“May you live in interesting times”. This is supposedly an ancient Chinese under-handed wish, sounding pleasant but actually damning. Since February 2020, we find ourselves in a singular situation: each and every person in the world is now “living in interesting times”. Indeed .
No. 1: Breathe
As with all accidents, Nothing is prepared. Nothing is forseen. Nothing is anticipated. There is no luxury of planning in the present for the future; there is only scrambling in the present, while looking desperately back at the receding past. In situations of crisis, panic cannot overtake us. We must chant: “Air. Water. Food.” These are our goals, our priorities for the now. What is Air? Address these needs immediately. What is Water? You can put them off until tomorrow, in favor of your Air needs. The rest is Food. Food needs can wait several days, and you must prioritize, because … this is a crisis. And we are living in interesting times.
Wether you’re a 5-step or a 7-step believer, shock is one of the first feelings to come after an accident. Disbelief is close behind, like a 1-2 punch to the gut.
1-shock-what? WHAT?? …
2-disbelief-this is not possible, it can’t be happening.
Then, the relativizing sets in: it’s probably not as bad as they’re saying. It won’t affect us, because we’re (fill in the blank – richer, more developed, stronger, smarter, etc.).
But sometime after that, a strange thing happens, which is not on the 5- or 7-step grief plans: time starts to warp. Its speed depends on the individual and the circumstances, but one thing is sure: it is extreme. Time can begin to roller-coaster out of control, tumbling over itself in an increasing torrent of disasters. There goes that contract – ooh, that one’s postponed too – I didn’t think THAT gig would go, too! – the rent is coming round again – could I even get there if I tried? – the planes are cancelled – the airports closed – my parents are stuck – I am stuck…
Or time can slow to a tar-pit standstill. Nowhere to go, nothing to do, no noises to hear – no joyful hum of progress, of civilization, of hope. No one to see. There is either a mountain to achieve, or a black hole to sink into. Neither is good; both are possible; each is inevitable.
Then there’s the grasping-at-straws feeling of trying to piece together your now-broken life with absurdly inefficient tools at your disposal. Your punctured reality is like a tire which has lost all of its air and bounce and is now flopping noisily down the asphalt, damaging the core rim with each uneven revolution.
You reach out to institutions, but they are panicked, or absent, or closed. As morose numbers and reports rise, the world begins to shut down. Our world has suddenly become drastically, alarmingly stiller and smaller. We make masks, file unemployment claims, sing and play over fractured connections in an effort to bridge the divide. Our efforts are invisible, valiant, fragile. But you can’t scotch-tape a punctured tire. The rubber is too thick, the speed and weight too crushing, the road too rough and unforgiving.
When we realize the scotch tape won’t work, that’s when we panic. And in a crisis, panic is our worst enemy. The more we panic, the more we flail, lose our senses, lose our direction, lose our energy. We want to feel useful and productive, but instead we end up spending precious resources we can’t get back.
Dylan Thomas once famously intoned: “Do not want to go gently into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
But I say to you: stop fighting. Be still enough to listen to the dying of the light. Sit in its ensuing darkness. Breathe.
In the age-old game of Tarot, there is an infamous card: the Messenger of Death card. People are horrified when the Death card is revealed, thinking it is a terrible omen about their imminent demise. But like all of the Tarot cards, the Death card is metaphorical. It does not only represent endings; it also represents transformation, which in turn brings beginnings. But in order to read the card correctly, one has to change perspective. And before being able to effectuate change, one must be open to change. In order to be open to change, one must become neutral-minded and dispel previous fears, preconceptions, blockages.
“Ah yes, but that’s when I must have a moment of sheer genius, capitalize on these ‘interesting times’ to make my fortune in this crisis. I’ll need to find the perfect get-rich-quick scheme of buying oil barrels / pork / making haute-couture masks / tiktoking my fat cat’s absurd life. And if I don’t, I’ll be a fool, a failure, I will have wasted this opportunity!”
Sit in the darkness.
“But if I don’t do something now, I will lose my job / have already lost my job / won’t find another job / won’t be hirable / won’t be fireable / won’t BE.”
And once your bird-feathers have stopped fluttering and flapping, and your heart has stopped racing, and maybe after you have shed a tear – or ten, ask yourself a question:
WHO AM I?
I AM: A mother. A wife. A friend to many, and thank you for the privilege. A leader. A teacher. A warrior. A creator. A transmitter. A scholar. A thinker.
WHAT DO I NEED TO BE WHO I AM?
I NEED: To be alive. This is Air. Everything else is negotiable.
Roethke’s words ring true:
« This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go. »
In the darkness lies the light. We must trust enough in the darkness so that we may perceive the light. Then our path will be clear and strong, and different than before. It will be a rebirth, a renaissance, and it will be fresh and pure and simple. And we will find it, learning by going where we have to go.
By finding the courage to become still in the darkness, we conquer our fear of the unknown and embrace our vulnerability. And that is when we become invincible, and once again capable of greatness and meaning.
Don’t forget to breathe.