I first heard the phrase “Never let a good crisis go to waste” this March in a lecture by Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar. He was talking about how curiosity and openness help us make the most of what life has to offer. This is one of the intellectual principles of Wholebeing Institute’s SPIRE model. As a lover of words, I was really intrigued by this phrase. Tal attributed it to executive leadership educator Ann Harbison, but, after doing a little digging, I found that the phrase has a colorful history.

The earliest attribution was to the Italian Renaissance philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli, who reportedly said, “Never waste an opportunity offered by a good crisis.” Franklin Delano Roosevelt, while not using that specific phrase, made use of its meaning to promote the New Deal. It’s also been attributed to Winston Churchill, when he was working to form the United Nations after World War II. Community organizer Saul Alinsky, author of Rules for Radicals, put it this way: “In the arena of action, a threat or crisis becomes almost a precondition to communication.” More recently, the phrase was used by former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who said, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before.”

This phrase is rich in meaning and has been used in various ways to promote political agendas, force necessary communications, and improve aspects of life in many areas. I am using it to prospect and retrospect the past, present, and future about our experiences during this pandemic.

With the rising ongoing human and financial tolls of dealing with the coronavirus, the conflicting opinions, and points of view, discerning our own realities and ways of dealing with uncertainty have enhanced the meaning of “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” The phrase is a worthwhile lens to use while prospecting for our learnings and growth—the golden nuggets within this experience. In positive psychology, we call this being a benefit finder versus a fault finder. The fault finder “will find faults even in Paradise” (Henry David Thoreau) and the benefit finder “finds the miracle in the common” (Julian Bauer). Finding benefits in adverse situations requires cognitive reappraisal and is a good means of coping and adaptive functioning during difficult times.

As human nature dictates, we quickly return to our prior set points when things go back to normal (hedonic adaptation) and it’s easy to forget the many small and simple pleasures we have experienced during this pandemic. To hold on to some of these changes that have brought a better quality of life and other gifts, we need to consciously activate the three Rs of real change: reminders, repetition, and rituals.

In the more than 60 online groups I have done biweekly in my community (for organizations including the American Society of Group Psychotherapy and Psychodrama (ASGPP), the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan, and the Brazilian Psychodrama Conference), I have woven this idea of “looking for the good” into many topics, such as gratitude, resilience, hope, the power of positive emotions, accepting painful emotions, making meaning, stages of crisis, and more. This topic has also emerged organically as people have shared their experiences, emotions, thoughts, uncertainties, and sense of humor during this unique experience we are sharing worldwide.

I am reminded of another Tal quote: “Things do not necessarily happen for the best, but some people are able to make the best of things that happen.” And, in the words of Helen Keller, “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.”

Here are some of the comments, gifts, and blessings that have been shared with me over these last eight months.

  1. Slowing down allows more time with people that we love—partners, spouses, friends, and children. The pandemic has slowed down the world, creating an increased intimacy in a new way, on a micro and macro level. Relationships have deepened with old and new friends; Zoom relationships have blossomed across the United States and in different countries.
  2. As our daily world and choices have been limited, we have had to find or revisit others sources for meaning and being. People have expanded and been so creative—starting new courses, learning photography, doing online exercising/yoga, and many other things outside their pre-pandemic box.
  3. Many of us are experiencing an increased sense of compassion in the face of our fellow humans’ vulnerability and suffering. As Barbara Fredrickson says, “We are suffering in synchrony.”
  4. The inability to conduct our usual lives has allowed us to rediscover the simple and beautiful things all around us—in our homes, our neighborhoods, and in nature.
  5. The loss, grief, and struggle have created new possibilities and hope. We are reminded that wholeness includes brokenness as an essential inherent part of life. If we have never experienced brokenness and been fully involved and touched by life, we can never be truly whole.
  6. Learning and education with courses at home has never been easier or more assessable and inclusive—often free, and without the stress of driving, traffic, and parking. You can be comfortable at home, even in your PJs!
  7. Spending more time at home means we’re paying more attention to our homes—cleaning, organizing, fixing things. During the early days of the pandemic, we occupied our time and calmed our cortisol levels with house and yard projects, making our surroundings more beautiful and comfortable.
  8. We have recalibrated our priorities. We have a different perspective on many things, especially our need to be always on the move and out in the world.
  9. We figure more in each other’s decisions, and we witness each other in the process of making conscious choices around our behaviors in regard to how we protect ourselves and others.
  10. Driven by our need for connection, technology has exploded with amazing creativity. We’re finding new ways to learn, work, create, and stay in touch, with conferences, social hours, birthdays, and other celebrations going online.
We have never been here before … and I could never have imagined the beauty, creativity, humor, love, and connection that are continuing to emerge—even as we grow weary of this struggle. I have never been more aware of how everything and everyone are interconnected, and how the awe generated by mindful presence elevates the ordinary into the extraordinary.

Nancy Kirsner, PhD, TEP, a graduate of the Certificate in Positive Psychology, has more than 45 years of experience in the fields of mental health, education, and consulting. She began her professional life as an occupational therapist when the Humanistic Movement was at its height. Group encounter was the popular psychological intervention, and her fascination with groups inspired her to become a board-certified trainer, educator and practitioner of psychodrama, sociometry (the science of social choice making), and group psychotherapy. Nancy presents workshops throughout the United States, and specializes in action methods—translating concepts into teachable, tangible actions.