It would be irresponsible and cruelly glib to imply that the Covid-19 pandemic has not been difficult, and that the results haven’t produced fear, anger and for so many, tragedy. Those things are all true. Loss of livelihood, loss of well-being and even loss of life are real and averting our gaze is a disrespectful pretense. We are all ethically and compassionately charged with the responsibility to help, to examine our own lives and behavior to see if we are thinking, acting and speaking in a way that relieves suffering and if not, to look deeply for a better insight. With that said, I’d like to just talk first about how words and the stories our minds make with them can set the stage for…everything, and then about why embracing and bringing narrative life to the right words can be awakening.
Read these words and then just let them settle in for a bit noticing how you feel physically:
“LOCKDOWN” “QUARANTINE” “DISTANCING” “SANITATION” “RISK”
One more time-there is nothing wrong with these words and they point directly at some IRL referents that are essential and beneficial.
Now, try these:
“RETREAT” “QUIET” “CONTEMPLATION” “CARE” “SAFETY”
I will submit that the body sensations each word-set evokes are different. No, they don’t “mean” the same things but they can describe aspects of the same experience and those experiential components can co-exist. What is fascinating is that by placing our attention on these labels, we actually can change how we perceive, feel and think about the “reality” of our lived experience.
I’m wired as an introvert (INFP if you’re Myers-Briggsish). It isn’t that introverts “don’t like people”-far from it. It simply means that I’m comfortable living in my head and in fact derive energy from that silence. For most of us “intro” types, we need a lot of that recharge time between periods of engagement with other folks-but when we engage it can be quite robust and fulfilling. For instance, when my colleagues and I are “doing” (it is the word we use and it’s an interesting choice) a StoryJam-our collaborative innovation work, I LOVE the performance energy of sharing a “stage” all day, exhorting a room full of relative strangers to levels of imaginative play they would not have thought possible. The difference for me is, around 5:00 when we’re finished I am heard to say “All done extroverting now. See you all in a couple of hours.” I don’t need a nap, I just need it to be quiet with no requirement to engage-what I call recharging.
So, if we go back to our word lists, I have a neutral to slightly tense reaction to the first set. But perhaps because of my introverted bias, the second set is appealing. Those words evoke the promise of pleasure.
My body relaxes. My emotional tone shifts toward interest, and happiness. Same house. Can’t leave. Still have to wash my hands and wear my mask if I even see the neighbors at the mailbox. Still bored with my own cooking. Still wearing the dog out with too many walks—but, leaning toward happiness.
We’ve been fortunate at IDEAS to have been able to continue doing much of our work during the past couple of months. Damn, that’s really weak. We’ve been INSANELY LUCKY. The new work style is pretty time-dense so it isn’t like I have been “stuck with nothing to do”. But a magic thing happened-even through there are exactly the same number of minutes in a day, somehow each minute got longer.
The photo above is my view from the porch. Which is my office, my dining room, where I lift weights, read, drink coffee and listen to NPR. If it had plumbing, I might never go in my house-which is attached to it. Featured in that photo are:
- A rock ring around some seedling sunflowers
- A Sandhill Crane
- (2) Ibises
- (2) Ducks
But because of the shift in perception that has resulted from these new L O N G E R minutes and “RETREAT” “QUIET” “CONTEMPLATION” “CARE” “SAFETY”-I really know those plants and animals. I know that sunflower seeds need to be watered from the bottom-not the leaves. I know how many days they will wait in hot sun before they get thirsty. I know the different qualities of the soil in which they’re planted-at different depths. How water soaks in or runs off. How that small garden patch smells different at different times of day. How they each have a different growth schedule and which are likely to make it to full maturity-and a flower the size of a dinner plate-sometime in July.
I know that this is a male crane. His name is Freckles because he has mottled cheeks instead of the usual pure white. I know his mate, Madeline and exactly when he met her. I know their speech from the famous Dinosaur Call that is their sonic logo to the very soft purr that you can only hear if you’re allowed within about 18”. I know how and when they dance and what toys they prefer to toss in the air. I know the body language that means “there is no seed down right now-feed please” and the one that says “just chillin by the lake bro”. I know how their beaks feel when they strike at your hand (hard and pointy) and from what direction they will arrive and depart.
Ducks? David and Harriet. Mottled Ducks. Soft voices, love comedy. I have thrice protected them from the Hawk, Pancho (not shown) and encouraged them not to be bullied by squirrels. The Ibises keep their names secret of course, but I have a deep admiration for their diligence, their methods and their steadfastness. This is to say nothing of the Limpkins, Heron, Anhinga and Kingfishers, the squadron of Cardinals, the acting troupe of Redwing Blackbirds, the officious Blue Jays and of course-The Crows-who deserve their own chapter.
“RETREAT” “QUIET” “CONTEMPLATION” “CARE” & “SAFETY” have enabled me to know the language of three species of mango, the concerns of 35 young pineapples, the humor of awakening black racers and rat snakes, how much sweat it takes a 65 year old human male to make 686 square feet of dirt aspire to the rank of “garden” and what times of day the Gopher Tortoise and the Legion of Rabbits can be seen. These are the gifts of right now.
A famous Chinese curse goes, “May you live in interesting times”. We had won that lottery long before Covid-19 provided us with a planetary existential crisis, but it put a lens on it. Lenses though, provide concentrated light and with intense illumination we may be better able to see the nuances in our labels and pick the ones that open some doors to new understanding and joy. The secret is that, with just a little joy, we can look squarely at all of those other words and at what our world is undergoing with a steady, fresh and recharged gaze. We can own all of it with equanimity-a lovely word that means sitting right in the middle of life’s mudpuddle with the same regard for the mud as we have for the flower nearby. From there, we can do what needs to be done, what brings relief, and we can have our joy too.