Lessons from Beirut to Boston
The COVID-19 pandemic is bringing us together and forcing us to live in the moment. While we’re experiencing hardship, we are also distilling our lives to the essence of what makes us human. Our physical space has shrunk, and yet our connectivity has intensified. We are collectively showing one of the best traits of being human, the determination to adapt and rise to the occasion.
Sebastian Junger wrote, “Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact, they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary.”
We, humans, are hardwired to come together in a crisis. This reality is currently manifesting itself, stronger, day after day. Rather than lingering in the dread of the unknown, we are all looking for ways to be necessary, jumping on the community bandwagon and overcoming our latest challenge.
Our society is showing signs of community resiliency and strengthened social ties. Despite the big unknown ahead, what gives us hope is our combined inner strength, compassion, and ability to unite as individuals, as professionals, and ultimately as a global society. Now more than ever, we are reminded that we are all interconnected. What our future holds is still very much up in the air, but I know that we are fulfilling our purpose of community. For me, in this time of sheltering in place, I recall my experience of confined living growing up in wartime Beirut. My experience taught me that in times of crisis, community is what gives us purpose. This is my story.
Growing up in Beirut during the war, my childhood was very different than any of my American friends and colleagues. We could only live the moment, as the future was uncertain with frequent school closings, rushing to shelters, and a daily worry about securing life’s daily needs: bread, water, electricity. I often believed that my childhood would have prepared me to face any situation. What could be worse than war? Today, as we face the uncertainty of the Coronavirus pandemic, these last few weeks seem, to me, familiar and, yet, simultaneously unknown.
In the absence of a playbook, we have all been struggling to understand what is happening. The social life we know is shutting down gradually. Physically moving us further away from one another and putting us to the test. Though the future after this pandemic is unknown and planning more than a few days ahead seems absurd, hope is what motivates us and fuels our resilience. This heightened sense of community reminds me of how I grew up in wartime Beirut.
During wartime, the physical world shrinks too, and social connections grow more intense. I recall those prized moments when our landline suddenly had a pulse, and we could call loved ones. I still cherish the quality time when we were able to leave our house to visit friends across the neighborhood because the shelling had momentarily ceased. Families that never rubbed shoulders came together to share meals and stories. Telling stories amongst the generations was one of the few things that people could do in candlelit shelters. The most courageous helped by checking on others’ homes between intermittent shelling. We experienced new humanity as mundane activities were transformed into social engagement, and unlikely places into social hubs – the water fountains, the bakery, and gas stations. Today, our discussions have become precious; new spaces are developing as places for intermittent socialization, and the way we communicate is no longer taken for granted. My escape to the dog park at lunchtime every day has become my only physical, social activity. Extending discussions outside of the home through video conferencing has become the ‘real” thing. Just like in wartime, we realize who are the people that matter most, and what exactly our daily needs are, buying less and traveling less.
Today, differently than during my childhood, technology is playing a crucial role in strengthening the bonds of community in new ways, both as individuals and professionals. Distance has lost its meaning. Video apps like Zoom, Go-To-Meeting, WhatsApp, Google Hangouts are keeping us equally in touch with nearby friends, family abroad, neighbors, and our professional networks. Being the only way to connect with anyone outside of home, we easily enter peoples’ homes like never before. I have gotten to know Diana’s cat, Sassy, who likes to walk in front of her camera. I’ve envied Adam’s cat, Lil, who sits on his window sill and stares off into the Maine woods. I get to see the yellow roses that adorn Diane’s desk by the washer/dryer. I am comforted that Nicolas’ rabbit sits on his shoulder during long workdays and encourages him to keep going. Our transition to the virtual platform has been easier than expected. Large and small offices relocated to people’s homes reducing commuting times to zero. DiMella Shaffer was one of the first architecture firms in the city to start working remotely. Working together as a family, our IT and Operations staff over a weekend laid out our new work infrastructure so we can continue delivering work as planned.
Not all workforces can have the possibility of working from home. I find myself thinking a lot about our friends in healthcare and senior care still commuting everyday and working long hours to save lives. They have been at the forefront working in stressful conditions since early February, when they started implementing safety measures in their communities. Their commitment to helping others espouses selflessness and community. We are unable to help them on the ground but we can lend a hand. We ask you to join our effort in sewing cloth face masks for use by staff members in culinary, management, cleaning, and maintenance in senior communities. This will leave the medical-grade masks for patients and direct-caregivers.
As difficult as this time is, it reinforces why I love my job. From my youngest days, my life has been about the importance of human interaction and being there for one another.