I'm Still Standing

Business and Life Coach Karl Gostner wrote about his experience with Covid-19 in his newsletter. With his permission we are republishing here.

My Covid journey started with me waking gasping for breath as phlegm bubbled into my throat closing down my breathing. I didn’t sleep that night. I would doze off. The suffocating sludge would rise, and I would flail my way to the surface of consciousness, desperate for oxygen. Last week, as you know, I was fighting fever and then, as Sunday unfolded, I felt that I was eventually winning.

There were clues that not all was well, but I wasn’t able to, perhaps couldn’t, spot the signs. A beloved friend called me. I spoke slowly, the words slipping past my brain, my vocal cords uncertain about how to pull it all together. As she said goodbye I started to cry. ‘I must be tired’ I thought and promptly fell asleep.
That night, I lay on top of the sheets with no blankets, not convulsed in shivers. Quite happily warm. In the distance was a vague awareness of lying in soaking wet pyjamas, but after a week of violent shivers this was better.

Roxanne came to check on me. She got a thermometer into my mouth. My happy warm temperature was a hypothermic 33C.

She had me swallowing hot tea, got me changed, wrapped me up. As the night unfolded, I changed every hour. By Monday morning, although still impressed with my non-shivering state, I was exhausted. Each word was a crudely stitched assembly of syllables.

I exhaled and stuttered words. I could not speak. Sentences were a haphazard patchwork.

I said, ‘I think I might be losing’.

The coughs tore me apart. Savage, retching coughs that twisted my spine. They left me despairing and exhausted. I fell asleep again. That was the next 10 hours.
In the early afternoon, my doctor called and suggested I get to the emergency room. He was still confident that I wasn’t in serious danger, but thought I needed support. He was still confident that I wasn’t in serious danger! Serious danger? Confident? When did this become my reality?

I made my way downstairs and along the way gathered the stubborn spirit that lives strong with the men in my family and started to shuffle around the dining room table flapping my arms whilst Rox and her father cheered me on. Suitably convinced with my own power I fell asleep on the couch. Woke up drenched in sweat again, changed again, passed out again. The hours passed.

As time slid by, it was not only my body that was being twisted but my soul, my spirit. All my decisions had been foolish. My hopes pointless. My dreams poured away from me. For much of the week when I despaired, I would turn to this photograph that hangs in our bedroom and draw on the dream in her eyes. Even this incredible work of hope lost its magic.

I remember little of that day.
I remember despair.
I remember Roxanne listening and crying as I said that I was empty.
I remember her smiles and soft words of encouragement when I stuttered out a sentence declaring my impending victory and the futility of Covid’s efforts. Her saying, ‘there’s my person’.

Night fell. I sweated. My temperature hovered in hypothermia. And then in the late hours the people I love, those who have passed on, came to be with me.
Roxanne woke me and I told her of the happy conversations I was having.

She took me to hospital.

The next day I emerged. Bruised. Alive. Weak. Alive.

The darkness that had convinced me I couldn’t and shouldn’t was evaporating. I lay in the sun. Through the floorboards of our old home drifted the voices of Roxanne and her family, and hope crept back in.

The last few days have been of a gradual return. Last night I walked down the stairs in the early hours for a snack. I had woken hungry.

Falling asleep is hard.

I am not yet convinced that it won’t return.

I have fallen out of my kayak in 6-meter Atlantic swell. I have stared into the barrel of an automatic pistol whilst being hijacked. They were scary moments but did not leave their fingerprints on my soul. This did. Like the field mouse that freezes, sensing the hawk’s hunger, my soul froze. It knew in a way that I could not know that beyond that moment was terror.

I lie awake at night. Watchful. Cautious. Mistrusting of the calm that has returned.

Underneath it all is a deep gratitude.

A gratitude to Roxanne who allowed me my fear, who encouraged my bravery and kept me nourished. Her father who would walk the bottom story of the house humming good cheer. My parents who calmed their own fears to support my strength. Our neighbour, photographer extraordinaire, Ed Suter, who shopped and cooked and cared (Incidentally Ed’s Instagram account and that of Wanted editor Siphiwe Mpye’s are South Africa’s two most stylish accounts). Marcus, whose Covid journey mirrored mine but, as he reminded me at the end of each day when he checked in, he’s Dutch, so tougher. My doctor Anthony Smith, who messaged and phoned each day. My clients, past and present, who messaged to tell me of the impact my work has had on their lives, to remind me of my purpose. All of you who wrote me heartfelt messages, who sent songs, prayers, and jokes, who reminded me of who I am, who gave me memories to cling to whilst that virus battered my self-belief. That love is a gift that I will carry with me. It has shaped me and will shape my work as my journey unfolds. Thank you.
I was lucky. So many others haven’t been. Some have had terrible fights, won, and carry the scars. Others lost, and their people carry the pain of their absence. The randomness of it all is its own type of terror.
My hope is that this gives us the possibility for a new world.

Millions of us are united in the experience of random cruelty. It gives us the opportunity for us to hear each other in new ways. To know that there is pain that we do not want in the world. That knowledge can be the vehicle for new conversations that shape the organisations we work in and the world we live. Conversations that are not dependent on the singular demands of stock markets, or the moribund machinations of ancient political parties, but instead are the heartfelt connection between people, a people united in working for a better world. Perhaps the knowledge of this random cruelty will help us better hear the consequences of the other random cruelties that oppress us.

Doing so will not be easy. We will need to be intentional. Convention. Normality. History. These have a strong gravitational pull. Although we all feel the impulse to want change, our language is return to normal. I love this Ellis Rosen cartoon. We know that the demands of organisation and governance can have us seeking regularity and predictability. We also know that, despite the efficiencies that that brings, it reduces joy and freedom. It makes us less human. We will need to be intentional about shaping the future. Choose the play doh.

We have all lost.

For now, we must hold our pain. We must hold the sadness. The temptation will be to hide it from it, to drown it in busyness, or a ‘return to normal’, or alcohol and licentiousness, in a parody of ‘celebrating life’. We need to stay with our sadness. We need to share our sadness. Let it teach us. Being slower, staying with it, not hiding, sharing it, speaking about it, this will help us emerge new possibilities.

As we journey inward, to ourselves and to each other, we will know that there is a deeper truth that is in our hearts, one that has meaning beyond the ephemera of the everyday.

We have a long journey ahead of us.

There is still pain and loss ahead. When we emerge, we can choose to be connected in entirely new ways. We will have the opportunity to connect in new ways, to act in new ways, to perhaps, hopefully, shape a better world than the one that brought us to this point.

Our pain brings depth to our lives. The fact that it is shared so widely in this compressed period of time, means we have a collective experience like none other. Knowing this means there is hope ahead. The hope of working together to honour those that this time has taken. The hope of working together to honour the pain that we all experience. The hope of working together so that there is more joy in the world.

Next week, I promise to take you into James Suzman’s Work in detail, but it feels important to leave you with this taste of his thesis today.

Suzman’s book is an exhaustive and exhilarating account of how our ways of working have evolved through our history. It explores what that means for the structure of, and how we live, our lives.

The foundation of his thesis is to look at the lived experiences of the societies of, amongst others, the Ju/’hoansi of the Kalahari, the BaMbuti of the Congo, and the Hadzabe of the Serengeti.

He notes that history and anthropology teach us that these people “were usually well nourished; lived longer than people in most farming societies; rarely worked more than fifteen hours a week; and spent the bulk of their time at rest and leisure. We also know that they could do this because they did not routinely store food, cared little for accumulating wealth or status, and worked almost exclusively to meet only their short-term material needs. Where the economic problem insists that we are all cursed to live in the purgatory between our infinite desires and limited means, hunter-gatherers had few material desires, which could be satisfied with a few hours of effort. Their economic life was organized around the presumption of abundance rather than a preoccupation with scarcity.”

Admittedly we can’t magic ourselves back into a hunter-gatherer world, but the history is important. It shows that radically egalitarian society is possible. It shows that those communities, far from creating a depressing uniformity, allow for the emergence of vibrant creativity and individuality.

Suzman says that this history shows us that life need not be about the scarcity and competition as framed in conventional modern economics, that we have created different ways of working and living, and knowing this, extends “the definition of work beyond how we make a living. It provides us with a new lens through which to view our deep historical relationship with work from the very beginnings of life through to our busy present. It also raises a series of new questions. Why do we now afford work so much more importance than our hunting and gathering ancestors did? Why, in an era of unprecedented abundance, do we remain so preoccupied with scarcity?”

In revisiting the history of how and why we work, we can imagine new possibilities.

There are already signs that this is underway. Nine days ago, 130 countries agreed to a blueprint to overhaul global corporate taxes. This could return $150 billion to public goods like housing, healthcare, education, and environmental protection. This week researchers reported on the overwhelming success of trialing a four-day work week in Iceland. The debate over work hours is gathering momentum.

There is much to be said. I am already well over our word count for today, so I’ll stop here, and we’ll return to this next week.

For now, as painful as it is, stay connected to this moment. It honours those who have passed on. It will teach us depth and give us connection. For now, as overwhelming as the world’s injustice is, know that it has been different, it can be different again and with intentional work we can shape a better future.
Thank you for your love and support over my journey of the last three weeks. It’s good to be back.

Please forward this letter to those who you think would enjoy it or be inspired by it. The more we speak, the more we listen, the more we connect, the more possibilities will emerge.

If this is the first time you’ve read my letter, you can subscribe here.
PS: If you’re struggling with the moment you might find Be Sad  and Living with Loss to be useful. No More Lemons and Inside Covid capture the first two weeks of my Covid experience.

PPS: I work with people who want to have a significant impact, live joyful lives, and build a humane world. If you’d like to work with me, reach out and let’s have a conversation.

  • Photo by Iva Rajović available on Unsplash  

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