Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s book “Love in the Time of Cholera” set its love stories in the midst of calamity. The title plays on the double meaning of cholera in Spanish – referring both to the disease and to rage. So, love as calamity, love despite calamity and love as the antidote to calamity.
The necessity of reconciling apparent opposites becomes heightened when a plague shows up. We have to find a way to navigate emotional rapids without losing ourselves even when our ‘normal’ has been mostly obliterated. It makes sense that anxiety is often our first response. The task of coming to terms with that anxiety requires some wrestling with mystery and apparent senselessness – it has highlighted for me the connectivity of endings and beginnings.
My anxiety has showed up in reading as much as possible trying to make some sense out of this current upside down experience for myself and my clients. I wanted to highlight some of the perspectives that have resonated with me the most and will be listing multiple links at the bottom of this post so you can further investigate what resonates for you.
We’re all grieving right now for all kinds of loss – some tremendous and some less tremendous. But loss nevertheless and we all need the acknowledgement right now that this is hard, sometimes deeply hard. How do you keep going? Whether on the front lines or witnessing those on the front lines there is a real challenge here. What does it look like to stay present to the world right now in a genuine way?
One of the first things I noticed after shifting into stay at home mode were the images of animals ‘outside their box’ moving in to formerly human spaces in myriad ways. Some of these have probably popped up in your feeds
Penguins in Shedd Aquarium
Dolphins in Italy
Boars in Barcelona
The Lizard and the Sea Lion
They’ve been rocketing around the internet (I’ll link to all of them at the bottom of this post). They make me laugh which I am deeply grateful for and I am fascinated by the promise of a different relationship that they hold. There is something magical about dolphins returning to the now clear waterways to play, it’s like medicine for the soul and a potent reminder of the beauty of the natural world.
The pandemic is a fast moving disaster right in our faces but, of course, there is a slower moving disaster behind it which is climate change. Our failure to acknowledge our interdependence as a species with other species on a shared planet will certainly spell our doom if covid doesn’t get us first.
We live in a finite ecosystem – there are rules and consequences to breaking them. As of this morning the Great Barrier Reef has suffered its worst bleaching event to date due to warming waters. Jane Goodall has recently written about the intersection of Covid-19 and the Sixth Great Extinction which is happening right now. She points out that we are stealing the future from not only our children but from every living being on the planet. I see that as a call to wake up, open our eyes, move out of the denial that nails itself to the assumption that just because something is it will stay that way forever. That is just not a true statement.
So there is another paradox here – on the one hand we are in the fight of our lives. On the other though I feel we must consider also adding an emphasis for our capacity towards community. The sympathetic half of our nervous system is often referred to as the origin of the ‘fight/flight’ response. However, the other half, the parasympathetic half, is referred to as the source of the ‘tend and befriend’ response. We need both to maintain our equilibrium and to stay as resourced and functioning as possible.
Often the language of fighting is inappropriately applied to illness with death then framed as nothing other than a failure to ‘win’. It can imply that somehow the ill person wasn’t good enough or didn’t fight hard enough to ‘win’ against a disease process. That would be an entirely different narrative if we led from our tend and befriend orientation – what would working from there look like?
We will find our way through Covid. It will take a lot longer than any of us want and there will be no ‘back to normal’. We’re going to have to forge a new normal. Hopefully one that is grounded in a much wider frame than winning or losing – we’re not ‘winning’ anything if we can’t find a way to take care of each other and the planet we, as living beings, all depend on
Aisha Ahmad points out in her excellent article on productivity now that ‘the world is our work’. Newton may have invented calculus when he was in quarantine however that may not be the most helpful standard right now. Her perspective on fundamental shifts and how to manage them is informed by searing personal experience and an open heart. Her essay is a primer on how to prepare for being ‘forever changed’. She doesn’t gloss over loss or suffering or offer redemptive bromides – the emphasis is on authentic rather than performative. It creates the space to consider her premise that ‘calamity is a great teacher’.
The British philosopher Jules Evans wrote a piece calling out the rush to ‘silver lining’ ourselves out of this in a performative way. It’s a subtle distinction but an important one. There are not going to be any real shortcuts now as much as we want them. In my practice I often call on the legend of the Phoenix – it’s a powerful symbol of re-birth and healing. In the middle of a life changing trauma it’s perfectly human to want to move through it as fast as possible. We tend to rush past the ‘burned to the ground’ part of the story though – there’s no glorious new plumage without sitting in the ashes first.
I’m also linking to his “Emergency First Aid Kit for Difficult Times’ blog post. Although written with a focus on the emergency of climate change I feel that it has a lot to offer in the context of Covid-19.
I find the empty streets unsettling, I can’t say I’ve ever been a fan of traffic but now the polar opposite of that is making me feel like I’m in the Twilight Zone – not unlike a nightmare, which is an accurate reflection on a number of levels. It’s an eerie in between space, a liminal one – by definition a place of transition where transformation can take place
In my practice I like to consider the concept that often the function of nightmares is to wake us up. They’re scary because sometimes that’s what it takes to break through the walls of denial. Yet, if we can turn and face whatever the scary thing is and ask what it has for us then we have access to the possibility of change and the markings of a path forward. We have to choose it though. Our choices matter, often the daily quotidian ones more than what we consider big ones over the course of a life. Now, more than ever, is the time to consider that your choices matter – even the smallest ones. Anytime you choose kindness and consideration over aggression will be a contribution towards the greater good that touches all of us. It’s important.
So something is ending. Frank Ostaseski, co-founder of the Zen Hospice Center and a leader in the field of end-of-life care, talks about the inevitability of endings and that a key question is how we meet them. That leads to a host of other questions – where did you learn to meet endings? are you satisfied with the way you meet them? He points out that the ending of anything shapes how the next thing begins and asks what habits of ending do we wish to create for ourselves in the present moment.
How do we keep our heart open in hell? It feels like a time that we need to shut ourselves and our lives down in order to survive and there’s a lot of truth to that on a factual level. Yet within that is the challenge to stay open and expand towards the collective human experience right now. One person’s ability to stay centered, grounded and connected offers equilibrium to others – Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese monk who is considered a global spiritual leader, points to the boat people launching themselves onto the Gulf of Siam often in very small boats. Many panic and perish in the rough seas but Hanh points to the power of even one individual that can remain calm and lucid in such a situation. That person will impart calmness to everyone in the boat and save lives.
The demands of a quarantine like time are almost by definition a recipe for amplified anxiety. Fear can push towards emotional isolation and aggression. Succumbing to it can drive us down a post-apocalyptic rabbit hole. The survivalism/prepper view of the world is so bleak – all that scarcity and hoarding. It is an overall vision that is based on the image of utter isolation cloaked in the guise of individualism. It’s often connected to a type of species-ism – a need to establish our difference and superiority to all other living creatures and even nature itself.
The future we imagine matters, it has possibly never been more important to appeal to our better angels and the better angels of others – to acknowledge the shared space and the shared fate of this planet and to consider the part we wish to play in it.
The brilliant writer,Arundhati Roy recently wrote an article for the Financial Times. It is an excellent piece and well worth your time to read in its entirety. She writes with clear eyes of the current situation in India amidst the ongoing global pandemic touching all of us and doesn’t flinch from either the present suffering or that which is yet to come. But it is her last few paragraphs that I wanted to especially share and leave you with as they so beautifully evoke the potential of this collective moment we find ourselves in.
Whatever it is, coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could. Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to “normality”, trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality.
Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.
We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.
Are you struggling with a new normal due to Covid-19? If you’d like some help making sense of it feel free to contact me for a consultation.
You can find the penguins here:https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/03/17/penguins-coronavirus-shedd-aquarium/
The boars are here: https://twitter.com/alfonslopeztena/status/1240772156339949575?s=20
And the lizard and sea lion are here:https://www.usatoday.com/videos/news/have-you-seen/2020/03/25/sea-lion-gets-wide-eyed-seeing-tegu-lizard-aquarium/5078825002/
Jane Goodall’s essay is here: https://slate.com/technology/2020/04/jane-goodall-coronavirus-species.html
Aisha Ahmad’s article is here: https://www.chronicle.com/article/Why-You-Should-Ignore-All-That/248366/
The Medium article and blog post from Jules Evans are here: (https://medium.com/@julesevans/covid-19-and-the-failure-of-our-belief-systems-3f1009577040)
There’s additional information on Frank Ostaseski here: https://www.mettainstitute.org/FOstaseski.html
There is a very accessible article here showcasing Thich Nhat Hanh’s wisdom (https://upliftconnect.com/finding-peace/) which helps unpuzzle the paradox of retaining access to peace and joy when things as we know them are falling apart.
Arundhati Roy’s article is here:(https://www.ft.com/content/10d8f5e8-74eb-11ea-95fe-fcd274e920ca?fbclid=IwAR21j99gvWaSO08phdB8nUcAcX7CI9B5HAzULhi8xEL-JXRYG1NIhlio2EQ)
Image Credit: Taku