COVID-19 Lessons for Dealing with Uncertainty, to 2020 Graduates

As we navigate COVID-19, Sarah Finnie Robinson shares 10 valuable lessons we’re learning now for dealing with a global emergency to address other immense challenges, like climate change.

“Like any epic villain, this wicked virus helps us realize what we do know, and what we can do to make things better.”—Suffield Academy 187th Commencement Speaker, Sarah Finnie Robinson


Sarah Finnie Robinson

Greetings, graduating seniors. Greetings to all Suffield students. Greetings to the esteemed faculty, talented staff, benevolent and wise Trustees. And to the incredible Suffield families, parents and grandparents, who have supported you throughout your time here.

Congratulations to everyone gathered today. This is a great, happy occasion, and I’m honored to be part of it. Thank you for having me.

We have an unexpected, totally uninvited guest in our midst — and not only here, but at all graduations, at every school, college, and university, in every country of the world. You know who I am talking about.

Way back in December, which seems like a hundred million years ago, Mr. Cahn asked me about speaking to you today. I said Yes on the spot. I love this school and admire everyone I’ve met here. I immediately wanted to create the best possible graduation send-off for all of you.

I wish we could all be together at Suffield today, but in a way, we are together. As the coronavirus swept into all of our lives, we’ve had to rethink everything, including this momentous day. This pandemic was and is changing every plan, turning lives upside down, crushing businesses, wrecking jobs, terrifying us, and making some people very very sick. Sometimes killing them. Everywhere in the world.

With an opponent like COVID-19, it’s smart to investigate, learn how it behaves, and anticipate what may come next. So let’s look at this virus, a most insidious and deadly enemy: this weird spongy ball with nasty suction-cup antennae, one-thousandth the width of an eyelash. How does it attack? Where does it go when it invades a human body? Straight to the lungs. What a dastardly choice! After all, our lungs are vital: they keep our breath flowing, inhale, exhale, all day and all night. Most of the time, we don’t even notice them; at the same time, we can’t live without them.

Close your eyes, and take a nice big breath. Think back, if you will, to your first few days on this campus. How did you feel? Nervous? Welcomed? Overwhelmed? Excited? Of course you remember. It would be impossible to forget arriving at this place.

Fast forward to right now. What emotions are charging through your mind?

What happened in between your arrival and now, as you graduate? When were you happiest? When were you sad? What made you feel better? Who taught you something you’ll never forget? Can you remember dreary days, when you felt like giving up, and leaving, but somehow you stayed, and kept going?

Your Suffield experiences have happened and are yours for life, but there was uncertainty all along the way. I’m thinking about musical auditions, athletic competitions, tough classes, college admissions, the loves of your life. You’ve been through lots of uncertainty already, but nobody is quite prepared for the uncertainty of this Coronavirus. Everyone is in uncharted territory. Nobody has all the answers. Summer plans? College dorm? Fall sports? When will we be safe? Remember, this is a global emergency. Emergencies have chunks of uncertainty baked right into them.

So here’s a crazy idea for you: Uncertainty can be a good thing. As shocking, devastating, deadly, and unpredictable as the Coronavirus is, it provides stunning context. A bright light illuminates our lives right now. Let’s take the time to look! With so much uncertainty, it’s way easier to see what is certain. Like any epic villain, this wicked virus helps us realize what we do know, and what we can do to make things better.

Let’s start right now: What do we know? We know this is bad. And, we know we can handle really bad sudden news. As a society, we are innovative and agile. We are rising to this occasion.

Deep into the Coronavirus experience, with all of us determined to beat it, what essential ingredients are emerging? Can we use the lessons of this global emergency to address other immense challenges, Climate Change for instance? As we navigate COVID-19, what are the other valuable lessons we’re learning now for dealing with a global emergency?

I can think of ten things. Please listen up, and let me know what you think.

1. Facts.
Faced with an emergency, we rely on experts we trust to give us the facts. We accept their recommendations — even if it’s really hard. When you understand why you’re doing something, it’s easier to do it. Identify trusted resources for reliable information.

2. Decisions.
Use the best available data to make decisions without delay. Seniors, through your rigorous Suffield education, you know how to research. And you possess something in common with all great decision-makers: advisors. You have expert advisors for life: teachers, counselors, coaches, friends — all the people you trust and admire here, who give it to you straight.

3. Community.
When COVID-19 comes to pass, we will be survivors. We will be veterans of this Coronavirus. We will be stronger, wiser, more capable, more dependable, and more confident due to this coronavirus. We will become closer.

Seniors, you’ve enjoyed a supportive environment of people who truly care about you. It’s called a culture of caring. In Mr. Cahn’s words, it’s about “investing deeply in others and genuinely helping people prosper.” Suffield’s culture of caring develops compassion in you that you can take into the world, “into the communities you are part of in the years ahead.” Mr. Cahn predicts “this will likely be Suffield’s greatest legacy in your lives.”

4. Leadership.
Mr. Cahn is not the only exceptional leader at Suffield. In fact, you are all leaders here. Suffield Academy’s four-year Leadership Program — launched back in 2002 — and inclusive to the bone, is intended to develop “human beings [in other words, You] with integrity who wish to make a significant and positive impact on society, who can define and achieve meaningful goals and dreams.”

Core elements of your leadership program include “life skills, moral foundation, goal-setting, communication skills, successful problem-solving, self-awareness, and inspiring others.”

Based on all this, I’d say with confidence: you are prepared. Don’t worry that you aren’t ready: You are.

Which brings me to the incredible value of

5. Questions.
Please do not ever think your question is unimportant.

A warning: If someone says you’ve asked a dumb question, it’s likely they know you’re on the right track; the answer might require a change they don’t want to make.

So go ahead … ask!

When will this virus be over, and how will that happen? What can I do to be helpful? What can I learn from this? What can the world learn from this? As we recover, and build back, why not incorporate improvements that will make life healthier, more efficient, more fair, and better for everyone?

Why are so many Coronavirus patients from poor neighborhoods? What is up with our food system, where one of every five kids in this country are hungry, yet big farms are dumping their milk and eggs? Why haven’t health care workers been better protected to do their jobs?

Progress happens when people ask questions.

6. Risk.
If your doctor says your appendix needs to come out, would you risk leaving it in? Certainly not. Would you risk borrowing $300 from your uncle to organize a socially distanced summer reading program for the kids in your town? Of course you would. You’d have a lot of fun figuring it out, and you might even get paid for doing something like this: parents are going bananas trying to keep children occupied right now.

Understand risks, and look for opportunities.

7. Attitude.
In a crisis, it doesn’t do any good to wish things weren’t this way. But it does help, a lot, to recognize things as they are. Only after you have awareness of a situation can you do something about it.

Will this require patience? Yes. Patience is the difference between waiting for things to play out that need time to play out, like the development of a medical test or a vaccine; and procrastinating on your couch, hoping nobody bothers you.

Look around you, wherever you are. Do you have enough food, a place to sleep, are you healthy? Have you had a stellar education? Do you have great friends, a loving family, people you can trust and can turn to for help? Something tells me you do.

We are the fortunate ones, which means we are in a position to help others – in this situation, and in so many others.

8. Appreciation.
We know that we are capable of taking the extraordinary for granted. Our lungs, for instance. Are there people or places that are such a regular part of life that you assume they’ll always be there? Decide to take care of those places and the people you care about. Tell those special people you love them, and why. Listen to what they say to you.

9. Resilience.
It’s clear we don’t have everything figured out, not by a long shot. But the Coronavirus response underscores the power of teamwork. When good, smart people work together, asking questions, guided by facts, inspired to succeed, we make progress – and sometimes, breakthroughs.

10. Vision
Great leaders inspire action. Great leaders have a vision to share with all of us, dreams that will come true if we decide to make it so. Here’s the plan, they say. Here’s what we need to do, and this is why it will work. Here’s what we’ve already accomplished! Together, let’s imagine the wonderful future that lies ahead when we commit to this goal.

Future historians will look back on 2020 as an era of generational disruption when inspiring leaders appeared everywhere: scientists racing for a cure; girl scouts making masks; chefs who’ve lost their restaurants cooking for people who’ve lost their jobs; folks cooped up in apartments opening their windows at 7pm to applaud our brave front-line workers; homebound musicians singing their hearts out from balconies and rooftops; hospital workers cheering as discharged patients are wheeled down the exit corridor and back out into the world.

How beautiful is this response; how noble we all are, facing down this virus. Who wouldn’t want to be part of winning this battle?

Our uninvited graduation guest has already delivered a valuable gift. Abruptly forced to stay at home, or compelled to the front lines of this crisis; holding our loved ones close, many of us are experiencing a collective wake-up call. If we can meet this historic challenge, we can meet others that are even bigger than this one.

So let’s talk about another global emergency, one that requires “transforming the world economy at a speed and scale that has “no documented historic precedent,” according to the world’s top scientists. If we can mount an all-in global response to the Coronavirus, and win, isn’t it possible we can do the same for the global emergency of Climate Change?

The cure for the Coronavirus requires extraordinary effort, 24/7; astonishing cooperation, historic investment, collaboration among partners who haven’t worked together before. Beating this virus demands innovative technology, all-in policy, and gigantic shifts in behavior on every continent, and in every neighborhood. Our successful response to COVID-19 requires both flexibility and endurance.

Climate Change is an endurance game too, but here’s the difference: we already know what the cure is: bending the trajectory of carbon emissions. In due course, a Coronavirus vaccine will become available, and this emergency will be brought under control. Climate Change will not be brought under control unless we mount a response of similar proportions – and quickly.

The only cure for our warming planet is to remove carbon dioxide from our atmosphere and prevent any more from accumulating. The good news is, we know how to do this. The technology is ready, the solutions are ready; but they need to be deployed. The bad news is, we have not yet decided to fix global warming using everything we’ve got. Is it possible we didn’t really comprehend what a global emergency was until the Coronavirus hit?

As COVID-19 has taken aim on human lungs around the world, our perilous rate of carbon emissions has paused. It’s easier to breathe. The water is clear, and the air is clear: we can see mountain ranges and historic monuments that are usually hidden by pollution.

Going forward, when people say this or that problem can’t be fixed – the solution is too hard, too expensive, too complicated, too upsetting and different — we can say ‘No. Actually, it’s not.’ Now we know how to give an enemy our best shot – and win.

In closing, let me give you a conversation between two characters: the world and Mother Nature. The world says: “There’s no way we can lower emissions, slow climate change, and protect the environment.” To which Mother Nature replies: “Here’s a virus. Practice.”

We are at this crossroads together. There is lots of good for us to do. Hold onto those wonderful qualities you fine-tuned at Suffield, nourish them – and go make a difference in this world that needs you so very much! We are all so proud of you. Congratulations!

Sarah Finnie Robinson, a Senior Fellow at the Boston University Institute for Sustainable Energy and Adjunct Clinical Professor, College of Communication, is an investor in large-scale climate solutions and Founding Director of The 51 Percent Project, which identifies efficacious communications messaging and modalities for optimal public engagement.

The opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Boston University Institute for Sustainable Energy.

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