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Finding Meaning Amidst the Coronavirus Panic

March 15, 2020 | by Bob Diener

Instead of panicking, let’s work on appreciating everything we have and focus on assessing and improving our lives.

As 2020 began, the world was on track for solid growth, the major stock indexes were rising to new highs and international travel was booming. In early March all that changed. The coronavirus that was mainly afflicting China began rapidly expanding to countries across the world, including the US. Within a few days, almost every large event worldwide was cancelled. The stock market dropped over 20% into bear territory. Cruise lines, airlines, hotels and other travel providers saw massive cancellations.

Almost every company in almost every industry is impacted. Italy grounded millions of its citizens and Israel started requiring a 14-day quarantine of every traveler into Israel which essentially closed its borders to the world. The US has closed its borders to most European countries. Most of us are watching our retirement plans and assets plummet in value and our businesses slowing down significantly.

How could so much wealth evaporate in such a short period of time? How can so many people be grounded?

For the last 12 months, I was planning my son’s Bar Mitzvah trip to Israel during Passover. We had many friends and family joining us and planned an extensive week of activities highlighted with the Bar Mitzvah service and Passover Seder. We worked so hard to make this the trip of a lifetime for our family and friends.

It was with great disappointment that we had to cancel the trip when the Israeli government announced a 14-day quarantine for all visitors into Israel. Who would have ever believed that Israel would have to take such drastic steps to protect its citizens from the coronavirus and cut itself off from much of the world? Who would have believed that with all the advancements in medicine such a disease can grow and multiply and be so difficult for us to find a solution for?

We will shortly be sitting at our Passover tables reading the story of the 10 plagues. Pharaoh and the Egyptians assumed they could copy any magic trick that Moses would show them. They didn’t believe there was a God of the Jews causing the ten plagues. They also didn’t wake up or learn any lessons from the plagues. As soon as the plague was lifted, they broke their promise to let the Jews go free. No repentance, no change of heart, no change of behavior.

What is our response to the coronavirus going to be?

My Travel Business

I’ve been in the travel business for over 30 years and have been through a lot of difficult times. One of the greatest freedoms we have is the ability to travel to so many great destinations worldwide. We go online and book airlines, hotel rooms, cars and more. We take this for granted and just assume we can go where we want to go and when we want to go. The disruption to travel is not just an inconvenience – it's contrary to our basic assumption that we can just pick up and go. It shakes the very foundation of the open and free society that we live in.

Free countries like Italy and Israel shutting their borders and the US stopping travel from Europe was unthinkable a few days ago, yet it is here. The NBA suspended its season, movie theaters are empty, conferences are cancelled – all this was unthinkable a few days ago. We worry about lost baggage, flight delays, late arrivals. Who worried about entire countries closing their borders or group travel coming to a screeching halt? While I’m confident there will be a large rebound in travel and financial markets when this crisis is over as there has been with prior crises, this is the time to reflect on what happened and make positive changes in our lives.

What Happened?

In legalese, we call this a force majeure event, meaning superior force or act of God that is beyond our control. As I sit back and think about what is going on, I realize that the solid ground we walk on is an illusion. If there is an omnipotent superior force who created the ground we walk on and gives us life, health and wealth, why can’t He take it away and test us?

We think we are in control and in charge, but this is an illusion.

When you realize where your success and wealth came from, you're not as shocked when it's taken away: “You shall remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth" (Deuteronomy 8:18). And similarly, “God gives, God takes” (Job 1:21).

We've had so many years of continued prosperity and success; how many of us have been thankful for this? When we are blessed with wealth, we are a steward to do good things in this world. We need to make sure that we leave this world in a better place than when we arrived. Are we doing this?

We think we are in control and in charge, but this is an illusion. There are higher forces that are beyond our control. If you live with this perspective and heed to the periodic wake up calls, you live a much calmer and less stressful life, and you see this as an opportunity to put your life in perspective. Did you wake up today? Are you growing and making changes to your life?

Instead of panicking about the coronavirus, let’s take this time to be appreciative of everything we have and focus on how we can better advance our life's mission. We work so hard our whole lives for wealth, place such importance on it, and we assume it will always be there. But it can be taken away anytime. And when it is taken away, what do we have left? What is truly important in our life?

Yes, it's nice to have possessions and have the funds to take vacations and buy what we want. There is nothing wrong with acquiring wealth as long as we did it ethically and use this wealth to improve the world around us. Now is the time to think about whether we are making best use of the talents and assets we have.

When we realize we have a purpose and a mission in life, we realize that wealth is just one tool we have been given to fulfill that unique mission. We feel inner happiness that comes through living our lives with meaning. When we realize our purpose in life, we also realize that the tools we have to get there are loaned to us and can be taken away anytime. Sometimes we need to be woken up and reminded that we were given tools for a purpose. Until they are taken away, we don’t appreciate them and ask if we are using them for the purpose intended.

Since my family and I will be working and studying from home over the next few weeks, we plan to reflect on a great quote from Ethics of the Fathers: “Who is rich? One who is happy with his lot.” We plan to take this opportunity to adjust our lives so we are content with what we have even if part of our wealth and freedom are taken away. When this pandemic is past us, we hope to have a more meaningful life because of the adjustments we make now.


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