A year ago, Covid-19 turned the world upside down. We retreated into our homes and schools, stores locked their doors, and the streets were suddenly empty. Human right activist and former politician Natan Sharansky understands isolation, fear and uncertainty more profoundly than most of us. He was imprisoned for nine years in the former Soviet Union, half of which were spent in solitary confinement, yet his spirit was never broken. He tried to keep his sense of humor throughout his ordeal, sometimes even sharing jokes with his prison guards.
As the world was grappling with the “new normal” of life during a deadly pandemic, Sharansky offered this sobering advice:
1. Remember why this is happening. In the case of the virus, you have been isolated at home because that is how we defeat it.
2. Focus on what is within your control. Do not plan your life based on when this might be over. Instead, focus on planning your life today.
3. Find reasons to laugh. Humor can be found in even dire circumstances.
4. Practice your hobbies. Sharanksy, who was a chess prodigy as a child, famously kept himself sane in solitary confinement by playing chess in his head.
5. Remember your connection to your people. If you do, you will never feel alone.
In 1973, Sharansky tried to emigrate from the Soviet Union to Israel. Like other Soviet Jews, his request was denied. Attempting to emigrate was risky, and perceived as an act of betrayal against the state even though anti-Semitism was deeply engrained in Soviet life.
The world began to call Jews unable to leave the Soviet Union refuseniks, and Sharansky’s activism on behalf of the refuseniks made him one of the most famous. In 1977, at the age of 29, he was arrested and imprisoned on false charges of treason and spying for the United States.
Sharansky did ultimately make it to Israel, where he still enjoys a good joke despite—or maybe because of—the struggles that shaped his life.
Read more about the man who never lost his sense of humor in Natan Sharansky: Freedom Fighter for Soviet Jews.