To Lonnie Dupre, the Grand Marais-based Arctic explorer and mountaineer, enduring a pandemic is a little like trekking to the North Pole, something he’s done twice.
The trip involves traversing the Arctic Ocean, which is roughly 1½ times the size of the United States and frozen into a jumble of pack ice. Temperatures hover around 50 below, you’re dragging a 200-pound sled behind your skis and the treacherous ice mass is moving, so with every step forward, you’re slowly drifting back.
With our coronavirus “journey,” Dupre said, there’s no way to know how much longer it will last: “Is it a two-month expedition, or a three-year expedition?”
The pandemic has upended the world’s daily rhythms and sense of security. It has killed half a million people and ravaged the global economy.
All the while, Americans have continued to underestimate this invisible, unforgiving foe. We have repeatedly clung to false hope. Summer’s heat and humidity would kill the virus, wouldn’t they? Surely schools would fully reopen in the fall, right? We endured the hardships of sheltering in place — the canceled celebrations, vacations and camps — in hopes of emerging a couple of months later COVID-free.
Instead, the country’s case count is skyrocketing. Any return to normalcy sits well beyond the horizon. It’s like we’ve run 25 miles of a marathon … and somebody just moved the finish line.
With the race far from over, reframing our perspective can help, say psychologists who study resilience. As can the experiences of people who have endured hardship.
Dupre suggests thinking like an arctic explorer: not too far ahead.
“We’re not going to be looking at the finish line,” he said. “We’re just going to be out here doing what we do. … One step at a time, one day at a time.”
Learning to rebound
Decades of research have shown that the ability to rebound from adversity — resilience — is largely rooted in feeling loved as a child and having developed secure attachments to nurturing, consistent caregivers.
But other characteristics of resilience — adopting an optimistic, flexible attitude or cultivating close personal relationships, for example — can be developed.
To persevere during the pandemic, University of Minnesota Prof. Patricia Frazier suggests we reframe the situation and remind ourselves that this is a rare, historic moment: Our country hasn’t experienced a collective adversity of this scale since at least 9/11, and arguably, the Second World War.
“You can view any situation in a number of different lights, and some will make you feel worse than others,” said Frazier, who studies the psychological effect of adverse events, as well as coping strategies.
Ann Masten, a University of Minnesota professor who has been researching resilience since the 1970s, suggests focusing on what you can control and practicing “active coping.” That includes “capturing the pleasure of everyday life” within current constraints, perhaps by cooking a new recipe, or engaging in a ritual or celebration, as well as making future plans.
“There’s a general feeling of being overwhelmed by something out of our control, so I think it’s important to counter that on a daily basis,” she said.
Striking a balance of being hopeful yet realistic about the pandemic is another way to protect our mental health, said Emily Esfahani Smith, the D.C.-based author of “The Power of Meaning: Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed with Happiness.”
Having a sense of meaning in life — connecting with and contributing to something beyond yourself, such as family, or God, or a body of work — is a major factor in bouncing back from adversity, Esfahani Smith said. This “scaffolding” for one’s experience might be something maintained through a tragedy, or a new sense of meaning found in a hardship endured.
“There’s a form of well-being available to us, even when life is hard,” she said. “This idea that we can find meaning in tragedy and hardship is really grounding. It gives hope.”
Embracing a mission
Being a prisoner of war, as Duluth native David Wheat experienced in Vietnam, is among the most extreme tests of enduring hardship. Though he didn’t know it at the time, Wheat did all the right things to cultivate resilience in the 7 ½ years he spent at the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” prison, mostly confined to a windowless, 8-by-8 cell with a concrete slab for a bed and a bucket for a toilet.
To survive, Wheat focused on what he could control. He exercised and perfected his handstand. He spent hours observing a parade of ants, or a skittering gecko, or a sliver of a sunbeam slowly traveling the room. He replayed experiences from his childhood. “Thank heavens you got a lot of good memories of the old days,” he said.
He also developed camaraderie with other prisoners by tapping coded messages through the cell walls. Thinking about the future helped, too, even if it was just tracking his accumulating paychecks. And loyalty to his fellow soldiers gave him a sense of mission.
After enjoying decades of freedom, Wheat, now 80, says he’s grateful to wake up each day to a view of Lake Superior, worlds away from that concrete cell. “Since then, life has been very good,” he said.
Dupre has had many successful adventures, including a 6,500-mile kayak and dog sled trip, circumnavigating Greenland. But his ability to persist despite setbacks is perhaps even more inspiring.
Three years in a row, he attempted a solo summit of Alaska’s Mount Denali in winter, a feat only a handful of climbers have achieved. Each time, he was forced to turn around within striking distance of North America’s highest peak. On his fourth try, after weeks of climbing alone, Dupre made it to the top.
Modern Americans’ coddled existence, compared to many others around the world, Dupre said, predisposes us to be complacent and impatient.
But he said we must navigate the dangers of coronavirus by being as meticulous with our social-distancing, mask-wearing, and hand-washing as mountaineers are when securing their footing with each step.
“A few months or a year or even two years is a small segment of our entire life, so it’s good to be careful so you have the rest of your life down the road to pursue your dreams,” he said.