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Putting things in boxes 

Eric Russell writes that acknowledging and then acting on our abilities and limitations in an immediate space around us, ie our ‘box’, can help us to cope with the overwhelming distress of the coronavirus pandemic.


I’m not sure what else to call it. You know, that feeling you get when you turn on any news outlet in the world today. Continuously, the announcer reminds you of the number of cases or how many died today. They let you know that the system is overrun and protective equipment and ventilators are sparse and disappearing by the second. Even the advertisers don’t give you a break. Your email and social media feeds are bogged down with messages from every organisation or agency you have ever dealt with reminding you that there is this invisible predator lurking and how they are dealing with it.

This type of overstimulating stress can leave us feeling helpless; it excessively exposes vulnerabilities and creates the sensation of being powerless. Immersed in the news feed, it is soon made clear that it cannot be controlled and this makes us shiver at the enormity of the pandemic. However, what if we were to stop looking at it as a whole. It is true, as individuals, we cannot control the Covid-19 virus nor its impact on the global population; yet, there are things we can control, actions we can take and yes, things that we can accept that will allow one to take back power, find a purpose and reduce stress. It begins with knowing that you can only control your ‘box’.

To understand this, we need to converge the philosophy of stoicism with emergency operations. The box is the space that you have the ability to respond to and deal with. It begins with a consciousness of time and place, an awareness of both abilities and limitations, understanding what you can do, what you cannot do and accepting what is simply out of your control. It involves seeing the problem for what it is, realising what you can do in the situation and acting on what you have power over. 

To bring this to light, let’s look at a fire engine with four personnel arriving on the scene of a single-family residential structure fire. Upon arrival, the fire officer reports that the crew has a working fire located in what appears to be a second-floor bedroom and that the family is outside. He confirms that they are all accounted for. The officer then requests back-up to respond. He performs a rapid 360-degree size-up of the structure, gives the order for the crew to advance a hose-line and set up a positive pressure fan, spray a short burst of water through the exterior bedroom window to knock the fire down, enter the home, make his way up the stairs, and extinguish the fire. The fire officer knows that there aren’t enough personnel on scene to advance ladders, set up exposure lines between adjacent houses or perform roof ventilation. The officer is also cognisant that he will be working with the crew and not commanding from outside of the structure. The only thing that officer can do is keep the fire from spreading from the bedroom to another part of the house. In this scenario, the row of houses, the house that is on fire, and the bedroom itself are all boxes. The officer understands the limitations; however, the officer is also fully aware of what can be done and identifies which box the team can control. 

For those of us who are feeling despair because of coronavirus, we need to take a moment to identify our box. For most of us it will be home and family. Then we must become aware of what we can control such as healthy meals, entertainment, hygiene, exercise, attitude, gratefulness or learning. We must then try to work daily to cultivate that box and get it under control. It might be that the box can then be extended to a neighbour that is homebound and needs groceries, perhaps.

Now we’re making a difference, contributing what we can, controlling what we can. The box becomes purpose and when we have purpose, despair be damned. 


Dr Eric J Russell, 01/01/2016
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