When I talk to people whose lives have been upended by the global pandemic, it’s almost like watching some massive, monstrous bully beating on them. The disease itself can be horrifically damaging, even for those who survive it. Sheltering in place has created more unemployment than the Great Depression. Almost a third of a million people have lost family members. All of us have lost the familiar rhythms of activity that once filled our time and lifted our spirits.
And we have no idea how long it will last.
Blow after blow, the punches just keep coming.
Pondering all this, I recently did something I’ve never done before: I watched the famous 1974 boxing match between Muhammed Ali and George Foreman. Ali entered that legendary fight a 4-to-1 underdog against the younger, stronger Foreman. He spent most of eight rounds backed against the ropes, absorbing sledgehammer body blows. One commentator feared Ali might actually be killed. Then, with 30 seconds left in the eighth round, Ali suddenly roared back and delivered a flurry of punches that left Foreman on the canvas.
Here’s what made me want to study this fight: Ali didn’t win with sheer physical power. He didn’t dominate effortlessly. He had to call upon a different kind of strength, a quality that could help him win against steep odds: resilience.
The word “resilience” means “to rebound.” By definition, it doesn’t describe a state of never falling, never getting hit. In fact, to be resilient we have to experience crushing forces. We have to let ourselves absorb those forces, then rebound in a way that uses them to our advantage. Facing any overwhelming opponent (like a heavyweight fighter or Covid-19) is a time we can and must increase our own powers of resilience.
To build and utilize resilience in the middle of a global pandemic, we need to rely on four factors that allowed Muhammed Ali to beat Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle. Experts differ on the exact wording, but most research tells us that resilience is made of essentially four qualities: honesty, humility, flexibility, and patience. Let’s focus on each of these in turn.
The first component of resilience: Honesty
Muhammed Ali went to fight George Foreman with clear-eyed awareness of his situation. He was 32, Foreman 25. He couldn’t match Foreman’s sheer strength, and he didn’t waste his time trying. Instead, he took stock of the situation and created a strategy that worked with the reality of his situation. Later, he called this plan “rope a dope.” He backed into the ropes on purpose, deflecting punches and taunting Foreman into wild, ineffective blows that slowly exhausted him.
If we want to bounce back from the losses created by the pandemic (or any unwelcome change), we need this kind of clear-eyed honesty about the situation we’re in. We need to face the fact that a tiny virus—something we can’t even see—is in many ways stronger than we are. Many people minimize the seriousness of the virus, but scientists tell us this is a huge mistake. Honest awareness of our own vulnerability, uncomfortable though it may be, is an absolutely necessary first step to developing a strategy to fight any powerful adversary.
Begin increasing your own resilience by honestly acknowledging your vulnerabilities. For example, if you or someone in your family is in a high risk group, allow yourself to accept that. What factors are you facing that might expose you to illness, or make you a possible carrier? Honesty—especially about our own weakness—is a necessary foundation for resilience.
The second component of resilience: Humility
Few boxers had ever used anything like Ali’s “rope a dope” strategy for one reason: it didn’t look good. For much of the fight, Ali let it appear that he was cowed and overpowered. If he’d insisted on looking like a winner in every single moment of the fight, he probably would have lost.
Resilience isn’t about looking good: it’s about being willing to look bad. If you’ve been beaten half senseless by the pandemic, physically, financially, or emotionally, don’t hide that fact. Let yourself look less than “perfect.” I know folks who won’t wear face masks in public buildings because they don’t want to look weird. Others refuse to follow social distancing rules because they’d hate it if others perceived them as being bossed around, losing their independence. Many people are emotionally stressed by isolation but afraid to ask for support for fear of seeming needy.
Here’s the thing: People really do look weird in face masks. Safety guidelines really do take away some of our self-governance. And being cooped up alone really does make us needy. Resilience requires that we humble ourselves to these realities. We have to let ourselves look weaker than our opponent (the pandemic) because we are weaker than our opponent. Humility doesn’t make us weak. It makes us resilient.
The third component of resilience: Flexibility
When Muhammed Ali leaned back against those ropes, he was deliberately allowing the incredible power of Foreman’s punches to be diffused into the elastic cords. Ali wasn’t absorbing all that force, as he would have if he’d stood up in the ring. He knew the ropes were made to stretch and bounce back. He used their resilience to support his own, minimizing wear and tear on his body.
If you watch a super-slow motion video of a bouncing ball, you’ll see that when it hits the ground, it goes flat, crushing into itself. It’s not a nice, perfect sphere at that moment. But the flexibility that allows it to be flattened is what gives it the power to spring back to its original shape, throwing itself up into the air by using the very same force that brought it down.
There have been whole weeks during this pandemic when I felt so flattened I could barely get up. So I didn’t try. I stayed in my pajamas, attending Zoom work meetings not just from home, but from bed. I knew I wasn’t alone when I read that a Florida judge had urged attorneys to stop showing up for “virtual” court shirtless, ill-groomed, and sometimes still under the covers.
Now, I fully agree with the judge that getting dressed and sitting upright adds a certain air of credibility to highly trained professionals. But I also don’t blame the lawyers for rolling over in bed and logging into trials. I suspect that a lot of them were doing the very best they could at that moment. They were flattened, absorbing huge blows from a massive opponent. If they’d made themselves stand upright, the force might have destroyed them. Like Ali leaning back against the ropes, they were taking support where they could get it. That kind of flexibility—the willingness to lean on objects, other people, government aid—can turn a blow that could kill us into a blow we can absorb. Let yourself lean on whatever helps. You’ll increase your resilience.
The fourth component of resilience: Patience
I think it’s a fair guess that most of us are getting tired of this pandemic, and the way it’s reshaped almost everything we do. It would be so nice to stop waiting for the all-clear and just get back to normal life…except that people are still sick, still dying, still spreading a virus to which virtually no one has immunity. Perhaps the most crucial component of resiliency—one we have a perfect opportunity to develop right now—is patience, patience, and more patience.
During the Rumble in the Jungle, Muhammed Ali flopped back against those ropes for almost half an hour—an eternity, in boxing terms. He waited patiently for Foreman to show obvious signs of fatigue, and then waited a little longer—all the time getting pummeled like a punching bag. But Ali wasn’t doing nothing. He was artfully deflecting blows with his gloves, using those ropes, and keeping up a flow of goading comments (“Hey, man, they told me you could punch! Is that all you got?”)
In other words, Ali’s patience came from fully utilizing every resource he had, from his gloves, to the boxing ring itself, to his flare for sarcasm. He was experimenting, observing, playing.
Getting into a playful mindset and using it in any given situation is the way to develop true patience—which isn’t waiting at all, but fully engaging in whatever is happening around us. I’ve watched people develop this aspect of resilience as the weeks of shutdown go on. Many are starting projects, rearranging their furniture, setting up weekly online meetings with loved ones they rarely saw before the pandemic.
I’ve even watched this strategy work for people who are in dire financial straits. One woman told me, “I don’t know how we’ll pay the rent next week, and the anxiety is killing me.” The next week I talked to her again. She was much calmer. I asked her if she’d found a solution to her financial problems. “Oh, yeah, that,” she said. “No answers yet. But look, I’m learning to crochet!” A few days later she found a job that allowed her to work from home, and the financial tight spot eased. But she’d found patience by using what she had to learn—playfully—when simply waiting would have sent her into an endless panic attack.
The way to develop patience is not to hold your breath until life goes back to “normal.” That may not happen for months or years—and even when the virus is no longer a threat, many of our lives will have been irrevocably changed. Patience—arguably the most important component of resilience—comes from resting, playing, and dealing creatively with whatever situations or skills we happen to have.
The outcome of resilience
To me, the most impressive thing about the Rumble in the Jungle didn’t happen until a few years later, when Muhammed Ali and George Foreman became best friends. This transpired when Foreman showed the same combination of honesty, humility, flexibility, and patience Ali used to win their epic fight. Foreman later recounted talking to a reporter about the match. “I had to look him in the eye and say, ‘I lost. He beat me.’” After that honest and humble admission, Foreman gradually came to respect, then like, then love Ali. Ultimately he called his former enemy “the greatest man I’ve ever known … He’s not pretty, he’s beautiful.”
We’ve lost so much to this pandemic. Admitting that, letting go of what we hoped would happen, letting others see us humbled and flattened, and then having the patience to accept whatever happens next, will not only defeat the virus. It will make us better people. Calmer. More compassionate. In short, more resilient.
It may not be pretty. But it will be beautiful.
This essay was featured in Maria Shriver’s The Sunday Paper. The Sunday Paper inspires hearts and minds to rise above the noise.