Last Tuesday, I emailed attendees who were signed up for my workshop at the end of the month, letting them know we intended to hold it.
Twelve hours later, we cancelled it.
We’re in a strange new reality. For most of us, it’s like nothing we’ve experienced in our lifetime. For others, this is not new; you have lived through other crises, SARS or HIV/AIDS, raging wildfires, military coups and war, refugee crises.
Crises get unequal attention around the globe. COVID 19 garners global attention because of its level of disruption and global impact, yet many other crises and tragedies have a greater human cost, without the world mobilizing its resources to respond.
But this disruption is unprecedented in its impact on human lives, not just those who become sick or lose loved ones, but a massive economic impact that will be felt for years. It could be that more people die because of hunger, lack of access to resources, violence, or isolation than will die of the virus.
It’s scary and unprecedented. But, I have to keep reminding myself, it’s also normal.
Normal? Yes. Because what is not normal is expecting things to continue, without disruption, without crisis.
Let me explain.
About 15 years ago, my parents came to visit me in Oregon during a particularly rainy week in July. One day, after what felt like the 100th game of gin rummy, I suggested to my Dad that we go outside, and sit on the porch under the awning.
My Dad was getting older, and I was aware I wouldn’t have much time left with him. I wanted to make sure that before I lost him, I knew his life: what he felt, what he was proud of, what he regretted, his struggles and successes. And I also wanted to know about my relatives long gone. Dad was the last link to my ancestors, shadowy figures in my mind. What were their stories? What were the lives behind those names I grew up hearing, names that seemed so odd and old fashioned to my young ears: Arnold, Gertrude, Tillie, Ruth, and Florence?
So there we sat, under the dripping eaves, my Dad with a cup of coffee in his lap, and me, balancing a legal pad on my knees. I asked questions and Dad talked. We sat for hours, even as it started to get dark, my father telling me story after story about uncles, aunts, grandparents and great grandparents. And while Dad talked, I scribbled down notes, notes I still have, filed away somewhere in my file cabinet.
Hearing the stories of these people was a revelation. Not because any of them were special or did amazing things. Far from it. They were ordinary people, who lived ordinary lives. It was a revelation because each and everyone of them had the exact same story. And it went like this:
- [Insert name] was born in [city, small village in the old country] with nothing but the shirt on his/her back, and $5 dollars, not speaking English
- She/he worked hard/found a job/went to college/got married
- Then lost everything because of
- Pogroms/First World War/Depression/Second World War/Holocaust/polio/mental illness/fire
- Then recovered, and went into business/got married and had four children/opened up a grocery store/sold shoes
- Then lost everything again because of
- Illness/bankruptcy/war/divorce/death of a spouse or child
- Then recovered and started all over again. Or not.
Up and down. Gained it and then lost it. Fled violence and poverty, started a new life, then died in the war. Put himself through school working night shifts as a janitor, started a business, and then lost it all in the Depression. Married a childhood sweetheart and then lost him or her to cancer or polio or mental illness.
Each and every one, made a life and lost it. Built something and then had to start from scratch. Up and down. Sometimes two or three times in one lifespan.
Sitting there, on the porch in the July rain, it struck me that this was normal. My life was not.
I didn’t feel lucky, though. I felt uneasy. It was sobering. Because at that moment, three things struck me with utter clarity:
- What I’ve come to expect, that my life will be free from crisis or massive disruption, and that my gains will continue, is not at all certain. In fact….
- It’s just a matter of time before probability catches up with me. It’s not that things could happen, they will. Because that little dot that is me, on the graph of x (time) and y (place) in history is such an unlikely occurrence, so statistically improbable, that yes, it was just a matter of time. My life is the exception not the rule, and the rule is pandemics, wars, depression, and immigration. And this made me realize that
- I was not prepared.
Many of you readers, and millions of people across the globe live through these ups and downs. But for some, like me, you may not have had anything of this magnitude impact your lives so immediately and intensely.
That afternoon on the porch with my Dad changed me. I began to think more seriously about what could happen to disrupt my life. What could I lose? What do I take for granted? And most important, how prepared am I to do without?
Here’s what those ancestors whispered to me:
- Any success is not permanent, nor is it certain.
- Starting over again is inevitable.
- Prepare for difficulty, always. That doesn’t mean stocking up on toilet paper. It means be mentally prepared to lose, to have to start over again, from scratch.
- Be ready to live without: without the routines you think you can’t live without. Without luxuries. Without comforts, and without your loved ones.
My ancestors were a tough and scrappy lot. They came to a new country with no money, no relatives or friends, not speaking the language. They fought hard and toughed it out. So, preparing for difficulties doesn’t mean giving up easily. Work hard and fight for what you want, but also be prepared to let it go.
With that in mind, I intend to use this time of isolation wisely, to improve at something, to do something I’ve been putting off, to get better at living without. I hope you, too, use this time wisely and well.
Ryan Holiday wrote in his Daily Stoic newsletter last week,”Don’t let the possible weeks or months of isolation be for nothing. … The version of you who steps out of quarantine at some future date can be better than the version that entered it, if you try.”
Be kind to yourself, and be good to each other. If you have the privilege of a salary, or can easily work from home, be grateful, but also see what you can do to help out hourly workers who may lose their paychecks, or those who still have to go to work and are more exposed.
Schools are closed. Is there something you can do to help people who have to choose between caring for children or working?
In the United States a staggering ⅔ of school children, 22 million children, depend on free school lunch for their food. Is there some way you can help out, donate, or drop off food supplies?
The elderly are advised to stay home and not have visitors. How about starting a phone tree, engaging your friends and family to call people who may be feeling isolated or anxious. Offer to pick up and drop off groceries.
Fear is normal. And I know my ancestors were afraid at times but they did not let anxiety or fear get the best of them. They soldiered on. Which is why I’m here. And though we have no control over the virus, we do have control over how we respond.
I know that my ancestors would heartily agree with Tom Hanks, quarantined in Australia with COVID 19, who reminded us all in his Instagram post: “There’s no crying in baseball.”
Be well, everyone.
And as always, thank you for reading.