As I walked along the beach road where I live, I saw a bright spot in the grass which turned out to be a rock, painted pink and inscribed with “LOVE”. I put this new treasure in my pocket and continued to the beach, contemplating the state of current affairs. I couldn’t help but wonder how much had changed in the last six weeks. This global health and economic crisis has brought tragedy, yet still I wondered, “is there a lesson to be learned?”
A few months ago, long before there was even a whisper of coronavirus- I googled ”best commencement speeches.” “This is Water” delivered by David Foster Wallace to graduating seniors at Kenyon College in 2005 came up. It began with the following parable:
There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”
This speech is ingenious and there is no way I can do it any justice. However, that won’t stop me from using it to make some sense of what’s happening now. I know how people are suffering and yet the optimist in me wants to find a silver lining. I need to know that there is something to be learned from this experience. But I want the lesson to be concrete and useful, not some Pollyanna idea of how the world works. What drew me to this speech is the practical advice on how to live your life in a grown-up world. His argument is that we are often told that education is supposed to teach you how to think, but Wallace further argues that it’s more important that you learn to exercise control over how and what you think. So, when we look at the world today, we have a choice to make.
Let’s face it, in normal everyday life we all see the world in terms of how it impacts us. The troubles and inconveniences are obstacles to be dealt with on a daily basis. If we are particularly lucky or successful, we embrace inspirations such as: “when we want something, the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” On a bad day we opine that “the universe is conspiring against me.” Everything is in relation to how it affects us personally and we often operate on a default setting, exercising little control over our own thoughts. The constant barrage of outside forces directs our attention and we move from subject to subject, often feeling good, or bad or upset, without even realizing that our mood has changed because of some outside stimulus that was imposed on us- not chosen by us.
Then something big happens, terrorists fly planes into the World Trade Center, a Tsunami kills more than 230,000 people in 14 countries creating unfathomable pain, suffering and damage, or a mysterious virus silently travels the world, killing almost a quarter of a million people in less than 6 months, devastates local and world economies and unhinges our belief in our institutions and reveals our absolute inability to protect ourselves.
How do you make sense of these enormous atrocities?
One option is to allow the fear of uncertainty to totally destroy our security and make us run for the proverbial rabbit hole. I can easily see why people faced with seemingly random acts of terror, disease or natural disaster become paralyzed by fear, desperation and despondency. Their personal armor and the institutions that they built, supported and relied upon are of no consequence and little comfort in the face of such horrendous loss.
Yet, time and again, human beings survive these disasters. The survival mechanism is not rooted in denial, or by hiding or numbing ourselves into unconsciousness. The real strength is in staying present, connecting and devoting ourselves the little things (that turn out to be the really BIG things) that can restore our faith in the human spirit. This is not the first or the last natural disaster. The earliest recorded natural disaster dates back to 79 A.D. with the eruption of Vesuvius which buried the ancient city of Pompeii and is believed to have killed 10,000 people. So far, mankind has survived all of it.
What makes us so resilient?
Consider the following:
- Andrea Bocelli delivers an Easter concert from an empty Cathedral in Northern Italy reaching a record 2.8 million people- eery but beautiful. The solo concert named “Music for Hope” and gets more than 35.4 million views on Youtube within days.
- A sole trumpeter serenades his neighbors from his balcony playing the Beatle’s IMAGINE.
- In Sienna and other cities around Italy, neighbors emerge from windows and balconies to sing together in the evening.
- In New York City, every night at 7pm, people applaud, banging pots and pans in support of health care workers are putting themselves and their families at risk to care for the sick.
- A daughter who could not visit her mother in a nursing home gets a bucket truck and is raised to the second floor so she can wave through the window, tell her she loves her and everything is going to be alright.
Random acts of love and kindness are what bring us back from the edge. They give us meaning and purpose in the short run and hope and faith that somewhere on the other side of the inestimable loss, what we do and think matters.
So, for me, the lesson is that B.C. (Before Covid) I paid a lot of attention to things that really don’t matter to me now. I have slowed down and had longer and more meaningful conversations than I’ve had in years. I realize that B.C. Nancy spent a lot of time doing things I thought I HAD to do or spent my time on things I THOUGHT I had to do, only to find out that I don’t have to do most of it. I get to choose what I pay attention to and how I will construct meaning from my experiences. I don’t have to pick up the phone every damn time it rings or alerts me to a new email or a text message. I can walk on the beach, read a book, listen to music, meditate or watch mindless TV.
Most days we go about our lives on a default setting, going through the motions, unconscious- and not choosing the almost infinite possibilities available to us. So many people have told me that they realize that much of what they did B.C. was pointless and annoying. I agree.
So in my P.C. (Post Covid) world, I am going to try to exercise my newfound freedom and remember what Wallace said:
“The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, everyday.”
When and how this thing will be over is anyone’s guess. I have no control over it. But for whatever time I have left, I want to be changed by this experience.
I walked home, conscious of my surroundings, the smell of the sea breeze, the sand in my shoes, the brilliant sun going down, the birds flying overhead, the piping plovers running along the beach to their protected nests and something else…along the road there were more stones, brightly painted, with messages inscribed like “Be Calm”, “Peace,” and painted hearts. I took the treasure out of my pocket and placed it in the grass, for someone else to enjoy. Aware that everything I needed was hidden in plain sight and reminding myself:
“This is water.”
“This is water.”