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.

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. 

by Guila Clara Kessous

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. 

BIOGRAPHY OF AUTHOR

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.

Replace Fear With Curiosity – A Shadow Story

Tips on Business & Creativity During the Lockdown by Our Artistic Director Daniela Pavan

Stay Home. Save Lives. This is the mantra of the moment. And it’s a very good one to have in mind to overcome the current situation that we are going through. These weeks, we are all supposed to be in quarantine, and for sure we are all wondering how long this will last, how can we overcome the current difficulties that we are facing, and what kind of future is awaiting us.

Being quarantined may bring a lot of anxiety and for sure it is a very unusual situation to go through. However, as Steven Spielberg once said, let’s “replace fear with curiosity”. Let’s use this time that we have now to learn new skills and prepare ourselves for all the opportunities that will be available after the Corona Virus emergency. Dancer Twyla Tharp said that “creativity is not just for artists,” and I couldn’t agree more. Also, she stated that creativity, “it’s for business people looking for a new way to close a sale; it’s for engineers trying to solve a problem; it’s for parents who want their children to see the world in more than one way.”

Creativity

Isolation and quarantine are great opportunities to prioritize our well-being, but also to invest time and energy to become more productive. Let me give you some illustrious examples. William Shakespeare wrote King Lear during quarantine, and Isaac Newton produced some of his best work while in quarantine, writing the papers that would become his early calculus and developing his theories on optics while playing with prisms in his bedroom. Also, Florentine writer Giovanni Boccaccio got very productive during his 1348 plague’s quarantine. During that time he wrote The Decameron, a collection of novellas framed as stories that a group of friends tell to each other while locked-down inside a villa. Doesn’t it look like what we are living today? Interesting right?

John William Waterhouse
A Tale from the Decameron (1916) by John William Waterhouse.

They say that “innovation takes time”. How often have we heard this sentence? People need time to think, research, and test ideas. Time to collaborate with others to assess ideas. We need time to get creative. Now we do have that precious resource that we always wanted… we have time! Be creative! Don’t waste it. Being in quarantine is not being on vacation, actually, it means that we are all socially responsible for the future of our community, therefore we should invest this time in learning and improving our skillset to become a better version of ourselves. Instead of being stressed, unproductive and unable to think properly, let’s take a step back, get clear and make a plan so that you can still have a profitable year in your business, despite what we are all experiencing at the moment. Maybe there’s a gift in all of this craziness. Maybe your business or your projects could be even more aligned with your soul’s purpose.

Let’s take a step back and think about how we can use this time wisely. Let’s think about a long-term view of the year rather than panicking. Design Geek & Insta Teacher  Kat Coroy shares an interesting perspective.

She says: “If you are an artist for example and your exhibition just got canceled, rather than being upset, use this time to create really amazing pieces without distractions and, later in the year, you can have an even bigger exhibition which can bring you even more money than having an exhibition now. If you are a jewelry designer, think about a new collection that you can design now and that can be sold later in the year as a back to work style or holiday season gifts. If you are a personal trainer, learn new skills… let’s say learn how to make videos and share your classes on social media and your website. Later in the year, this can be a huge push for your business. This is a time where we can really think about what we really want to achieve and build a plan to get there. Stress and panic are not good friends of thinking clearly. So, take a break from anxiety, and focus on who you are and what your real purpose is.”

Maybe you find out that you want to help to fundraise the research against Corona Virus, or share your knowledge with people. Use your time wisely, you can do this.

So, how can we work on our creativity at the time of Corona Virus?

First of all, creativity is about discovering your own ways to work, your unique practice, and from there growing your confidence. It’s about gathering inspiration from others and learning to recognize the real and true value of what you do. Some of you guys may feel intimidated by creativity or, instead, feel that you have a huge creative spark. Anyhow, let’s explore it together. We may find out that some of the new skills or some of the ideas we develop during this time in quarantine, may be useful in the following months. For example, let’s try to experiment on how to see beyond the obvious. In a book entitled Conscious Creativity that I have recently reopened, there are a lot of interesting exercises that can help unlock our creative potential. One of them is about working with shadows. 

Conscious Creativity

The concept of shadows can be frightening because related to the concept of the unknown. However, shadows are part of our lives. A quote from the book says “as silence proves the sound, and pausing proves the act, it is always darkness that proves the light.” Shadows can transform a dark corner into a piece of poetic atmosphere, and they can also help us see beyond the obvious. By learning how to investigate shadows we can help us work with contrasts, not just artistically speaking but in life as well. And considering the times we live in this can be something we can all work on. The contrasts can make us see the beauty in the shadows.

So, the exercise I would like to suggest today starts with us “thinking about what shadows evoke: new forms? A sense of calmness? A transformation of light?”

A SHADOW STORY

Now let’s create a shadow story. Yes, you read that right, a shadow story. We are storytellers, so let’s roll up our sleeves and build our story.

Shadow

Here is how it works. Collect a series of let’s say 6 images of shadows, to create a visual story that narrates a journey, even if it’s a journey only you can understand. Be led by what you see rather than having a pre-prepared idea and let the narrative be whatever it wants, abstract or linear. The goal is to get you to engage with the shadows and embrace them as creative tools. Taking pictures with your phone is a great way to capture shadows and all their details. It’s not an exercise of perfection, but it is instead a storytelling and narration approach. You may wonder, I am stuck in my house, how can I do it? 

The answer is to use the space that surrounds you to get inspired. Start observing it. You may notice details you were not even aware of. Observing the contrasts of light and shade near windows and doors is always a great place to begin. Also, look for how colors can add value to your story, combined with shadows in different ways.

Then if you like the idea, share your story with us on IG, tagging @creativepois_on with the hashtag #shadowstory. Looking forward to seeing your stories! =)

Here is my shadow story:

Ready, Set, Imagine!

Daniela Pavan.