towards each other by aggregates “born from the emptiness and monotony of their inner life”. But does this kind of emptiness still exist today? In accordance with our metaphor, the quills of porcupines have grown and become a type of interconnected network of antennas that connect without contact, as if their exchange of bodily warmth is done virtually–it is “hands-free”. 

Check out the Porcupines & Schopenhauer Story @illacertus Youtube Channel – Animated book summaries focusing on strategy, power & seduction with a flair for history & how you can use the knowledge within today to further your own cause.

This is the basis of our real-world rapidly expanding Internet connectivity, with intelligent underground, underwater, aerial and space smart grids… 5G obliges! The interconnected system of porcupines that gathered together to keep warm symbolically evolved to become an emanation of our own individual social antennas. We each radiate our own quills that serve as a protective “crown”–which, strangely enough, looks similar to the shape of the coronavirus when viewed under an electron microscope. These antennas are also our ways of relating to each other. This explains why we are able to have hundreds of friends on Facebook without ever actually meeting them in person. In 1992, anthropologist Robin Dunbar suggested that 150 was the maximum number of people with whom we could maintain stable social relationships, so as not to exceed the maximum size allowed by the information processing capacity of our brain. Humans have an incredible capacity to connect, but this pandemic creates a blockage for us to demonstrate our typical human warmth. When “emptiness” no longer exists outside, it is reborn inside us via a “lack of oxytocin”, which is the hormone of love, trust and bonding created through physical contact (such as caresses, kisses, etc.). We are about to live through an incredible moment of withdrawal where our only option to remain hyper-connected is to use social media platforms, where we can engage in a sort of “hands-free” style of interaction (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and TikTok, among others). But is keeping this mode of “no contact” relationships, truly without risk of contamination? It may present a dangerous “Zoom-ification” of our world where others only appear in two dimensions, “framed” in a relationship controlled by a “power” button that you just have to press once for others to disappear.

Another screenshot from CORO1 by PETERMFRIESS.

The Return of “Courtesy”

This “love from afar” that we must now practice is reminiscent of the ballads of “courtly love” that were sung by  William IX of Aquitaine “Roman de la Rose”  and the troubadours (traveling poets) of the twelfth century. In this medieval context, songs describe the object of love: the rose; and the woman, the object of wooing, is far away, but one must surpass the presented obstacles in order to fulfill their conquest. In our non-medieval context: less oxytocin hormone, therefore, equates less touching, yet provides more dopamine, the hormone of success. A “setting far away”, which is the new distant location of individuals in our lives, allows us to rework the path that leads to others. This medieval approach to human connection seems very outdated. 

On the contrary, the practice of working through obstacles to achieve our object of interest is anchored deep within us, in what we are desperately trying to find again during this time: a rediscovered physical closeness with our companions and an ambition to take on a brand new, albeit mysterious, future. a brand new future.

The term “courtesy” does not force us to return to feudalistic style, but allows us to rethink our “porcupine” social system on a human scale–that is to say, we must insert ourselves into metaphorical “courtyards”: small bordered spaces in which a finite number of individuals who share common values reside as a community. Taking residence in these spaces is not advocating for the return of the aristocracy, or the feudal reign of the King and his Court, but rather, it is to set up each individual to have the capacity of a “power” button; not to make others entirely disappear, but to simply make them leave their screen, like Tom Baxter in Woody Allen’s film  “The Purple Rose of Cairo”. We have the ability to be aware of the collective world, thanks in particular to the analysis grid of the 17 Sustainable Development objectives adopted by the UN in 2015, and the credo of the platform of action for the coronavirus, set up in mid-March by the World Economic Forum in Davos. We know what we have to do, but we don’t do it yet… even if we hear many people say that, despite the difficulty of containment, what we will regret most is this long period of time when we could have “settled down” for a moment before returning to the frenzy of active life. This is the principle of the “JOMO” (the “Joy Of Missing Out”). This joy celebrates disconnection from an idealized world in order to concentrate on real life, on our truly important relationships without feeling fearful under the gaze of others.

Another screenshot from CORO1 by PETERMFRIESS.

Towards Optimistic Leadership  

What about business in our “professional sphere”? In comparison to the familial sphere, it is not the one that is most naturally useful to society, but it is probably the one that has the most responsibilities in terms of helping everyone “hold it together”. In Latin, “Entre-prehendere” means “to take in one’s hands”, and “to take the risk” of creating something valuable that is beyond financial gain. This is where the “courtyard” that the company represents is so important since it must recreate a will to create, share, and co-construct together, and to bring water to the metaphorical mill of society so that the economy can turn. Just as an individual struggles with the idea of death at the sound of a cough, a company thinks it is finished when it sees its sales drop during the last two months. However, they are far from being finished.

Just like the individual, if companies take on the responsibility to not contaminate and not be contaminated, they enter a phase of change in accordance with what the virus has taught us: how to resist by breathing. To continue to breathe in spite of the miasma of this virus means to, against all odds, feed on the air of others and accept that it may be necessary to empty oneself of their own air so that another can feed on it.

This circulation of air must take place in a healthy environment, between healthy individuals, for a healthy purpose. The return of deconfinement in the workplace should aim to achieve this healthy system at the managerial level: leaders must regain the health of the collective through a narrative sense. Telling a story of survival is crucial in terms of resilience. And for that, the leader’s communication is essential at both the verbal and non-verbal level. When presenting content, a leader must make the choice of using positive, unifying, hope-creating words, but above all,  they must be transparent with the situation, for that will make the difference. Far too many leaders would like to apply the perception of the pre-COVID to the post-COVID era by making people believe that nothing has happened. On the contrary, it is by underlining the difficulties undergone during this time of collective survival, and by detailing the different steps to follow going forwards, that unity will be able to motivate the team. This is what the “optimistic” leader should look for, to use the ideas of the famous Tal Ben Shahar, professor of “happiness” (a form of positive psychology) at Harvard University, in his book The Happiness of Being a Leader: a clever mix of optimism and realism. The leader must go beyond their bodily barriers. It is their own body, which has been denied so much in the virtual relationship, that they will have to re-inhabitat. This will show how the leader will be judged, measured, and despised, and if they can be followed. For the body does not lie and when one is the image of power in a company, it is the body that reveals its weaknesses, impostor syndrome, or megalomaniacal impulses.

Another screenshot from CORO1 by PETERMFRIESS.

Even the newly named “coronial” generation of babies coming from this era (including X Æ A-12, the aptly named newborn of Elon Musk) have a body, which is what remains to us as irreducibly fragile and therefore “human”. So let us become guards of our own body by not listening to those who want to amputate it under the narrative of reinforcing our performance with “painkillers” and “anti-epileptics” by inhibiting nerves or by cutting off our sensitivity where it hurts. In medicine, just as in business, we should be wary of symptomatic treatments that would create a Guillain-Barré syndrome, a consequential fallout suffered by many people who have been ill with corona: a loss of sensation that can lead to paralysis of the extremities (hands/feet). In a company, it is necessary to look at how the virus was experienced by all the employees, offering at all levels (from “feet” to “hands”) not only spaces for words, but real possibilities to integrate and collaborate “in the common courtyard” with real recognition–without such an approach, it would lead to a paralysis of the company’s whole collective body . “Stop applauding us and come and put your hands in the sludge instead,” a doctor said to me the other day. He didn’t necessarily mean making a medical commitment, but contributing in some way to ensuring that there is a dedication to relieving the harshness of daily life, each at one’s own level. What can be said about what awaits us in the post-COVID era is a real human question that searches for meaning and involvement at the individual level. 

This shared sense that we all have within us is a voice that guarantees the survival of our species and tells us to “do and play our part” as if we are an orchestra with an infinite number of instruments. Our song would be an uproar that is certainly very powerful because of its resonant force but would have no collective melody and even less unison.

At the moment, the system of the world has just been updated and unifying platforms, such as TikTok’s viral trends, have an impressive capacity to be its own type of virus and spread the same pantomime repeated across the continents as if it is a domino effect of one following after another.The virtual spread of ideas is a unifying force that helps us expand our perception of the world as a whole. Contrastingly, however, Voltaire’s satire Candide tells us of the importance of staying in one’s own social sphere and recognizing their place in the world. After having done all kinds of pantomimes and lived in various burlesque situations whilst traveling the world, the title character comes back home and advises us that it would be best for him to simply “cultivate his garden”…  not in terms of being selfishly interested only in his small plot of physical land, but to play at his level in the territorial, political, economic, and social issues–his own garden, his own yard. This is not a reflection of a post-COVID individualism, but a warning against a possible hyper-connected system that is overwhelmed by the desire to once again restore our norms of contact. The solution seems simple: does “cultivating your garden” not mean less connection and more contact with reality?

ABOUT GUILA-CLARA KESSOUS

Guila Clara Kessous
Guila-Clara Kessous

Guila-Clara Kessous, PhD. is a research professor, a coach, and a UNESCO Artist for Peace. Recipient of a doctorate under Elie Wiesel’s direction, she is using theatrical techniques to help suffering populations (survivors of genocide and human rights violations) better express themselves and have a stronger impact on new generations. She is also certified in positive psychology by Harvard University Professor Tal Ben Shahar and accompanies people to achieve stronger resilience in times of crisis.  She deals with issues of positive leadership, crisis communication, and managerial posture using theatrical techniques and role-playing. Following the coaching of suffering populations, she accompanies personalities, executive committees, senior executives, and managers in crisis contexts in France and abroad. Today, she is working with healthcare personnel, ranging from executives to nurses, to provide coaching and counseling to those serving at the front lines of the coronavirus crisis.

Find out more about Guila-Clara Kessous on our special interview for the #CreativityWilLSaveUS Phase 2 Series

What Will We Take With Us Into Post-COVID Life?

In this powerful Op-ed. Storyteller, Art Curator, Artist & Creative Pois-On Contributor Sabrina Wirth reflects on our collective social and business future after the global pandemic emergency.

COVID19 Mask
Sabrina Wirth wearing one of the masks that she produced during quarantine.

When we started this quarantine journey together in mid-March, it was like we knew we were settling in for the long ride. We knew it would be temporary, and that it would be an inconvenience, but we approached it as a challenge. And so, we began to get creative and resourceful, thinking of ways to keep us busy, or create new content, because all of a sudden, social media became everyone’s outlet, and our home, the stage. Three months in and this temporary way of life has slowly transformed into the “new normal”. The big questions on everyone’s minds now, are: what will remain from this existence, what will return to how we remembered it, and what will change? 

By Sabrina Wirth

There is no question that pre-COVID life will remain in the past, and whatever we had been used to will have to continue in its adapted form- if it is to continue at all. Anyone who had been reluctant to jump on Instagram, or other social media, is now discovering the platform, and realizing that it is the window into a borderless, and virus-free world that does not have to follow social-distancing rules (Yet, at the same time, realizing that it is also a highly visible world, where the impact of what you publish can have far-reaching consequences). In the process of (re)discovering these alternate environments, many individuals and companies came to the awareness that much of what they deemed necessary, like in-person meetings, is in reality more efficient over the phone or on Zoom.

A ZOOM meeting in times of Corona Virus

Distance can no longer be considered an acceptable excuse for missing -or being late to- a meeting, because how can you be late to a phone call? It is safe to say that technology has significantly changed our pace of life over the past 30 years. Remember writing and receiving letters? Those shoeboxes once filled with letters from pen-pals are now filled with either bills, invitations, solicitations, and the occasional letters or postcards. In those letter-writing days, immediate gratification was not a thing. We lived our lives off-line and in the physically present moment. Indeed, everything was much more local, and calling someone in another country was a planned event. When texting became more common, it was exciting to be able to reach another person so instantaneously. Now, no one even gives it a second thought. Our pace of adjusting to the opportunities technology provides has been increasing gradually- so gradually that no one has really noticed.

Then, Covid-19 happened. It was as though someone said “now stop whatever you’re doing because if you want to continue, you have to figure out a different way.” They say “necessity is the mother of inventions”, and in a sense, we (by “we” I mean the majority) have had to invent a new way of life. That’s why #creativitywillsaveus keeps growing, because creatives are, by nature, constantly reinventing and reimagining. They are the ones who are leading the path into this new world, and the more people share on this platform, the more people are inspiring others to do the same. 

With all these advancements in technology and tools for working remotely, why has the workplace structure remained the same for so long? The traditional 9-5, 8-hour workweek has been around since the 20s when Henry Ford and the labor unions instituted a regulated work schedule. After WWII, when women and African Americans entered the workforce, office layouts were designed in the style of the factory floor rows, which had become common during the war years, and have since barely changed. It’s taken 3 months of quarantine and forced “work-from-home” for people to consider a different way- a more creative way.

During the quarantine, Sabrina got creative producing art, homemade masks, and developing innovative entrepreneurial ideas. She is also giving her voice to the podcast version of the Creative Pois-On #CreativityWillSaveUs Series. Check it here below!

And it’s taken this pandemic for people to finally embrace the changes that technology has made possible. If employees are able to productively work from home from whatever geographic location they are in, it confirms the notion that the traditional work model is outdated. As businesses begin to open up and people are given the option to return to their offices to work, there is a high likelihood that most people will want to maintain their flexibility, since it worked just fine during the quarantine. The one main difficulty, however, will be maintaining a sense of structure and balance between work and life, since the two have been blurred by existing within the same space. 

One industry that is discovering a “re-birth” of sorts, is the art business. Auction houses, galleries, museums… the kind of business that relies on in-person viewing. It’s a hand-shake business that capitalizes on the stories behind the object, the mystery of the artist’s process, the stories evoked in the tactility of the paint. The Mona Lisa is not the same on a screen as it is in the Louvre. A picture of a Warhol is not the same as the real thing. So what will this post-Covid transition look like?

Online Gallery
Is the online market the future of the Art Business?

For a while, auction houses were merely flirting with the idea of expanding the market online, and -despite the fact that being in the auction room itself is much more exciting- were cautiously making advancements with online bidding. It was never taken completely seriously though until a recent online auction at Sotheby’s brought in $36 million, more than double from the same period last year. Seeing these numbers come in from digital sales seems to be the validation the art world needed in order to forge ahead into more online ventures. To move ahead of the competition, without the advantages of real estate and location, the challenges will then be about storytelling and creating experiences that transcend between the virtual and the physical. In the meantime, however, museums and institutions that rely on membership and visitor fees will need to re-imagine the on-site experiences they provide in order to keep visitor numbers up. Will visits be limited to a certain number of people? What will happen with blockbuster exhibitions?

As the light at the end of this quarantine-tunnel becomes more visible, and our global attention is split between health and civil rights issues, I cannot help but feel a rush of emotions when I consider what our next phase of life will be. While eager to return to a sense of normalcy, I find myself hoping that some elements from this moment of isolation carry through into our future. Solidarity and community, for one.

#BlackLivesMatter
One of Sabrina’s homemade masks inspired by the principles of solidarity and community. Find more of these creations on Sabrina’s Instagram @_artwirth_

When we were all forced to individually “shelter-in-place”, we found ways to come together with tools like Zoom, FaceTime, and social media. In fact, many people may have found more community throughout these past several months than they had before. The shared efforts of making masks or designing and producing PPE face shields brought creative people from all industries together in a way they hadn’t previously experienced. The Black Lives Matter movement amplified the feeling of solidarity. Hopefully, this awareness of being able to impact change as a collective can transition into a more permanent state. Together, we can do more: we can be more creative, we can affect change, we can be stronger. Together, we are better. Let’s keep this as our main souvenir from Covid.

Sabrina Wirth
Sabrina Wirth

Sabrina Wirth is an artist, curator, writer, and storyteller. Her curiosity for people and different cultures has led her down various unusual, but fulfilling paths, such as exploring Iraqi Kurdistan, and working on a film about refugees in France. She believes in the power of creativity, and has learned that the best stories are the real-life, human ones.

For more info on Sabrina please visit: www.sabrinawirth.com

Surviving COVID-19 & Learning from Survivors of Genocide: The Concept of “Collective Humanity” Over “Collective Immunity”

French Human Rights Artist, Academic and UNESCO’s Artist for Peace Guila Clara Kessous, shares her theories on how to survive the COVID-19 by applying insights learned from assisting survivors of traumatic events such the Holocaust and the Rwandan Genocide.

by Guila-Clara Kessous
Edited by Kyra Johnson

Guila Clara Kessous

Why does it take a pandemic to bring humanity together—and realize our interconnectedness as a collective humanity in a global society? It is such a notion which, by an act of shared solidarity, it makes it possible to draw a human perspective of the collective rather than seeing it as a Darwinian means of containing the pandemic. As a UNESCO Artist for Peace, I have spent over two decades of my life serving survivors of globally devastating events, ranging from the Holocaust to the Rwandan Genocide. Throughout the duration of this global crisis, I have made the effort to share some of my theories on how to survive COVID-19 by applying insights learned from assisting the survivors of such genocides. 

Corona Virus
COVID-19 – People’s acts of solidarity towards the healthcare workers.

In times of remembrance of Holocaust victims, such as Yom HaShoah, I would like to remind us all that some of the most important philosophies of humanity have been derived during times of crisis. For example, Newton conceived his law of gravity during the Great Plague in the 1600s. Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel became a Nobel Laureate for his many insights on the nature of mankind, offering perspectives such as,  “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.” Now, in the face of COVID-19, we find people taking a stance towards love, such as cheering at night in New York, Paris, and Italy for healthcare workers, and governors standing up for state justice. 

Reptilian Brain

With the upheaval imposed by the coronavirus, we find ourselves developing a perspective of survival functioning linked to the reptilian brain, whose instructions were defined by Walter Bradford Cannon as the “3 F’s”: Fight, Flee, Freeze. In the face of a threat, the brain dictates a spontaneous behavior that is almost impossible to anticipate, linked to a reaction of either aggressiveness (fight = combat), dodging (flee = escape), or seizure (freeze = stunned). The extreme frustration in the case of the coronavirus is that no matter how hard the brain orders us to fight, our threat is invisible. It can order us to flee, but we are forced to remain confined in our homes. I have explained it as,

“We are left with only one option: inhibitory stupor. This is the one we can read on the faces of officials when they speak to explain the situation in the media. It is the one that animates us all. We are all shocked by the speed and intensity of this epidemic that brings back to mind the ‘memento mori’ of the Ancient Romans: ‘Remember that you are mortal.’

Guila Clara Kessous

It is at this precise moment that we must call upon the leader within us—the one who “shows the way”, who creates enthusiasm,  who is inspiring—the one we want to follow. Overcoming sudden fear presupposes three specific lines of thought, two of which are linked to what I will call “personal leadership”. These have been consciously or unconsciously chosen by many genocide survivors (Shoah, Rwanda, and Bosnia), of whom I have had the chance to follow during customized coaching in post-traumatic dialogue sessions. Today, I advise any leader, but above all, the leader that everyone is for themselves, to be able to follow these three key guiding principles. (The third recommendation is directly related to the position of leader in an organization.) Efforts to improve ourselves as individuals will consequently guide us to a greater international unity–after all, there is no better time than now to take the first steps, as said by Anne Frank: 

“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”

Anne Frank

1) PHYSICAL INSIGHT: FIND A NEW HOMEOSTASIS & CONNECTION TO YOUR BODY. Just fifteen minutes a day can save your life in terms of resetting the fluidity in your body. Like most post-traumatic stress syndromes, attacks on the joints can scale from the bottom to the top of the body. Moving the ankles, knees, hips, shoulders, wrists, and the neck in small circles can be fundamental to finding your healthy and new homeostasis under quarantine. Originally discovered by the scientist

Claude Bernard, the term “homeostasis” comes from the Greek “to hold”, “equal”. It refers to the body’s ability to self-regulate despite imbalances of all types caused by external factors. It thus refers to the body’s ability to balance itself despite adversity. This homeostasis, this “rebalancing”, supposes an awareness of the body’s corporeal reality; and, as in the Russian martial art system, it suggests not to “stiffen” oneself in front of the blow under the influence of astonishment, but to “get out of balance” upon a threat by wasting as little energy as possible.

Since we can’t fight the virus, nor flee from home, let’s make this home—this body that is ours—a mindful, alert, and adaptable entity by being attentive to what it tells us.

Guila Clara Kessous

 “Healing is a process,” says Albert Nsengimana, author of How I Survived Being Killed by My Mother, and who lived in his flesh during the suffering of the Rwandan Genocide. Everyday physical efforts can help aid this vital healing process. Sporting activity, of course, is a very good illustration to which one can add a simple slow choreographed movement reflecting what the body needs. Even a simple balancing exercise at least once a day would be very highly recommended. Take a moment to stretch, spin, and dance!

2) MENTAL INSIGHT: BUILD A MINDSET OF TRAGIC OPTIMISM. People often speak of resilience.  “Resilience,” a notion so dear to ethologist Boris Cyrulnik, implies a willingness to rebuild after a trauma has been accepted and experienced.

Boris Cyrulnik
Ethologist Boris Cyrulnik

Unfortunately, with COVID-19, we are still undergoing the trauma. Victor Frankl’s notion of “tragic optimism” would be more appropriate to the situation. Otherwise, if we pursue “resilience” during this storm, it could evolve into “resignation.” As such, we need to fuel ourselves with this sense of tragic optimism. It is not a question of “happycracy” by forcing oneself to be happy in a superficial way. It is the “optimistic attitude to the tragedy of existence [that] allows. . . to turn suffering into a motive for fulfillment and accomplishment.” This “tragic optimism” tries to enable us to seek within ourselves the resources necessary to cope with a tragic existence that is beyond us. “Changing suffering into a motive for fulfillment” means daring to do what heroes and icons have done; it means maintaining positive psychology and keeping a watchful eye on the situation; neither being too fatalistically nor naively in denial of danger and keeping a belief that the best is yet to come.

3) ORGANIZATIONAL INSIGHT: BUILD A TRIBE OF COLLECTIVE INTELLIGENCE. What about the “collective body” in terms of teamwork? This line of thought comes from the experience I have gained throughout the duration of this pandemic, coaching managers by videoconference to teach them how to continue to create a link with employees when there is no longer any face-to-face presence. Leadership needs to be reinvented from an organizational point of view, especially if it pertains to an entity that is not used to virtual collaboration. When teams are required to come together through a new medium, we come to understand how valuable individual efforts are in benefitting the collective.

Malala Yousfzai
Malala Yousfzai

Malala Yousfzai, the internationally recognized advocate for education and peace, reminds us that “we realize the importance of our voices only when we are silenced.” The objective of the virtual team must be to ensure that every individual is heard and to now allow for these circumstances to silence them.  There is an even greater need to find common goals in virtual teams and to reinvent storytelling. “Storytelling is a common myth to the group, a necessity for team cohesion,” as I have explained to colleagues. The appreciative inquiry method is an excellent example of re-creating collective intelligence in times of crisis and is fully applicable via videoconferencing. It involves identifying the successful factors that differentiate the collective in order to strengthen the bonds, particularly in rough times, and to show that leadership is not just a question of pyramidal authority management, but rather, a means of managing people in the service of common values, and who must face hazards such as the coronavirus together. 

Combined, these three insights create a notion of “collective humanity” to replace “collective immunity,” which in some ways is a much more Darwinian perspective of the world. For humanity consists of a body, a spirit, and a living-together, as the three dimensions of this article show. In addressing the progress of the Rwandan nation following its 1994 tragedy, Nsenigmana believes that “it’s better to live behind our past, our story. To move forward. To be together, to consolidate, to make a unit.” An applied mentality of collectivism that aims to unite humanity also points to Nobel Prize-winning existentialist, Albert Camus, in his reminder in an eponymous book narrating another famous epidemic:

“The only way to put people together is still to send them the plague.”

Albert Camus

Not even halfway through 2020, this year presents such a compelling and exciting time for all people, from the United States to Nigeria to China to France, to apply these concepts of collective humanity. Rosian Zerner, who not only survived the Holocaust but was reunited with her family in Lithuania, illustrated this resilience best in her poem reflecting on the nature of the mass genocide, “When Our World Stood Still”: “My hope is that the meaning of our inward pause will not be lost, that we will see this great transition as opening a different, better road ahead, that we return to or reinvent the meaning of what truly being human is in our wonderful creation.” By observing and reflecting on these insights from survivors of traumatic events, each person around the world is faced with the opportunity to be leaders of positivity in designing and building a post-COVID-19 world. 

ABOUT GUILA-CLARA KESSOUS

Guila Clara Kessous
Guila Clara Kessous

Guila Clara Kessous, PhD. is a research professor, a coach, and a UNESCO Artist for Peace. Recipient of a doctorate under Elie Wiesel’s direction, she is using theatrical techniques to help suffering populations (survivors of genocide and human rights violations) better express themselves and have a stronger impact on new generations. She is also certified in positive psychology by Harvard University Professor Tal Ben Shahar and accompanies people to achieve stronger resilience in times of crisis.  She deals with issues of positive leadership, crisis communication, and managerial posture using theatrical techniques and role-playing. Following the coaching of suffering populations, she accompanies personalities, executive committees, senior executives, and managers in crisis contexts in France and abroad. Today, she is working with healthcare personnel, ranging from executives to nurses, to provide coaching and counseling to those serving at the front lines of the coronavirus crisis.

Refocus and Trust During Uncertainty

An inquisitive exploration of the theme of stage fright, in and off the spotlight, during these challenging times of uncertainty. Featuring an interview with musician, actor, and model Ian Mellencamp.

By Sabrina Wirth

The topic of Fear has been on a lot of people’s minds lately. What causes it exactly? On one hand, it can help to motivate or to protect, but on the other hand, fear can also be the barrier that keeps you from achieving your dreams. I’ve grappled with this subject for many years, and thus have had it on my mind often. I remember writing a poem about it in elementary school, concluding that it has to do with uncertainty. We are afraid of what we don’t know. And just like a child who is afraid of the dark loses that fear once the light is turned back on, we are comforted when we are able to clarify an unusual situation. Understanding what the origin of the uncertainty is, can be a useful way to break free from that psychological obstacle. 

Our theme this month is “on stage”, so while there are many types of fear out there, this post will be focused on the kind that is connected with performance and vulnerability. When we expose a part of ourselves to the world, fear can often take over in a crippling way, casting doubt and self-consciousness over the performance. We forget that everyone else has the same obstacles to overcome in their daily lives. The key to overcoming this obstacle though is -as it is in many cases in which fear plays a key role- trust. Trust the motivation behind the performance, and trust in your talent. There’s a reason why you made it to that stage in the first place.

It comes as a surprise to many people, but celebrities often get performance anxiety as well. Adele would get it so bad that she would throw up before or after performances, and Barbra Streisand even gave up performing live for 3 decades after forgetting her lyrics at a concert in Central Park in 1967. Everyone feels it at some degree or another, because it all has to do with the “not knowing”- the uncertainty of the future. Will I hit that high note? Will something go unexpectedly, terribly wrong? Will I start sweating? What will they think of me? Will they love me? Will they hate me? 

Personally, I’ve always loved the attention. Sometimes I wonder “why didn’t I go into acting?” It seems I love an audience. Or at least I used to when I was a kid. I remember listening to my uncle telling jokes, and his delivery was so good, that no matter whether the joke was funny or not, he would always get laughs. I tried to recreate his joke once, in front of a room full of other kids my age and thought that since he had been so successful telling that joke, then I would also be a hit. Well, the context was all wrong, and my delivery wasn’t as good, and by the time I got to the punch line, the part when I expected the room to erupt in laughter, all I heard instead was silence. It was mortifying. I never tried that again. If I could go back in time though, I would have advised myself against telling a Jesus/golfing joke in a room full of 11 year-olds. 

Before I attempted this stand-up comedy, though, I had never experienced that kind of embarrassment. Unfortunately, that memory became engrained in my mind like a mini trauma, and for a long time afterward, I would get anxiety if I was ever placed in a similar situation again. If you ever notice how long it takes for a celebrity to make a comeback after failing publicly, it’s because of this same kind of experience, but at a much larger scale. However, a fast recovery also has to do with mental discipline and a strong belief in oneself.

When Snowboard prodigy, Shaun White, suffered from a horrific crash during a 2018 training run in New Zealand, he recalls being terrified. He said, “It’s just like this visual flashing in my head of what happened. I know I can do the trick, but I knew I could do the trick when I crashed.”

Shaun White

Despite being afraid that what had happened to him in New Zealand could happen again, his desire to stand up on that Olympic podium once more, and reach for another gold medal was stronger. He adjusted his focus from that of fear of crashing to that of attaining his goal. If there was any remnant of fear still there, it probably was transferred from “what if?” to “what if I don’t even try?” The fear of not trying proved to be stronger. 

For singers, and people in the entertainment industry, recovery may be more difficult, as it was for Barbra Streisand, since performance can be deeply personal. Oftentimes, a singer is the only one on stage, and all eyes are on him or her. Nevertheless, whether one is competing in an Olympic arena, or performing on the stage before the games begin, the pressure of being watched and judged is there.

Eminem

Eminem’s song “Lose Yourself” depicts the performer’s anxiety so well. What if you have only that one chance, that one opportunity, and you blow it? The thing is, if you start thinking that way before a performance, you will most likely manifest it. The last half of “Lose Yourself” emphasizes Eminem’s internal struggle with himself. He knows he’s talented, he knows that success is his only option, and he is hungry to not only improve himself, but prove himself as well. His motivation for taking the chance in front of an audience overcame his fear of failure, and look at him now. He ends his song with: “You can do anything you set your mind to, man”. Fear, anxiety, confidence, it’s all a mindset. 

Ian Mellencamp, a musician, actor, and established model, is no stranger to the stage, and even grew up learning about stage life, just by being around his famous uncle, John Mellencamp. Despite being in the spotlight for so long, he says he still gets anxiety before any big performance. He recognizes though, the negative impact of giving in to that anxiety, and instead makes a conscious effort to let go and live in the moment: 

“For me, the ultimate goal is not only to avoid focusing on the anxiety or the material but to live within the present moment during a performance. This is when execution is intended, accurate, authentic, as well as unique, where real improvisation can happen. Therefore, the best performances are achieved this way.”

Ian Mellencamp
Ian Mellencamp

For refocusing or getting over the “stage fright”, Ian recommends preparation: “I’ve learned that the best way for me to combat anxiety is by being prepared. Visualization, meditation, and breath work are also great tools for combating anxiety and enhancing the preparation/performance processes. These tools help funnel the focus on the material and not on the potential negatives. I feel that being prepared and well-rehearsed is the number one confidence booster and anxiety reducer. Combine preparation with the other tools (visualization, meditation, breath work), have patience and persistence, and you will be on your way towards another level of performance.”

Right now, the world is united in its uncertainty about the future. We can either let that be a reason to feel despair and fear, or we can use that time to focus on the present moment, as Ian recommended. Now is the time to prepare, and work on ourselves. How can we use this time productively? When we return to a certain level of normalcy, we will see how people have transformed throughout this period: there may be those who become accustomed to life within their cocoons, but then there will also be those who will surprise everyone, and emerge as butterflies. Your decision!  

Sabrina Wirth
Sabrina Wirth

Sabrina Wirth is an artist, curator, writer, and storyteller. Her curiosity for people and different cultures has led her down various unusual, but fulfilling paths, such as exploring Iraqi Kurdistan, and working on a film about refugees in France. She believes in the power of creativity, and has learned that the best stories are the real-life, human ones.

For more info on Sabrina please visit: www.sabrinawirth.com