Thinking Out Loud: When life spins out of control

To the Case Western Reserve University Community:

Allow me to take you back to a pre-pandemic moment when life was spinning out of control for me. It was September 2005 and I had just evacuated to Houston in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I was on the treadmill in a hotel gym in the middle of the night watching on a small TV what the entire nation had been seeing all week: the city of New Orleans brought to its knees by Hurricane Katrina. People crammed into the Superdome seeking refuge from the flood waters, destruction and unbearable heat. 

Before my evacuation to Houston, I had spent five days on the Tulane University campus, without electricity, running water, and with very little contact with the outside world because we had no phone or internet service. That night in the hotel gym was the first time the magnitude of the disaster hit me. I broke down, unable to control my emotions any longer. There was no book I could read or expert I could talk to that would be able to walk me through this horrific crisis that threatened the survival of Tulane and the city of New Orleans. 

So, I called my wife, Marjorie, who had evacuated to our summer home on Long Island. Under tears, I confessed that for the first time in many years I had no idea what to do. Her advice? Make a list. And that’s what I did. Together with members of my leadership team who had also fled to Houston, I immediately began breaking down the seemingly insurmountable task of caring for our students, faculty and staff (who were dispersed all over the country) and bringing Tulane and New Orleans back. By focusing on what could be done—instead of wasting valuable energy on aspects that were out of our control or too unpredictable at the time—and prioritizing what needed to be done first, we were able to put one foot in front of the other. We followed this routine for months on end. 

I’m telling you this story because to this day, I consider “making a list” one of the key strategies for regaining control when things get out of hand. The pandemic has stressed the importance of having such tools at the ready. While life is hopefully starting to feel more stable again, it could take us for another spin anytime. And even during “normal” times, as we all know too well, things can get busy and chaotic.

  1. Make a list – Ask yourself where you can start to make things better for yourself or your organization. What can be done and what needs to be prioritized? I recommend making a list every day and checking tasks off a day later.
  2. Focus on what you can control – I have shared this strategy with you all before. It’s a crucial one. Do not spend a lot of time on what you cannot control.  
  3. Seek out other voices – I never consider myself the smartest person in the room and it has served me well. Asking for advice and other people’s perspectives on a situation is always helpful and calming.
  4. Don’t hesitate to ask for help and comfort – Having a support system is everything during uncontrollable times. Connect more deeply with friends and family, and don’t be ashamed to rely on mental health professionals during times of distress.
  5. Take care of yourself – Rest, exercise, and general self-care help ensure that you are physically and mentally strong and able to tackle whatever the challenge you are facing may be
  6. Give back – Being there for others and making a difference in the world gives us purpose. Not only is giving back always something concrete to do, which increases our feeling of being in control, doing something for others also makes life worth living and much more joyful.

I suspect many of you have experienced life spinning out of control, whether it was during this pandemic or some other event in your life. How have you coped with the experience? I would enjoy hearing about your strategies.

Keep thinking, enjoy your weekend, and take care,

Cursive signature that reads "Scott" for Case Western Reserve Interim President Scott Cowen