The Lonely Diplomat: supporting you through COVID-19
Updated: Sep 23, 2021
Advice to help those living their diplomatic life
through these crazy times.
I don’t need to remind you that these are crazy times. I want to write this post to help serve and support you as you live your diplomatic life wherever you’re living it in the world.
A quick scroll of social media shows so many people providing ‘how to’ tips to survive and thrive during periods of lockdowns, social isolation and quarantine. Some of the advice is excellent, and I don’t want to repeat it here. I’d rather provide some advice specifically tailored to you, my audience of amazing people who are living their diplomatic lives around the world.
I want to acknowledge one thing: this is a shit situation. I could put all my years of education and years working in diplomacy to phrase that better, but I won’t. Sometimes directness is best.
Diplomats are well-versed in crisis response. At any given time, somewhere in the world, there’s a crisis and diplomats are responding to, and reporting on, the situation and caring for affected citizens. Some places are more prone to experiencing crises than others, but we all – I suspect – are well-versed in planning (and sometimes executing) our responses in times of a crisis.
These plans are both comforting and disturbing. They’re reminders of what could happen and how it would affect us, our families and our friends. But we plan, and plan, and plan some more and swing into action as we respond. It’s what we do.
The scale of this pandemic is unprecedented in living memory. It’s affected all of us in some way. At work, some of us may be working long hours so our citizens are well-informed and kept as safe as possible – even putting ourselves in harm’s way to great personal cost. Some of us will be playing an important role in coordinating the international response to the pandemic. Away from the office, some of us may be separated from loved ones as you or they have been evacuated home. Some of us may have been evacuated home and are – essentially – homeless and worrying about our loved ones who are still working in the mission. Some of us may be doing this with children who are also adjusting to the new reality. Some of us may be confronting this situation alone.
The circumstances which inform how you read these words are as numerous as there are diplomats affected. It’s impossible for me to write to your own individual circumstances, so I ask that you read the following words knowing that they’re provided generally for those living their diplomatic lives.
I want to support us through these next few months. I’m not an expert. I’m certainly no scientist, nor am I a clairvoyant. I want to avoid hyperbole just as much as I want to avoid meaningless trite. I simply want to do the equivalent of sitting down with you over a nice cup of something comforting and have a great chat about how this bloody virus affects us as we live our diplomatic lives.
In preparing for this post, I sent an email to my awesome subscribers and asked them to share with me how they’re coping (or not) with these dramatic life changes. I want to pay tribute and thank those subscribers who trusted me with their stories and for giving me permission to use them. It’s a privilege and honour to do so. Thank you.
With all that said, let’s get into it.
We are physical, mental and emotional beings
We are beings who have physical, mental and emotional needs and it’s important to take care of each of them. There needs to be time in our days for physical movement. The needs to be time in our days for mental stimulation and time for reflection and rejuvenation. This applied six months ago just as it does now, but we need to find this time more than ever. Even if it’s only for a few moments in the midst of a chaotic day.
Many of my subscribers – indeed, almost all who responded – said that they’re practicing yoga. Others are journaling as a way of processing their thoughts. Others have said that they’re reading or are teaching themselves a new skill – such as learning a language – or are spending time doing a hobby that they don’t usually get to do.
The internet is a trove of support for whatever we want to do. My friend Jase Te Patu (who you’ll know from the blog ‘Mindfulness and you’ and ‘Ep. 19 – On the power of mindfulness with Jase Te Patu’) has started some outstanding yoga videos on YouTube.
Physical movement is important to me. Luckily, I’m still able to get outside and workout, so long as I maintain the two-metre social distancing rule. No-touch bodyweight workouts and running are my go-to at the moment. I’ve also taken on the role of Physical Education teacher for my kids and get them outside for their PE classes. I’m also writing a lot and am refreshing my German language studies for the first time since university.
Being far from home
I’ve explored previously how ‘home’ is a fraught concept for diplomats and those living the diplomatic life (read the blog and listen to ‘Ep. 3: On home with Katia Vlachos’). Even when we’re home, we’re not really at home. This is both confusing and makes absolute sense.
Some of us may be feeling very removed from our family and friends. Indeed, we may be without our families or without our significant others due to forced evacuations of dependants and non-essential staff.
We may be in enforced lockdown, quarantine or enforced self-isolation and aren’t able to even see other people. We may or may not be getting extensive support from our employing agency.
I wish that I had some magical words to impart on you that will improve your situation. But I don’t, so I won’t. I’ll simply say that this is the worst aspect of living a diplomatic life: the work is more important than the individual and any dependants.
We’re allowed to feel exactly how we feel
No one signed up for this, but here we are. It’s important to acknowledge the situation in which we find ourselves and feel and process the emotions that comes with it.
We’re allowed to feel overwhelmed and scared. We’re allowed to also feel a sense of duty to our fellow citizens and to each other. We’re allowed to feel all the feelings within a few moments.
What we’re not allowed to do is to deny or ignore them. Denial or willfully ignoring feelings is never a durable coping strategy.
Remember, it’s allowed to suck sometimes.
We’ve all heard it. The comparisons between the situation you find yourself in and the situation someone else is in. Or the comparisons between the situation now and another situation from someone’s personal experience or in global history.
These comparisons usually start with, or somewhere contain, the words ‘at least’. I’m hearing these words a lot. They really grate.
No, bombs are not falling on many of us. But the fear we feel, and the physiological response it causes, can be just the same.
Avoid comparisons. While said in an attempt to comfort each other, comparisons do little more than deny and diminish the thoughts and feelings associated with our current collective situation. Respond with empathy, instead. Listening and putting ourselves in the other person’s situation is the best way to do this.
Tell your story
If only with ourselves through journaling. It may help with those thoughts and feelings that need processing.
Remember, not everyone has earned the right to hear our stories, but someone has.
If you’re struggling, please reach out and ask for support. We can be only too eager to be the support for those around us, but we can be reluctant to ask for help ourselves. Courage begets courage.
Time to make lemonade
The coming weeks and months are going to be tough. There’s no point in sugar-coating it.
The global response to this pandemic, like ride-sharing apps for taxis or politicians with ideas and access to social media, is yet another disrupter for diplomacy. The way diplomacy is done will change because of this. Perhaps this is for the best. This could change how we relate to our citizens through the provision of very clear, simple unambiguous information. This could change how and where we work.
Let me explain.
Diplomacy is ruled by protocol, and for good reason. However, an event of this magnitude offers an opportunity to rethink how, and where, our work is done. To now, working flexibly has largely been the preserve of those working in our headquarters and not when posted. This is unrealistic, arguably sexist and discriminatory, and contrary to good, modern and flexible workplaces.
Convincing an ambassador or headquarters of the benefits of working from home was a common theme contained in some of the responses to my request for subscribers’ experiences. I was surprised that I was surprised that this is an issue. There are limitations to working remotely while on posting, but they are easily solved when there’s a will.
I admit that this is a point that isn’t a ‘right now’. Many of us are trying to simply get through our days and find our new normal. I understand. My advice is to simply pay attention to any thoughts you have or statements you hear about there being another way, note them down and come back to them when you have some capacity. You, your family and friends, your colleagues or the world may have been waiting for that idea that was borne out of this adversity.
Just enough is sometimes enough
As our national governments work to coordinate their responses, we can be called on to collect, collate and provide information within impossibly tight deadlines. Working relationships forged within our host governments can be tested as we work to get that information back home as quickly as possible.
We want to do the best we can. This is a self-evident truth. But sometimes just enough is good enough.
This principle applies to whatever personal circumstances we find ourselves. We’re all creating some kind of normality in our lives amidst a range of external issues that have affected us.
Just enough is sometimes enough. Let’s give ourselves a break.
Crises catch us where we are
This was a former Ambassador’s favoured expression and I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately.
As mentioned before, those who live the diplomatic life are adept at crisis management and response – both at the office and at home.
The scope and scale of this pandemic is without comparison in our collective memory and we are all affected in some way. When the immediate response is done, we can be left feeling at a loss within ourselves. We come to a sudden stop.
Sometimes, this means that we have little choice but to confront some of the issues with which we’ve used aspects of our regular lives to avoid or distract. The busyness we felt a few weeks ago is no longer there.
For some, this is liberating. It’s a chance to focus on who and what’s important. It’s a chance to do something different. For others, being alone with our own thoughts is terrifying and we can be forced to confront those uncomfortable truths from which we’ve been running for years.
Indeed, we can feel incredibly lonely.
Mind how you numb
Following the point above, when faced with what’s happening globally and how it affects us and those important to us, we can find ourselves wanting to numb. This is completely understandable.
We may find ourselves reaching for numbing agents that don’t serve us: drug abuse (prescription and illicit), alcohol, gambling, sex (including porn use), online shopping, scrolling social media, gathering (or avoiding) as much information as possible, work, exercise, eating, writing advice blogs, organising those around us, whatever it is. Numbing is numbing.
I invite you to reflect on how you are numbing (because we all are in some way). Please be sure to reach out and talk to someone: your significant other, a friend or a professional if you’re uncomfortable with your own response.
Use social media for good
I know that I write and say this statement a lot. I’ve even written a blog on it. I’ve never meant it more.
Boundaries: Limit news intake
I appreciate that this is hard, when – for many of us – our role is to keep across what’s happening in our host countries and then report on it. It can also be empowering to know what’s happening; just mere knowledge of details can give us a sense of control.
But this constancy takes a toll in times like this and we need to have regular breaks from the news. The world will still carry on if you take time away from scrolling news apps while watching satellite news channels and trawling social media for breaking news.
Turn off the notifications for a while. Unwind. Connect with people. We are smart people. We can pick things back up after a few hours away to recharge ourselves. We’re no use to anyone if we’re tired and burned out.
Boundaries: Limit the stories
In the absence of fact and of information, stories fill the void. The stories that we tell ourselves and the stories we exchange with others are often more dangerous and fear-inducing than the situation.
If left unchecked, our minds can lead us to some dark places and reach ill-founded conclusions and turn them into facts and beliefs.
This is a topic I explored in this blog and on ‘Ep. 5: on the stories we tell ourselves with Mike Campbell’.
If we can, we must challenge these stories and get facts. When armed with facts, we can then make informed choices.
Classical stoicism for the win
There is no ‘should be’. There is no ‘could be’. There is no ‘would be’. There simply ‘is’.
Classical stoicism is all about accepting the fact of what’s happening and then focusing on the only thing that we can control: our own response in that moment.
We remain in control of our own words, thoughts and actions. I find this phenomenally powerful [For this reason, stoicism will be the subject of a further post in the future].
Resilience = flex AND return to form
Resilience – specifically psychological resilience – is a central theme of my work. I’ve written extensively on resilience in diplomacy in my book and in my blog here and here. There’s also ‘Ep 4: on stress and resilience with Alison Earl’.
We need to be aware of the maladaptation of the concept of resilience by some within our employing agencies. Being resilient does NOT mean being able to endure hardships and workloads without complaint or any obvious ill-effects. Resilience requires us to be able to flex AND return to form.
Think of ourselves as trees: they withstand wind because they bend and then return to form. The tree that constantly is in flex inevitably breaks.
While your circumstances are unique to you, you are not alone. I’m here to serve and support you as you live your diplomatic life, no matter what it throws at you.
Be sure to listen to 'Ep. 21: on supporting you through COVID-19' on The Lonely Diplomat podcast from Saturday 4 April 2020.
Remember: this too shall pass and wash your hands.
This post covered the central themes of diplomacy, resilience, loneliness and connection.
Important notice: All views expressed above are my own and do not reflect any official position. The words published above are intended to support, challenge and inspire diplomats and those living the diplomatic life as they reconnect with themselves and the world around them. They are not intended to, nor should they, replace the advice of a licensed helping professional.