Opinion - April 28, 2020

What can crises be used for?

Written by Bertrand Piccard 10 min read

In the incredible situation that the coronavirus makes us all go through, I would like to offer you a summary of the chapter that I had devoted to crisis management in my book "Changer d’Altitude, quelques solutions pour mieux vivre sa vie". 

A way of asking ourselves, when our universe changes, what are the new resources that the crisis forces us to develop. And for that, I suggest that you ask yourself these five fundamental questions, one after the other, and answer them, if possible in writing, once you have finished reading this article:

  1. At what altitude was I previously and in which direction was I pushed?

  2. Where am I now and what is my direction? What am I suffering from?

  3. In which direction would I like my life to take me? Or maybe, but the question is a little more difficult, in which direction should life take me? What are the different possibilities?

  4. What altitude should I reach for this? In other words, what are the tools, the resources, that I do not yet have at my disposal and that I should acquire thanks to this crisis so that my life can take a better direction?

  5. What ballast should I drop? What habits, beliefs or perceptions should I get rid of?

The answers to these questions will show us what this situation can teach us, and what we need to evolve, in our relation with ourselves and with others. We will thus be able to identify the capacities that we lack, and the crisis will become the trigger to acquire them.

A little stress is beneficial

We all build the best possible balance in our existence through the search for landmarks, the acquisition of convictions, the establishment of habits. It allows us to stand up, to live daily and to function within the limits of the security barriers that we have built. It all happened gradually, naturally, and we have no reason to suspect that there are other ways of living and thinking.

What will happen now if an unforeseen event attacks the system? Will everything fall apart? The system, yes, but us not necessarily. At first, we may even function better, thanks to a flash of consciousness, a flash of lucidity. Suddenly drawn from the lethargy in which we doze, we suddenly find ourselves with all our senses on alert, all our defenses ready to fight. The awareness of ourselves and our inner resources is stimulated, as is our performance. All the studies show that a little stress makes us more effective.

What will happen next if the moment of rupture exceeds in intensity or duration what we are able to bear?

Too much stress can make us tip over

After the moment of consciousness, we find ourselves facing emptiness, without a landmark. There will be a decrease, even a collapse of our capacity to react, a collapse of our performance. We have passed the stage of rupture to enter fully into the crisis itself. The crisis overflows our defenses, pushes us out of our habits and initially cuts us off from our internal resources. Solutions exist at another level, but we do not yet have access to them. Most of the time, by the way, we don't even look for them, because our goal will be less to change the situation than to fight it. We have lost what we hold dear and are obsessed with this loss. We suffer and want to oppose this suffering at all costs.

How far will the descent go? Until we find a new point of equilibrium.

Three fundamentally different alternatives:

  1. Stay there.

  2. Finding the previously lost balance.

  3. Gain competence to go back higher than before the crisis.


Being stuck in the crisis 

In fact, the crisis only really exists as long as we resist it. And it will last as long as we hold on to the landmarks we have lost.

We fight to find what we love, to avoid breakup. We cannot accept that a new deal imposes itself on us for the rest of our lives. Recovering what life has taken from us, our work, our health, our habits, our dream ... We refuse to continue living differently. We want to go back in the course of this unforgiving time which forces us to change, to modify our existence.

I have always been struck by these patients who come to my consultation saying, “My life is changing but I don't want to change; I lost what I loved, help me find it, to come back to what I had before! ”. In most cases, this is impossible. The patient then suffers all the more because he clings to what he does not want to let go of, to his fear of the unknown, to his refusal of a different life.

The therapeutic work consists in supporting the patient in a progressive opening to a capacity for change, for questioning; it is up to the latter to discover, over the sessions, that his whole life can be perceived as a great adventure, whose crises and misfortunes, as much as hopes and successes, force us irreversibly to accept another relationship with the unknown. It is our only way to evolve, provided of course that we believe that human beings are worthy of evolution. If we consider that man comes from nothing, that he is going nowhere and that life only serves to endure as best he can the years that separate a useless birth from an inexplicable death, then what I write here makes no sense.

Our resistance to change is all the more understandable than the previous balance fulfilled us, but we must realize that it is the attitude of refusal that reinforces our suffering. This compulsion to go back is contrary to the course of things. It is simply impossible.

To fight ?

There are obvious situations where we have to fight to survive. We have to protect ourselves and our family. Fatalism is out of place. If we can change what can be changed, let’s not hesitate to do so, but to progress, not to maintain the status quo.

And let us ask ourselves anyway if this is how we will be the happiest ... Because very often it is not so clear. We are too inclined to fight to find a similar past rather than to build a better future.

Find a higher balance

After the collapse phase, let’s take a look at the paradigms that underlay the lost situation. Our links with this situation; the place it had in our lives; the importance we give it and why; the social meaning of this loss, what will be said about it; what we said to ourselves when we heard the news and the underlying emotion.

In any crisis, it is important to be aware of what we are holding onto. 

Once we understand this, let's analyze what the break has unbalanced or caused

At this point, let's realize that there are multiple options in front of us, multiple ways of reacting and seeing the future. If we perceive only one, we will feel trapped in the situation rather than free to react.

In a fourth step, now, let's tackle reconstruction. Let’s identify the skill that we didn’t have before and which will enable us to go back higher than before the crisis, to gain in performance, confidence or serenity.

Aim for the search of this new tool, this new resource, as the goal to achieve. You will no longer find yourself drifting, but at work building something new. You then leave the role of victim to become an actor in reconstruction. The etymology of the word "crisis" encourages us in this sense. Among the ancient Greeks, the word "krisein" signified the decision. Isn't it comforting to understand the crisis as a decision to make rather than a long lament?

The essential exercise for this is to visualize yourself as someone different who has acquired a new quality, a skill, another relational mode, a faculty, which creates in itself a positive feeling and allows you to see the future with confidence. 

Above all, do not visualize anything old, past, lost, but something new; something we don't have yet but that we can work to acquire. Managing the crisis will consist in actively developing or obtaining this new quality, which will prevent us from suffering passively.

The main thing is to tell ourselves:

"If I am in this situation, it is that I was missing something, and I will get it to work better now than before this crisis."

A crisis can unlock blocked situations

What is the purpose of this work on oneself? Obtain a new state which would not have been possible without the moment of rupture. In summary, a crisis can unlock blocked situations. It puts the complacent or simply tired walker in motion, forces him to move forward on the path of his evolution, to glimpse other dimensions of existence, to change altitude and to let go of the ballast.

The routine puts us to sleep, the crisis wakes up and energizes.

Have you noticed how habits become impossible to change once they have become more rigid in our social, relational, professional and conjugal life? How can we change anything without being forced into it by a crisis? Even in the small details of everyday life.

Breakups and crises become unique opportunities where we will be able to change something in our life, in our relational habits, in our vision of the world and of life. They introduce an imbalance that allows you to move forward, as in running. The walk is stable, but the race is a fall forward that you learn to catch up to move faster.

In this sense, taking advantage of each crisis to question yourself is the best way to avoid bigger ones. It's the same with earthquakes. The regions in which there are the most microseisms are those where there are the least large earthquakes. It is when the tectonic plates do not slide freely on top of each other that they build up tension and the risk of disaster is greatest. 

So you will go with the crisis, to transform yourself. There will be a clear objective to which to direct your energy: acquire the missing tool which will allow you to function better! Discover the opportunity offered by the new situation that the past did not allow.

Sometimes it seems like the best gifts in life are given to us in such awful packaging that we don't want to open them at first. Crisis management consists precisely in unraveling these horrible tricks to discover what the package contains. Sometimes there are great rewards, sometimes also drama and suffering, for which we will then have to look for solutions.

At first glance, we think of a disaster more than an opportunity ... Our first reaction, the one that will keep us in pain, will be to rewrite its origin, rather than to see what we can do with it.

If in spite of everything we agree to open the package, we will replace the nagging but useless question of a cause with the search for meaning. It’s as if we suddenly stop kneeling in front of a plant, studying its root, to stand up to discover the type of flower that will bloom.

All of this is of course for each of us individually, but I think the same could be said for social, political or humanitarian crises. There are also lessons to be learned for communities, societies, governments.

As for the great dramas in history, they also show how opportunities arise. Think of the situation in Tibet. Never Buddhism would have experienced such a development, never its spiritual values would not have been shared by so many followers in the West, if the Dalai Lama had not started to travel the world to draw attention to the destiny of his country.

Globally, today is about finding new solutions, putting in place new rules to get out of our society of waste, pollution, globalization and inequality. After years of relocating the production of basic necessities for short-term gain, creating so many interdependences that a tiny virus could spread like wildfire and shatter our economies in a matter of weeks. Could we get out of this crisis with more respect, sense of measure, reason, and long-term vision?

Accept suffering?

However, there are also crises that have no reason, no explanation and that all the resources of the world would not have been able to avoid. Some accidents due to fatality, the death of a loved one, a genetic disease ... But that does not mean that we cannot learn from it. The desperate attempt to return to the original equilibrium, when this is not possible, is the strategy that will make us suffer the most. Despite this, it is the one we tend to resort to almost systematically. The fear of suffering will make us suffer even more. The rejection of an irreparable situation will direct our energy towards an unattainable goal and will reinforce our despair. This is what happens in pathological mourning, reactive depressions, where a rupture in our way of life generates a personal collapse. Sadness is normal, depression is pathological. Suffering is inherent in existence, fear and rejection of this suffering amplify it. 

It is essential to accept suffering when you cannot avoid it. What is worse than suffering? The fear of suffering. Go through the pain rather than wade through it, drown in it. What we stop fighting or resisting will always take up less space in our lives than the opposite. This is why the most important resource to develop in these cases is acceptance. The acceptance that the situation is irreversible, irremediable, is a tool that opens the doors to the future, while rumination locks us in the past.

Situations that we cannot change have the power to make us change. This is why major crises should be able to lead to a change in philosophical or spiritual altitude.

Let us therefore accompany suffering by giving it the place it requires. This is the only way to decrease it. I would add: let's accompany it... But in the present moment. It is indeed necessary to avoid at all costs a projection of this present suffering in the future where it would risk crystallizing, becoming permanent. If the present hurts, the future should not be associated with this pain. The Chinese say it well:

You can't prevent doom birds from flying, but you can prevent them from nesting in your hair.

It is said that it is necessary to "leave time set its course" to heal the wounds, that over time the intensity of the memories will diminish, but this is not enough. This will certainly restore a level of balance comparable to the previous one, even if the elements are different. But what will the area (z) of the diagram separating the break from the new equilibrium be called? Useless suffering! Useless because we find ourselves at the same level as before without having progressed.

So let's at least try to make our suffering useful, forcing us to change altitude for the rest of our lives.

The question of the meaning of our life and the values we want to privilege can then arise. This will force us out of our habits, to see something other than what we have always known, to throw away our crutches and to take off our blinders. If an elusive fatality brings us to this awareness, it will already have brought us something other than unnecessary suffering.

Written by Bertrand Piccard on April 28, 2020

Do you like this article? Share it with your friends!