The Unexpected Gifts of COVID to OT

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It was September 1998. In one of my first classes as an OT student we were asked, “What is the value of occupation?” A nervous and uncomfortable silence followed. I piped up “Are you asking, ‘How is doing stuff good for you?’” which brought a few giggles and a bit of clarity. Now we could get to work, to begin learning the role of occupation (anything that occupies your time) in rehabilitation and in daily living.

This year, COVID has unexpectedly gifted OT with a global experiment in occupational deprivation. What happens when people’s occupations are altered, restricted, or prohibited? How does this impact the body, mind, and spirit?

In today’s modern world, people seem busier than ever. Productivity and efficiency are the priority –get as much done as quickly as possible. The world is changing quickly –best keep up or you will be left behind in the race of life. Then COVID lockdown came along and pressed the PAUSE button, giving us the priceless gift of more time. Less commuting, fewer places to go, no more parties to attend/host. Time to stay home, without as many external distractions, inviting an opportunity to go within and reflect mindfully on our lives.

Because of COVID, both the joys and sorrows of our lives are now brought to the surface. In some circumstances, we are filled with gratitude. Gratitude for a single unobstructed breath, right now. Gratitude for the ventilator that is giving breath to someone else, right now. Gratitude for government and institutions providing financial relief. Gratitude for essential workers who cannot work from the safety of home. Gratitude for people and loved ones in your life, providing charming entertainment and companionship during lockdown.  Gratitude that you are not alone.  Gratitude for every relationship, no matter how casual. Waving to a stranger who calls out “Thank you” for moving aside to allow for social distancing on the sidewalk — COVID has united us. Our masked faces have awakened a deeper appreciation for the human eyes, the subtle expressions and energy they radiate. Looking into people’s eyes, as the rest of their faces are covered, perhaps truly seeing people for the first time. I recently received a holiday photo of a family that I had only ever seen with masks on. What a gift it was to see their whole faces and how much happiness it brought me! Gratitude that, despite the world being in chaos, Spring still arrived, with its warm sun and new growth and beginnings. Faith was restored that life, will indeed, go on.

COVID has also brought much sorrow. Even the most balanced and emotionally secure people are now living with anxiety, the invisible threat of COVID touching their daily lives. We are forced to contemplate death and dying, a natural fear that is universal. Our lives could be shorter than we had expected. How we choose to spend this moment, right now, will never be given to us again. Our mental capacities are stretched to grapple with big questions: “Why is this happening? Will I/we be ok? Will things ever be the same again? Why do I stay in this lifeless job? Why do I stay in this unhealthy relationship?” Our emotional capacities are taxed as we tackle the anxiety, depression, and grief that accompany loss. Some of us have been brought to our knees in utter devastation. We see how vulnerable we are.

What arises from such suffering is compassion. Compassion and care for each other. Compassion for our most vulnerable citizens. Compassion for anyone who is struggling physically, mentally, emotionally, or spiritually. Compassion for anyone who is isolated, who lost their job, whose happy plans were interrupted, who had to put aside their dreams. Compassion for the person who was so desperate that s/he had to steal my car out of my driveway as I slept! Once I recovered from the shock of this, I remembered what my psychology professor taught me, that “desperate people do desperate things.” Clearly, that person needed my car more than I did. We are all connected in a myriad of ways.

So, what is the value of occupation? How is “doing stuff” good for your body, mind, and spirit? Perhaps self-care activities maintain your physical health and provide your mind with stability and comfort in the sameness of routines. Perhaps productivity activities provide you the financial means to care for yourself and your loved ones, and stimulate your mind, among other things. What about the occupational category that is often overlooked in importance: leisure? What makes you feel good inside? What would you choose to do if you had an extra hour each day? Leisure occupations are the golden key to accessing the elusive spirit. What are you passionate about? What makes your heart warm and light? What makes you come alive? What makes life meaningful to you? What is your purpose? Why are you here? How are you connected to everyone and everything? The answers to these questions originate in one’s spirit. We are invited to revisit the core beliefs and values of OT.

Finally, spirit gets a turn. Thank COVID, for that.

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