In Alice in Wonderland, just before Alice meets Tweedledum and Tweedledee, she enters the wood-of-no-names and meets a fawn. They walk together, “Alice with her arms wrapped lovingly around the fawn,” until they come to the edge of the wood.
There, the fawn suddenly remembers its name and looks at Alice with horror. “I’m a fawn!” it cries out, “and, dear me! You’re a human child!” Terrified, it runs away.
We’re in a dark wood today, but we’re all in it together. Maybe this is a chance for us to try to see ourselves and others a little differently—beyond names or name-calling, beyond labels. Just human beings.
Government officials, healthcare workers, sanitation workers, bus drivers, the old, the young, the right, the left, male and female, rich and poor, all nationalities—just human beings.
We often hear today, “We’re all in this together.” I think there’s wisdom in that.
So, what’s at stake right now? Maybe this: the choice to either close down or open up. The choice to go through this in a way that shrinks our humanity—or expands it.
When we’ve received such a big hurt, it can be tempting to close down. To hunker down in fear and/or anger, to try to find someone or something to blame, or to simply hide and postpone living until it’s over.
But if we do, does our humanity shrink?
Or we can open up (as so many are doing). We can embrace our fears and pain, look trouble in the eye, join together and reach out to do what we can. We can keep living and laughing and loving and, yes, weeping.
Opening up can help us overcome—rather than be overcome. It is a way to go through this that can deepen and enrich and expand our humanity.
No, it’s not easy. (This is one of the toughest times in American history.) But it’s important to think about.
Because you are needed where you are. Your humanity is needed, your joy and humor, your compassion and empathy, your courage and aliveness, and your genuine presence.
NOTE: I’m passing along another thought from Landon Saunders. If you’d like to receive his weekly emails free, there’s a place to click at the end to sign up.
Dr. Helen Ouyang, an emergency medical physician in New York City, said about her experiences over a period of six weeks with the coronavirus: “I’ve never felt less useful as a doctor. The one thing I can do—what I think will matter most, in the end—is just to be a person first, for these patients and their families.”
It’s so easy to overlook the most precious gift we can give others: “just to be a person first.” Think of it—to be a person.
So many things can get in the way of just being a person first. Titles, roles, self-images we have, differences in wealth, status, ethnicity, and gender—any of these can intrude on our just being a person. They can constitute “layers,” “guises,” and even “walls” that come between one person and another.
I was once asked a rather complicated question by a young woman. I answered. Then she said, “Landon, it feels like you didn’t respond to me. It felt like you quickly flipped through the files of your mind to pull out some answer you formulated years before.” I was stunned. She was right—that’s exactly what I had done. I apologized, and I resolved then and there that I would try never to do that again.
What does being a “person first” mean? I think it’s mostly about presence. Being fully present with another is one of the greatest gifts you can ever give. So much failure in relationship comes down to a failure in presence. That is worth pondering, isn’t it?
The young woman I mentioned above really cited me for not being present with her, and I wasn’t—in the way I heard her question or in the way I responded. Without thinking about it, I had become some kind of “authority,” a professional who had answers rather than a person to be with.
The doctor has decided that the thing that matters most is to be a person, to be present, to be fully present. We can do that no matter how many roles or responsibilities we may have.
Just be a person first.
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It’s hard to do, isn’t it?
We seem wired to want to predict, know about, anticipate, prepare for, control the future—especially now.
Author Seth Godin (www.sethgodin.com) says this about predicting the future:
We do it all the time. Constantly.
We’re terrible at it.
We spend our days guessing how an action will impact the future, and we’re often wrong…
What if, instead, just for a little while, we simply did our best?
And let the future take care of itself.
To take Godin’s thought a step further, what if, just for today, we focused most of our attention on living today well? And let tomorrow take care of itself.
That raises an interesting question:
Is an ordinary day worthy of giving our whole heart and mind and humanity to?
The poet Mary Oliver wrote:
It’s a serious thing to be alive on this fresh morning in the broken world.
She’s saying: Today matters. You matter. And that is even true in quarantine.
I think one of the things we may realize more deeply during this difficult time is this:
As we learn to bring more of ourselves to ordinary moments—more quiet attentiveness, more human presence, more listening, even more humor—we may come to see that there are no ordinary moments.
Maybe we can’t entirely forget the future. But maybe we can get even better at making ourselves at home in the present.
[NOTE: Another helpful insight from Landon Saunders. If you’d like to receive his emails, there’s a place at the end to sign up.]
I just saw a line from the Japanese Zen poet Ryokan Taigu. He wrote: “Last year, a foolish monk. This year, no change.”
During this time, many of us are coming face-to-face with our own humanity, and some of us are surprised!
Some say, “I’m doing better than I thought I would.” Others say, “I’m stressed.” It’s interesting to ask, “What is my own unique humanity telling me right now?” We ask this, personally, and we realize the question applies to all humanity.
The Zen poet quoted above recognized a remarkable quality in himself. He wasn’t saying he hadn’t grown some, or that he hadn’t done some good work. Last year he grappled with his humanness, and this year he is still grappling with his humanness. We’ve laughed, and we’ve cried. We’ve been kind, and, well, we’ve had our moments.
Years ago, I remember making a speech, one that was billed as particularly important, and I completely failed. Nothing worked right in the speech. Afterward, I was driving through the night, miserable, when suddenly it was like I was somewhere watching myself give that speech—watching myself flounder around, struggle for words, the audience simply looking at me with no response—and, for some reason, I started laughing.
It wasn’t that I didn’t feel bad over not giving a fine speech. I did. But I also realized my humanness. Sometimes we do well, sometimes we don’t.
So, take a moment. Just a moment will help. Accept that you’re doing the best you can, and you’re trying to do as well or better. Your humanity is steady—last year and this year. But, each year, as we realize this more, we can laugh. And accept ourselves.
And that will be very good for you and for everyone around you.
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These words from the late advice columnist, Ann Landers, were written years ago—but have never been more relevant or more needed:
“If I were asked to give what I consider the single most useful bit of advice for all humanity, it would be this: Expect trouble as an inevitable part of life, and when it comes, hold your head high, look it squarely in the eye and say, ‘I will be bigger than you. You cannot defeat me.’ Then repeat to yourself the most comforting of all words, ‘This too shall pass.’ Maintaining self-respect in the face of a devastating experience is of prime importance.”
Good words to print out and put on the refrigerator. Or desk. Or nightstand. Or even next to the TV.
Yes, especially next to the TV.
In a nutshell, Landers is telling us: You are greater than anything that happens to you. And you can overcome any hurt or problem or setback.
[NOTE: Here’s another encouraging post from my friend, Landon Saunders. There’s a link at the end to sign up for his email, if you wish.]
I first came across the phrase “tragic optimism” years ago in the writings of Viktor Frankl who wrote the book entitled “Man’s Search for Meaning.” In it, he recounts how finding meaning helped him and others survive the concentration camps.
Recently, I came upon the term again in a New York Times column by Emily Esfahani Smith. She described it this way: “Tragic optimism is the ability to maintain hope and find meaning in life despite its inescapable pain, loss and suffering.”
In crisis, finding meaning each day may bring calmness, a sense of peace and reassurance in spite of the upheaval we experience. Finding meaning keeps us in closest touch with joy.
As I’ve aged—with the inevitable change that brings—I’ve increased my attention to doing things each day that bring meaning to my life. Sometimes, that meaning is reflected in simple rituals that I also find helpful in our current crisis. Each day I ask: “What can I intentionally do today that will bring a bit of meaning to my life?”
For example, I’ve found that getting presentably dressed each morning, even if I’m staying home and likely to see no one, is helpful and meaningful to my sense of self. And so, as I’ve aged and as I’m experiencing this current crisis, I keep this routine each morning. It helps keep me in touch, yes, even with a bit of joy.
Weather permitting, I make a point of going outside for a few moments of sunshine. It’s helpful to soak up the rays. This morning I shared the sun with the first goldfinches of the season! Those moments, however few, help keep me in touch with myself, and yes, to a bit of meaning.
I set aside a specific time, preferably in late afternoon or early evening, for a kind of “Happy Hour.” I do this whether I’m alone or with others. Whatever it might be, create a special moment you can look forward to all day. This can add meaning and joy to our lives.
Each day I think intentionally of something that would make me feel good and something that would add meaning to my day. I might think of someone I’ve known in years past but haven’t been in touch with for a while. I might send a note of remembrance, of appreciation, or something else I could do for others that I hadn’t thought of before. It might even be cleaning out a closet or sorting through the pantry! Be creative and you might surprise yourself with all the things you can think of that could bring you and those around you a little bit of meaning and a bit of joy.
We are in one of the rarest moments in all the history of the world. We do a good thing when we find meaning, each day, in such a time as this. And, in our finding meaning, we give a special gift to others. And we touch the joy that is priceless to our sense of well-being.
Yes, this can be called “tragic optimism.”
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It feels like the whole world is broken.
Like Humpty Dumpty, we’ve had a great fall and all the kings epidemiologists and all the kings medical workers can’t put us back together again.
So maybe the question is: what do we do with brokenness?
It was after being a medic in World War I—which cost 37 million lives—and after the flu epidemic of 1918—which cost an estimated 50 million lives—that Hemingway wrote:
“Life breaks everyone and afterwards many are strong in the broken places.”
Have you ever had a broken arm or leg?
For a while the limb is isolated in a cast, cut off from its regular routine, separated from sunshine and fresh air. It’s in quarantine!
But during that long, uncomfortable, quarantine, something happens. Healing begins.
Finally, the great day arrives and the cast is removed! At first the limb is weak, tender. You have to be gentle with it.
But in time, with patience, it gains strength. And before you know it, it’s as good as new! Maybe even stronger.
Human beings are made for healing. We are made for comebacks. You are made for comebacks.
As a nation, we came back from World War I, the great flu epidemic of 1918, World War II, and more. And many have come back from our own personal setbacks.
Yes, this is a very great fall. We’re losing jobs, businesses, loved ones.
But we also see quiet heroism all around us—people who get up every day and go to work, in spite of their fears, to help put our world back together.
As Governor Cuomo said, this is a time for us all to do our best and be our best selves right where we are…even if that means staying home and not simply staying alive, but staying alive on the inside—keeping our courage alive, our compassion and kindness alive, our perseverance alive, our creativity alive, and yes, even our joy and humor alive.
Then, when this is over, we’ll emerge “strong in the broken places”—the kind of people who can help heal and rebuild.
[NOTE: Here’s another en-couraging post from Landon Saunders.]
Whenever fears arise—when they knock at the door of your mind—what do you do? Do you bar the doors and ignore the knock? Do you try and drive them away?
No, your courage is strong. You hear the knock, and you open the door to your fears.
In less time than you might imagine, your fears cease to be strangers. Instead, they have become a part of you. Not a part of you to be feared, but a part that is known. They have become a part of your courage, and your courage is stronger than ever because you have come to know them
Amelia Earhart, the great pilot, wrote, “Courage is the price that life exacts for granting peace. The soul that knows it not, knows no release from little things.” Open the door to your fears. You have the courage to greet them.
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A TLC reader passed this along:
When you go out and
see the empty streets,
the empty stadiums,
the empty train platforms,
don’t say to yourself,
“It looks like the end of the world.”
What you’re seeing is love in action.
What you’re seeing, in that
negative space, is how much
we do care for each other…
For our Grandparents.
For our immune-compromised
brothers and sisters.
For people we will never meet.
People will lose jobs over this.
Some will lose their businesses.
And some will lose their lives.
All the more reason to take a moment,
when you’re out on your walk,
or on your way to the store,
or just watching the news,
to look into the emptiness
and marvel at all that love.
Let it fill you and sustain you.
It isn’t the end of the world.
It’s the most remarkable act of
human solidarity we may ever witness.
As Lester Holt says every night on NBC News:
“Take care of yourself and others.”
Keep your head down. And keep your head up.