Floating in a Sea of Uncertainty: Finding a Lifeboat

As we all find ourselves 9 months into 2020, which is arguably the worst year in living memory for many people, we face daily ongoing challenges of completing our work, finding work, adapting our work, feeding our children, schooling our children, preserving our health, caring for loved ones, and trying to not let the daily stress piped in from every communication channel send us over the edge. There are many people who have had a stellar year and have become richer beyond anyone’s imagining as the multitude of crises have fed their business models. There are many people we have lost prematurely due to an uncontrolled viral plague who would have contributed so much had they lived. Amidst all of this, there are individuals dealing with everyday problems in the chaotic setting of 2020—cancer, mental illness, disability, disparities, financial burdens, etc. Personally, I have a dear friend who was on the brink of a complete mental breakdown in 2019 for who I now feel I am on suicide watch 24/7. Life is normally hard, but it has certainly been abnormally hard for the past 9 months. I do not wish to point fingers, place blame, use hindsight, or make astute observations that are of no value—what my sports colleagues call the Monday quarterback effect. What I do want to do is open up to anyone reading this with a few of the things I have done in the last 9 months that have provided comfort and reminded me that, “This too shall pass.”

Take a stroll down memory lane – When I was younger, I used to take a lot of photographs with an actual camera and film. I would probably pass out if I knew exactly how much money I have spent in my life on buying and developing film. My dad was also an amazing photographer and probably knew more about taking traditional photographs than I know about infectious disease. During a certain period (end of high school through the beginning of residency – about 10 years), I was always taking photos and had at least three cameras all the time: a polaroid, an SLR, and point-and-shoot. I was not a very good photographer overall and most people quickly got annoyed with my constant snapping. But I am a collector so every photo I took was placed in an album. In organizing my garage on a Saturday recently when I was looking for anything to do because there was nothing really to do socially outside of my home, I made the decision to reorganize all of my photos into boxes by year and/or event and get rid of the photo albums. I do not recommend that unless you have a lot of time on your hands. But what I do recommend, and I greatly enjoyed, was going through EVERY photograph in my collection. There is a small box from when I was young that were taken by others as well as high school. There is a small box from college. There are literally 12 boxes from medical school and 6 boxes of my family. What did that mean in reality? I was incredibly happy in medical school. I remember being unhappy in high school and college. I have only a handful of friends each from high school, college, and medical school that I am in contact with regularly so no bias in that regard. But I wanted to remember medical school to a much greater degree than I had college or high school. My family is similar as I love my family. Seeing pictures of my grand parents who have all passed and my little cousins before they became grandparents made me feel happy and nostalgic. You have got photos somewhere (and I don’t mean the loads of ridiculous selfies on your Facebook account). Go dig them out and flip through them. If you find some true gems, post them on your social media. Share your memories and you will naturally smile.

Learn something new – We are inundated with information constantly but most of it is not knowledge. Most of it is simply status—the current state of people around us, all of whom will be dead and dust one day. One of my favorite lines from “The Terminator” is, “Look at it this way… In a hundred years, who’s gonna care?” All the tweets, all the posts, all the photos are fleeting moments of fluff (and probably rot your brain—scientific studies to be complete). But knowledge is forever and is precious. Do you know how to refinish an old piece of furniture? Do you know how to grow any type of plant from a cutting? When is the next time we will see Saturn chasing Jupiter across the sky? What happens to stuff you put in a recycling bin? Where does the electricity you use in your home come from? Can you name all 80 unique cultures in Ethiopia? The internet is full of a lot of garbage, but it is also full of incredible sources of knowledge. Sometimes (most of the time) we are so tired of looking at a computer or a smartphone or a tablet if we are working remotely that the last thing we want to do is engage with it further. Libraries are open so you can always resort to dusty old books which are also full of knowledge. Online classes are available for many things. Although cliché, TED talks can be cool. If you are feeling overwhelmed by all of the negativity, opinions, and bandwidth that’s given to things no one will care about in 100 years, turn your attention towards something pure and lose yourself in the nonpolitical world of knowledge. An expert is someone who knows everything that is true about a subject as well as everything that is false. Pick a topic, preferably something that does not come up in your work and set a goal to become an expert in that topic. There will always be people who know more than you do on any topic—but not every topic—but the point is to gain knowledge, grow your brain, and appreciate the permanence of truth.

Mindfulness, it’s really NOT a fad – I wouldn’t dare try to completely address the topic of mindfulness in a short blog, but I will challenge you to investigate it for yourself. Where my last suggestion is one to fill your brain with new ideas, information, processes, and thoughts so you master something external to yourself, mindfulness is the exact opposite. Learning to “turn your brain off” is an amazing skill that does take practice but has enormous benefits. And it is not really turning your brain off but rather turning down the volume on all the negative thoughts you have and may not even know it. Negative thoughts—internal or external—do not control you! They are your thoughts and the most powerful thing you can do is control them. There are many books on this subject, but my favorite is, “Mindfulness: An Eight-week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World”. I will not lie to you. I read this book 5 years ago and have been practicing the techniques since then which did give me a leg up on the horror hurricane that is 2020. But it is never too late to reach inside yourself and find inner strength to deal with outer challenges. It is a bargain at less than $15 and will give you some amazing tools to use if you give it a chance. On a side note, if you are dealing with mental illness or you have a loved one who is dealing with mental illness, the most important first step is recognition, acceptance, and treatment. No one can be expected to defeat the external demons of the world when your internal demons have the chemical advantage. Recognize the signs and recognize the external amplifiers so you can be the hero for those who need you most during this time.

You’ve got to have friends – I remember in the not too distant past listening to “old people” say, “These darn kids need to stop playing video games and texting friends in the same room and get outside and play.” True? Yes. But now our reality has shifted to digital communications as the safest way to go to work, go to school, and see our friends. Zoom parties and the like have become extremely popular and I wrote about etiquette for these tools previously. But they are not the only way to communicate. Did you know that your smartphone is a phone? You can call and talk to people! All that paper junk mail that shows up in your snail mailbox is bidirectional. You can send people letters! This is all obvious and the vast majority if not all of you reading this have used some form of communication to talk to non-work people at least once in the last 24 hours. But do not take this for granted. There were people before our virally induced confinement that did not have large social networks or even limited ones. The isolation of our current situation is amplifying their loneliness. What am I asking you to do? You have a phone. You have social media. Dig through your contacts, find someone you have not talked to in a while, and reach out. Check on them. Check on your distant family members. Ask about them, how they are doing, and what is new in their life. Hearing their voice and laughing with them will make you smile on the inside and the outside.

Move – Your body. Daily.

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-Dan Milner, MD, MSc, spent 10 years at Harvard where he taught pathology, microbiology, and infectious disease. He began working in Africa in 1997 as a medical student and has built an international reputation as an expert in cerebral malaria. In his current role as Chief Medical officer of ASCP, he leads all PEPFAR activities as well as the Partners for Cancer Diagnosis and Treatment in Africa Initiative.

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