"What we learn in the time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise."
— Albert Camus, 1947
The story I'll share with you in this edition of the newsletter is more personal than most. But the lessons are universal.
A couple of weeks ago, I tested positive for Covid-19.
It was a complete surprise, since I haven't traveled since March when I returned from a client meeting in New York. Sure, I make occasional runs to the supermarket or the post office, but I don't linger, I maintain distance, and I always wear a mask.
I developed some symptoms of what I thought was a mild cold: congestion, aches, a bit of a cough, and a fever. But when I came in from a couple of hours outside mowing, I felt completely wiped out. Abnormally so.
So I went for a rapid test and a regular test. I was one of the first to arrive in the parking lot, securing a spot in front of the medical testing facility. They took my paperwork, swabbed me a couple of times, and I was on my way in 10 minutes. During that time though, the line of cars began to build up, until it rambled around the parking lot in a serpentine-like pattern.
By late morning, I had my diagnosis: positive. I had to ask the technician to repeat it because I didn't believe it.
Yes, positive. And I needed to quarantine for 10-14 days. The longer-form test confirmed this the following day.
At home, it's my wife and our three children; the two oldest (both boys) had also experienced some symptoms about a week prior to mine, so they all went off to get tested. Spoiler alert: the boys also tested positive; my wife and daughter tested negative.
Based on the timing, the boys were beyond contagion stage, so I was the one who needed to isolate for at least 10 days. We discussed the options, given the rooms each of us needed to use, and I set myself up.
Convalescence is drudgery, particularly when you're confined to a small space. You have a singular focus: to get better. You pass the time between fitful naps catching up on email, reading, watching, listening.
Thinking for a moment of my days spent in corporate environments, it was reminiscent a task force or committee that adjourns to the same conference room for every meeting, tasked with a tough assignment. In an almost Groundhog Day-like state, the team just goes through the same motions, in a seemingly unending replay of agendas.
My symptoms were mild; the fever abated, but the rest remained. It felt less like I was making progress on my health and more as if I was marking the days of penal servitude.
The isolation was the hardest part of this. I had very little interaction with anyone in the house, barring seeing them down the hallway as I headed to the bathroom. My wife would knock when she left my meals outside the door. It was like solitary confinement.
I've been fortunate that haven't suffered physically as much as some others. Right now, it's like a cold, but doesn't feel quite the same. It's hard to explain. Congestion, a slight cough, and feeling fatigued on random days for no reason.
Being alone gave me plenty of time to think (amid binging old episodes of "The West Wing," writing my newsletters, editing podcast episodes, and reading), and here are a few items I wanted to share:
Sometimes we have to make hard decisions.
I could have roamed free around the house, but I would have needlessly exposed family members to possible infection. So I took the solitary confinement route. As a society, we face some difficult decisions in the months ahead: giving up traveling to see family for Thanksgiving and Christmas may be among them.
This isn't a new concept; a letter from 640—as the Justinian plague was entering its eighth wave over 100 years—shows the efficacy of travel bans during outbreaks.
Life is fragile.
One moment, we're walking around fine, the next moment we can find ourselves afflicted with something we didn't know we were exposed to. And even the healthiest among us are susceptible. I was fortunate, but nearly 240,000 others in America weren't. Life is a gift.
Humans aren't designed to be alone.
While Friedrich Nietzsche may have believed that "The sick man is the parasite of society," the reality is we need each other to survive, in person or through whatever communications methods we have.
Whether we express this through the delivery of food (through a slot in a door, a friendly neighbor dropping off a casserole, or a DoorDash delivery) or checking in with each other via text, FaceTime, Zoom call, email or good old fashioned letters. Keeping in touch and constantly communicating is a human necessity.
The number of comments I got on the post where I shared my positive diagnosis were astounding. As in too many to keep up with. I'm still trying to get back to as many people as possible, but it's going to take a while. It was a powerful reminder that those connections we make and relationships we build need our attention.
How often do you keep up the relationships you have, both personal and professional? In his newsletter For The Interested, Josh Spector shared this wonderful formula for the four emails you should send every week.
Summed up, they are: to an old friend; to a potential mentor; to someone you used to work with; and a message of support.
Family matters more.
In the end, the people we love are the ones who'll see us back to health or help us ease our way from this mortal coil. Having them in our lives is the best thing we can do for our lives. From receiving little "good night" notes from my youngest, to the goofy memes I'd text back and forth with my sons, to my loving wife's constant checking in on me and bringing me anything I needed—including some really nice meals—my family was so supportive.
Having to wait improves decision making.
When you're laid up and you can't get things for yourself, you become very aware and deliberate about your choices. No more wandering aimlessly to the pantry or rummaging around the fridge for whatever. Part of it was that I didn't want to put my wife to too much trouble by bugging her too much, but also that I knew there were things I didn't "need" — things that I could do without.
How much to we consume or do simply because it's easy to do? If you're finding yourself mindlessly doomscrolling, it's because it's easy. That thumb swipe is simple yet powerful, bringing so much information, rich and mind-numbing, to your eyes.
You know what's harder to do? To make yourself get out of a chair and take a walk. To sit down with a book, for an hour or two, uninterrupted. To write a letter you've been meaning to send. To make a phone call to someone who would benefit from hearing from you.
Not everything needs your attention now. You aren't required to respond instantly. Take some time. Deliberate. Free your mind from the pressures of the immediate.
"In the arts of life, man invents nothing; but in the arts of death, he outdoes nature herself and produces by chemistry and machinery all the slaughter of plague, pestilence, and famine."
— George Bernard Shaw, 1905
Clearly my time alone meant I could contemplate these things and more. But I wouldn't recommend you going out and getting infected so you can have your own epiphany (see how hard I'm working for you?).
Was my situation unfortunate? Could I have lamented my bad luck and concentrated on the tortuous existence? Of course. But I also knew that there are others who are worse off: alone since March; tethered to a ventilator in an intensive care unit; unable to say a final goodbye to loved ones in person.
Life greets us with many twists and turns and we find ourselves in situations we didn’t cause and that we can’t control. The only thing we can control is how we react.
Our circumstances and the events around us are gifts. Gifts that we can turn down or gifts that we can accept with a grace, a full heart, and an open mind.
For it is through those that we find growth.
On Thursday, November 19 at noon EST, I'll be giving a live talk on Transformational Storytelling. This is a talk that big companies and events hire me to give, to help their teams understand some of the classic elements of stories and how to rethink the storytelling process.
Whether you work for a multinational conglomerate, a brand, or an agency, or you're a solopreneur—you can learn to communicate in a way that connects with audiences and inspires them to take action. It's all in the power of storytelling.
The cost to attend, including time for Q&A, is just $49. If you sign up as an annual paid subscriber to Timeless & Timely, you can attend for free. Just message me for the discount code.
If you become a subscriber, you'll get part 2 of this topic, including three timely links, three timeless stories, and a recommended book and podcast.
This originally appeared in the November 11 issue of the Timeless & Timely newsletter.