Navigating through difficult times is both a personal and communal journey. As we each chart our course through this particular crisis, it is important to concentrate on the ways we can show love and live with hope.
Inspiration for my journey comes from a cross section of writers, historians, thinkers, theologians, poets, activists, and friends. One of my personal favorites is Rebecca Solnit. “When all the ordinary divides and patterns are shattered, people step up to become their brothers’ keepers,” Solnit writes. “And that purposefulness and connectedness brings joy even amidst death, chaos, fear, and loss.”
In a 2016 interview with The On Being Project’s Krista Tippett — posted on the project’s website as one of the “conversations we’re longing to hear again and finding useful right now” — Solnit speaks of how the world wants to categorize and pigeonhole love. But coming from a place of abundance, where there is room for everyone, Solnit said, “There’s so much other work love has to do in the world.” That resonated with me.
I had returned to Solnit at this time because her book A Paradise Built in Hell focuses on how people respond to disasters. In that 2016 interview, she asserts that trashy Hollywood movies and news accounts show that “humans are fragile, disasters are terrible, and we’re either terrified, because we’re fragile, or our morality is fragile,” causing us to revert to our “savage, social, Darwinist, Hobbesian nature.” But based on her investigations of the moments of altruism, resourcefulness, and generosity that arise amid disaster’s grief and disruption, Solnit makes the case that the common story we’re told is misguided and one-sided.
For Solnit, the important questions coming out of crises are, “How do you stay awake? How do you stay in that deeper consciousness of that present-mindedness, that sense of non-separation, and compassion, and engagement, and courage…and generosity?”
How do we show love and live with hope?
This period of self-isolation and social distancing is a good time for us to reflect, reconsider our priorities, and reset our approach to life and to each other. We have the opportunity to find out what really matters. This is our time to make a difference, just as those who came before us made decisions to get us to where we are today.
“These are the times that try men’s souls,” Thomas Paine famously wrote in the opening to The Crisis. But we often forget that he added that while crises are not easily overcome, “that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly.” Abigail Adams, writing to her son (and future president) John Quincy Adams in 1780, said something similar: “The habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties. Great necessities call out great virtues.”
We are in a time of great necessities. In my experience, I have found the following five pathways helpful. Perhaps they will be useful as you consider changes in your personal and communal journeys.
Build in Times of Silence
Some of us are alone. Others are focused on the health and isolation of older parents. Many are coping with young children facing long changes in their daily routine. Whatever the circumstance, we have the opportunity to discover the blessing of silence. A 2017 Harvard Business Review article entitled The Busier You Are, the More You Need Quiet Time, suggests that it may be time to get off Twitter in order to “get beyond the noise.” Researchers have found that “taking time for silence restores the nervous system, helps sustain energy, and conditions our mind to be more adaptive and responsive to the complex environments in which so many of us live, work, and lead.”
Business leader and writer Robert Glazer has encouraged his readers to focus downstream to support the people who depend on us. Out of an example included in his recent post, I thought of the yoga studio where we attend classes. They have had to suspend regular on-site sessions, but the good folks at Grace have set up live-streaming options so that we can continue to connect with our favorite teachers. Perhaps Grace will find a new business model out of this experience. Read Glazer’s Friday Forward post to see other ways to move your focus beyond yourself.
Rely on the Knowledge of Others
It is easy to become isolated mentally as well as physically. For those in the work force, many are facing the need to work off-site and on-line for the first time. Leaders are being asked to manage organizations without the advantage of physical proximity. Consultants are unable to hold on-site meetings which may be key to a project’s success. In these instances, look to those who have successfully navigated this field in the past. If, on the other hand, you are trying to figure out new ways to engage your children as daytime care-giver and home schooling teacher gets added to your job description, consider these crowdsourced Ideas for Social Distancing.
Straighten Out Your Mental House
“Most of the choices we make each day may feel like the products of well-considered decision making, but they’re not. They’re habits.” That’s according to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. A period of enforced isolation is a good time to consider what we do, why we do it, and how we can change those things we wish to stop doing. I had an epiphany when the annual NCAA basketball tournament — marketed as March Madness — was abruptly cancelled earlier this month. In other years I would have camped out on the couch, watching basketball games for hours on end. But upon reflection I realized that I couldn’t pick out five players from any current college basketball team if my life depended on it. I haven’t been engaged and would be watching simply out of habit. Thankfully, habits and routines can be changed, and I’ve turned to other, more productive ways, to fill my time. The larger issue is how to do that without being prompted by a crisis. At their most basic, habits include “cues, routines, and rewards.” Once we recognize the cycle — and understand that we can change the routine to override a bad habit — we can make the conscious decision to change.
Live a Generous, Grateful, and Loving Life
It is too easy to allow home confinement to change who we are at our core, drowning us in negativity or perhaps in escapes into the digital world. I was surprised, recently, when I came across an article on the science of empathy that noted that, “The impulse to help others isn’t simply the result of a good upbringing, a strong moral compass or adherence to a faith-based code of conduct. The drive to assist is born in empathy — that ability to feel and understand what others are feeling.” According to recent neuroscience, empathy is hardwired into all mammals. Peggy Mason, a neuroscientist and professor at the University of Chicago, adds, “At a fundamental level, the default is to help — in order not to help you have to actively suppress that urge.”
We’re hardwired to care, but we have to nurture that impulse. It is easy, as we are isolated, to supress that urge toward empathy in order to focus on our own selves and those closest to us. But getting through this crisis is going to require resilience and innovation. We still need human connections and we should cultivate a long-term orientation. Successful passage is also going to require a generous mindset.
There are many things we can do while quarantined to show love and generosity: call our friends more frequently; write thank you notes; set up a daily video chat with someone who is alone; offer to pick up groceries for a neighbor who is housebound. The possibilities are limited not by our physical confinement, but by our lack of imagination.
Dorothy Day was eight years old and living in Oakland when the 1906 San Francisco earthquake hit. She saw that in disaster there’s this falling together that we don’t acknowledge. People were capable, all along, of doing what is right. And the formative question of her life became, “Why can’t we live this way all the time?”
More to come…
Installment #25 of The Gap Year Chronicles.