Updated: Jun 25, 2020
Is there a word to recount the visceral confusion of being alive in this time? Fickle emotions splinters like brittle cracked glass. Fatigue and agitation - anxiety, fear, anger and grief all sliver and weave, catching tendrils of joy, compassion and grace where we can. How do we make sense of such a mercurial brocade?
There are more nuanced words, outside of English. We can mix ‘Natsukashii’ (Japanese), a sad, evocative longing for something past that will never come again; with with the Russian, ‘Toska’, a deep spiritual anguish; and, ‘Kulini-Kulini’ (Aboriginal), expressing excessive, intrusive worry. And still, we need more: ‘Hi Fun Kou Gai’ (Japanese), the miserable anger over a desperate situation that cannot be changed; and, ‘Weltschmerz’ (German) world-weariness over the evil and suffering in life. All of these emotions blending, tumbling around in a scramble, somehow still fail to personify. It’s no wonder our dreams are Kafkaesque.
To be clear, we are deep in the weeds. We have turned a corner when we wanted to go straight. The old ways are receding and the once easy-mercy of denial has dissolved. Each new day declares the tally of our collective mess, pointing and prodding. There’s no going back. Things will not return to normal.
We must sit with this truth without prescience, as if we are running in place while hurtling, disoriented towards radical change. The full weight of this shift has yet to declare but we perceive a vast recalibration. It churns, with no hint of letting up or glimpse of how it ends. Nothing feels quite right and yet everything feels possible.
This is a turning point. It is transformational. We are one planet - one ecosystem, each of us banded together. Impact to any single element brings about consequences somewhere else. We are each a part of this dynamic arrangement and this is our delayed moment of global ‘aha’.
And, now that we’ve glimpsed our interconnectivity, we cannot ignore the disparities in climate, food, water, shelter, healthcare and education – the inequities of power, wealth and resources and the value of profit for the few over the lives of everyone else. This is not comfortable. The crisis is painful; but from it we can learn.
We have entered a richly nuanced phase of the Information Age - a stage where our current ways will no longer hold up; a time when sustainability, solidarity and intersectionality have become essential rather than desirable. Technology and strategy will not resolve the intractable challenges we are facing. Building a better future necessitates embracing a mindset that acknowledges humanity’s interdependence with nature. We must prioritize sustainability over growth and consumerism, and find lifestyles that are beneficial for everyone and the planet. It will take the cooperative power of individuals, governments, industry and nations to adapt. The alternative is accelerating devastation.
Of course we’re a little off balance. A hard reset of our computers confounds us. The re-imagination of our entire economic and social system is overwhelming.
Paradoxically, the first step toward change is to learn how to be still. We need to listen and reflect to see how to advance. To apprehend what is happening we first need to be present, wholly present with this crisis, and experience fully what is going on around us. We must take in all the intellectual and sensory information that we’d rather avoid.
The pandemic is a nightmare but it is here and it brings with it a chance to sift through the contents of our lives and decide what is really worth keeping and what causes harm. It is our opportunity to learn how to think, act and organize locally, while cultivating a singular vision of global solidarity.
Being present is not easy. Being linear in focus helps us survive - we learn from the past and plan for the future; but we tend to conflate this and go round in circles, ruminating about things that have happened or being distracted by what’s yet to come. The present gets lost as a relatable construct. So we must remember: We are here. This is now. And, in this extraordinary present, disruption is all around us. Our world is shifting and there will be incalculable ripples.
Be awake. Think deeply. Breathe.
Being present is like riding a wave so as not to be crushed by the turbulence. I am reminded of what I learned while white-water rafting: When you hit the strong breakers don’t dig in your heels. By trying to gain control in the rapids your feet can get lodged in the rocks and you’ll drown. Be aware. Calm your breathing. Then lift up your feet and let the current carry you to safety.
Embrace the ambiguity. Let go. Slide.
Only after we become able to be present with ourselves, can we learn to be present with others. That’s the real game-changer. When we can truly understand each other’s perspectives, the terrible onus of change will lighten. Feelings of entitlement, sacrifice, FOMO and regret give way when viewed in the context of affiliation. Empathy is our root, the foundation for collaboration, conflict resolution and social action. To solve problems on a global, political scale, this is the lesson to learn.
So, there is a gift in this COVID pandemic. Handled well, our current predicament can lead us to a never-before-seen resilience. Collectively we become more able to address our challenges than as any individual, nation or tribe.
Bear Witness. Reflect. Align. Carry on.
There are blessings to be found during this process as well. In the still chaos of our evolving present, we uncover new emotions peaking out. There is ‘Ubuntu’ (Zulu), a spirit of universal kindness from our common humanity; ‘Ataraxia’ (Greek), calm from understanding the ways of the universe, focusing only on the things one can actually change, and ‘Orenda’ (Huron), the power of the human will to change the world in the face of powerful forces.
We are each present in the universe and the universe is present in each of us in a self-repeating, slightly imperfect fractal pattern. This pattern is the shape of flexibility. It is the language of interconnectivity. It is our guide for renewal.
Be present. Listen.