The question I hear most often right now is “What next?” I hear it from our neighbors wondering what the start of school will look like. I hear it from families whose children engage in sports activities. I hear it on the lips of local business owners, including my favorite coffee shop, struggling to remain afloat with to-go orders and reduced seating. Closer to home I hear it from my colleagues in the 2 Peachtree location wondering about the viability of our office space and conference rooms. I hear it from providers in our service delivery network, eager to serve as the safety net, but stretched to meet guidelines and demands. I know our hospitals are wondering “what next” as well. Will there be a time when the uncertainty stimulated by COVID-19 does not dominate our daily planning and decision-making?
I will say aloud what you already know: I don’t know what’s next. Like many of you, I absorb vast amounts of information. I read the predictions, reflections and strategic directions of respected individuals and organizations. I listen carefully to experts, and try and make sense of data that can inform our thinking. I remain especially concerned about the impact of social isolation on vulnerable individuals. While we are at times overwhelmed by the individuals seeking assistance for mental illness or substance use disorders, I am equally worried about those we aren’t hearing from. I am concerned about increases in crisis calls, but more disheartened about those not reaching out for help. It is heartbreaking to know that there are individuals with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, who have joined friends in daily group activity settings for years, are now going weeks and months without these important connections.
I am frustrated that I cannot answer the “what next” question left at our feet by this cruel and ever-changing pandemic. But I do know some things about how we are going to proceed, and how we are going emerge on the other side of this. We are going to deploy some of the most fundamental, life giving human qualities in every situation possible. We will be tested again and again, and we will rise to meet the myriad of challenges with these five gifts: Humility, compassion, respect, patience, and hope.
COVID-19 has certainly demonstrated it will stretch our understanding of disease and will surprise us in any way it chooses. We have advanced our knowledge and understanding for sure, but there is still much to be known. We will be humble in our desire to keep learning, and to remain open to unexpected findings. Our individual and collective humility actually strengthens our curiosity and enables us to listen, truly listen to others voices.
Compassion is the ability to step outside of our own frustration, grief, anger or anxiety to see the loss and struggle of another. In the moment where we feel the vulnerability of the other and seek to connect our human experience with theirs, we are both human and superhuman. There are times we can truly be of assistance and support others in tangible ways. Then there are other times when we can simply be the person who smiled, who did not look away, who listened. Even amidst our own moments of despair, we can be individuals of compassion to those around us. We can encourage family and friends to recognize signs of difficulty and to seek help.
Respect can be expressed in many ways across diverse situations, but it always involves honoring the dignity of the other, and behaving in a way that recognizes that dignity. We know there have been errors in the rush response to this pandemic and the budget devastation that followed. It is easy to judge, to scorn, to criticize. It is much harder to speak and listen with respect for the unprecedented, unfathomable decisions that have to be rendered each day by thoughtful leaders, medical professionals, elected officials, parents and others who have to make difficult choices. Respectful dialogue leads to progress. Disrespectful voices only deepen the divide.
Patience is perhaps the most tested virtue of these times. As we demand answers, demand action and seek to ensure that our voices are heard, whether that is amidst social unrest or in light of a disability, advocacy is a vital force for progress. We also recognize the exhaustion that many are experiencing through constant chaos. Practicing patience starts with oneself. It is okay to feel exhausted, angry or sad. These are normal reactions to abnormal times. Patience doesn’t erase the losses, but it does soften our reactions.
Of course, the final and most essential element of the human experience is hope: the belief that things can and will get better. It is the conviction that closed doors force open the windows of change. We have to believe that our optimism can launch us into unexpected improvements.
Two weeks ago , we celebrated the 30th anniversary of Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This was the landmark Supreme Court decision recognizing the rights of people with disabilities to have full access to integration into workplaces and communities. I draw hope from this celebration as it reminds us all that our limitations do not define us. Even when the path is unclear and the barriers seem insurmountable, our best virtues can prevail.
Hope is fuel for the engine of persistence. Hope encourages, comforts, and inspires, piercing the darkness with a glimmer of light. Today, I choose hope and wish the same for you.