One meaningful thing

A space within upheaval.

Buster

My last letter to you all was on January 16th of this year 2020. Our heads know that this was only a few months of calendar time, but our hearts know that it was a lifetime ago. The last letter was titled, What’s Next?, quaintly referring to what was next for me after all my book promotion and conversation. And now we have an answer! It’s the same as your answer. We have all converged our timelines. We have all also converged our vocabularies: exponential curves! social distancing! lockdown! community spread! contact tracing! self-quarantine! zoom happy hour! I imagine if aliens were watching us from space for the last few millennia, disorganized and frantic, how weird it must have been to see us all suddenly start moving in a more coordinated way than we likely ever have before as a species.

In a matter of weeks, cars started disappearing.

So did airplanes. And with them, pollution went down.

People, unable to work or travel, stopped buying things as well.

(See many more impacts in this Google Slides presentation by Luke Wroblewski.)

All of this came “out of nowhere” and yet it may also feel to some like it was destined to happen. As I wrote my letter from January 16th, referencing the Tower card in tarot:

Many of us feel like there’s an upheaval happening in the world today.

I don’t think I was referring to COVID-19 directly. It was way more ambiguous than that. Looking back at what the New York Times had already published the situation was presented in ways that we now know underestimated what was about to happen:

Jan 10th: The coronavirus, which surfaced in the city of Wuhan, has put the region on alert, but there is no evidence that it can spread among humans.

Jan 22nd: James G. Hodge Jr., director of the Center for Public Health Law and Policy at Arizona State University, said the shutdown [in Wuhan] would almost certainly lead to human rights violations and would be patently unconstitutional in the United States.

And yet, here we are. Now this is happening. Now the upheaval has a name and a face.

The world is in upheaval. We are in upheaval.

There’s no denying it, because denial is followed by even more upheaval and death. Those natural consequences are unfortunately not necessarily only delivered for those who were denying it, but to the rest of us as well.

Suddenly, we know on a visceral level that our individual actions have an enormous impact to ourselves and the world. Our fears have a name, and an action plan, and we can track its impact via data published continuously throughout the day. In a weird way, for better and worse, what we do matters. Our everyday routines have meaning. Yes, the conditions are not ideal nor of our choosing. We’re under enormous threat of dire consequences not only for our own actions, but of the actions of everyone else around us. And then there are the downsides caused by the safety measures themselves, that we pay even in a best case scenario.

We have, collectively, entered a meaningful moment of history that is unpredictable in its unfolding (other than that it will definitely change us forever). We’ve all been recruited to play an important role in directly shifting that timeline. Where should we put our energy, attention, and weight? That’s a personal question we can each ask, with unique opportunities, costs, and constraints. The only thing we must do at some level is observe what’s happening, orient ourselves to what we see, and participate in it as it is happening.

Between stimulus and response there is space.
In that space is our power to choose our response.
In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

Unknown

During this weird time I want to use this Substack to contribute as honestly and positively as I can. So I will be shifting focus from “what’s next” for me towards “what might be helpful” to you and me. My understanding of what’s helpful is imperfect, and “my power to choose my response” is limited by my own understanding, so I’ll start small with one meaningful thing at a time.

Here’s a poem I read the other day that has helped me connect with this weird moment in time, which I found linked in Austin Kleon’s excellent newsletter.


Things to Do in the Belly of the Whale

By Dan Albergotti

Measure the walls. Count the ribs. Notch the long days.
Look up for blue sky through the spout. Make small fires
with the broken hulls of fishing boats. Practice smoke signals.
Call old friends, and listen for echoes of distant voices.
Organize your calendar. Dream of the beach. Look each way
for the dim glow of light. Work on your reports. Review
each of your life’s ten million choices. Endure moments
of self-loathing. Find the evidence of those before you.
Destroy it. Try to be very quiet, and listen for the sound
of gears and moving water. Listen for the sound of your heart.
Be thankful that you are here, swallowed with all hope,
where you can rest and wait. Be nostalgic. Think of all
the things you did and could have done. Remember
treading water in the center of the still night sea, your toes
pointing again and again down, down into the black depths.


That’s one meaningful thing. If we can find one, then there may be others out there. If I find another I’ll share it in another week or so.

From my remote space to yours,

Buster