Reading the list of names that makes up the new White House COVID-19 Task Force under the Biden administration is like reading the names of the brave humans who agreed to travel to the moon for the first time. These people will make history as they help shape the pandemic response in 2021. 

These courageous souls on the task force will be called to lead during very dark times. They’re not the only ones. Leaders of organizations around the globe are being called to lead in new ways. And we’re all being asked to lead ourselves, our families, and friends through painful and challenging territory. 

In order to lead through this era of discord and disruption, we must have tools we can use to help us return to our feet and a state of creativity, forward-motion, and hope. 

Pause. Breathe. 

The coronavirus has impacted nearly every aspect of our lives. We’ve lost precious in-person social interaction with each other. We’ve lost access to in-person education. We’ve lost jobs and businesses. And we’ve lost loved ones in a wave of death that has swept the globe. 

“This magnitude of death over a short period of time is an international tragedy on a historic scale,” says Dr. Naomi Simon, a psychiatrist and head of the Anxiety and Complicated Grief Program at NYU School of Medicine, in the October 20, 2020 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association

At the time of this writing on January 22, 2021, the United States has seen 402,803 deaths. The worldwide death toll is 2,075,870. Grief experts estimate that each death leaves 9 people bereaved for a mind-bending total of 3,625,227 people in the U.S. and 18,682,830 across the globe who are suffering. 

Pause. Breathe. 

You might decide to put your hands on your heart, or your stomach, or somewhere else on your body that would feel soothing. 

All of this anguish is on top of everything else that happened over the past this year—the heartbreak of social injustice, the divisive election, the terrifying attack on the Capitol. And all of that distress is on top of all the other challenges we face as humans in a regular sort of year. The American Psychological Association recently sounded an alarm and announced: “We are facing a national mental health crisis that could yield serious health and social consequences for years to come.” 

This reminds me of a scene in the 1977 movie Star Wars Episode IV—A New Hope, in which Luke, Princess Leia, and Han Solo are trying to escape a fight with the Stormtroopers. They end up in a trash compactor filled with garbage and a creepy monster swirling around their legs in the knee-high water. 

After a few minutes spent freaking out about their location and battling the invisible creature, the walls begin to move in, relentlessly squishing everything in their path. This is what challenging times feel like. This was 2020. This is now. 

Pause. Breathe all the way down into the belly. Slowing the breath down. You might push the breath out with your stomach muscles and exhale until all the air is out, so the exhale is longer than the inhale. You might breathe in this way for three breaths. 

So how we do we return from chronic stress and burnout?

How do we return from fear, grief, and loss? 

How do we get back on our feet and re-ignite our passion and purpose? 

We learn the skills of returning. The Art of the Return is our ability to be resilient. It’s our ability to connect to our core of inner strength. It’s our ability to be persistent when we’re going after hard goals. 

And because humans have practiced The Art of the Return since our brains could comprehend loss and hardship, there’s a roadmap we can follow. 

Here’s an exercise to help you get started. 

Pause. Pick up a pen and piece of paper. 

Ask yourself: What nourishes me? What makes me feel really good? Self-care is usually seen as a soft skill and a “nice-to-have” by most high-achievers, but when you see that self-care is tied to being able to perform at peak performance—it becomes a must have. If you’re up for a challenge, put the items you list on your calendar and make them non-negotiable. 

My friend, it’s not enough to read this. I hope you’ll test out a regular diet of activities that make you feel good and cared for, because it will help give you the stamina to return again and again to your mission. (White House COVID-19 Task Force, I’m looking at you.)