Coronavirus: What Would Leonardo Advise? by Michael J. Gelb

Leonardo da Vinci is humanity’s greatest genius. His wisdom is needed, now.

The Black Death gives birth to the Renaissance

Humanity’s greatest pandemic, thus far, The Black Death of 1347–1351, spread across Asia and Europe with devastating consequences, especially in Italy. Estimates of the Eurasian death toll in that four-year period range from 75 to 200 million. The population of the city of Florence was reduced by 50%. Outbreaks of varying severity continued in Europe for the next 400 years.

Leonardo da Vinci, city planning drawing. Image: Wiki Commons
Leonardo da Vinci, city planning drawing. Image: Wiki Commons

“Learn to preserve your own health.”

On a practical, personal level Leonardo counsels: “Learn to preserve your own health.” He advises that we take responsibility for our wellness through a healthy lifestyle. This is important at the best of times, but even more so now.

A few simple, practical tips to help you cultivate a resilient Da Vincian attitude:

  • Adopt a mindset of positive protection rather than fear and anxiety and affirm it every time you wash or sanitize your hands. Feel empowered by the wisdom that helps you preserve your own health and the health of your family, friends and community.
  • Prevent infection by spreading affection. Emotions are contagious, for better or for worse, so be careful what you catch and spread. Love and connection are the greatest immune strengtheners. Even as you keep your social distance, for the moment, you can still express affection to all your friends and family, by writing, calling and sending good wishes.
  • Stay informed, but don’t obsess on the news or social media.
  • Keep a gratitude notebook. People who count their blessings rather than their burdens are more adaptive, optimistic, and report a significantly greater experience of well-being. Every morning write a list of 3 things that inspire you to feel grateful. After you compose your list, spend a few seconds focusing on the feeling of gratitude for each thing you’ve written down. After you’ve reviewed your list, just “float” in the feeling of gratitude for a moment. Repeat the process in the evening. A recent study at Stanford University concluded, “In an experimental comparison, those who kept gratitude journals reported fewer physical symptoms, felt better about their lives as a whole, and were more optimistic about the upcoming week compared to those who recorded hassles or neutral life events.”
  • Create a positive, uplifting beautiful environment. A couple of years ago I was leading a think like da Vinci seminar for a group of nurses who worked in PTSD wards in Veterans Administration Hospitals. I asked them to explore how to make daily life at the hospital a more beautiful experience for their patients. As they contemplated the question it became apparent that they needed to rethink the set up in their waiting room. Like most waiting rooms, there was a television set that was usually tuned to CNN or Fox News. So traumatized veterans were being exposed to the accidents, scandals, disasters and murders regularly reported as so-called news on these outlets. It became instantly apparent to them that replacing the news with videos that showed relaxing scenes of nature, underscored by soothing music would make their patients experience more beautiful. And then many other ideas began to flow — they proposed the idea of creating an “art exhibition” on the bare walls, and replacing the tabloids and other typical waiting room periodicals with more inspiring literature, their enthusiasm grew as they conceived the idea of keeping a bouquet of fresh flowers on the registration table and infusing the air with delightful aromas like Leonardo’s favorite combination of lavender and rose. Of course, their prime focus was on making the lives of the veterans more beautiful but they realized that they themselves walked through that waiting room many times a day and that beautifying it would enrich their lives as well. Beauty is an antidote to stress. Beauty is healing. And as Leonardo understood it inspires us to think more creatively! So everyday, do something to make your life more beautiful, and to make life more beautiful for someone else.
  • Contemplate the Vitruvian Man. Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man, was drawn as an illustration for his friend’s book on divine proportion. Vitruvius (c. 80–15 BCE) was a Roman architect who believed that the human form expressed the principles of universal harmony and that those principles also formed the basis of harmony in architecture and city planning. The original drawing is in the collection of the Accademia di Belle Arti in Venice, Italy, but the image is universally familiar. It appears on the Euro coin and was the symbol for Skylab 3, and it’s used as a logo by countless health care and fitness organizations around the world, from Yoga and Pilates studios to physical therapy and chiropractic clinics.
Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man. Image: Wiki Commons
Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man. Image: Wiki Commons

Healing Through Unity

Leonardo described sickness as the “discord of the elements of the human body” and healing as, “the restoration of discordant elements.” Now is the time, as individuals and as a society, that we need to focus on the restoration of discordant elements through a solution-centered, collaborative approach to creativity and innovation.

“I love those who can smile in trouble, who can gather strength from distress, and grow brave by reflection. It is the business of little minds to shrink, but they whose heart is firm, and whose conscience approves their conduct, will pursue their principles unto death.”


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