How can we best deal with the sharp turns and the loop-de-loops?
We’re now almost a month into a worldwide lockdown. Did you see this coming?
I didn’t. I was taken completely by surprise. That a disease could cause this scale of change to our way of life is straight out of an end-of-the-world type horror movie.
How have you reacted to this sudden change?
Did you run to the store to buy up all the toilet paper you could get your hands on? Did you scour the shelves for hand sanitizer? Did you stockpile your pantry with non-perishables?
If you did, you’re not alone. The grocery stores have been mad-houses for the past couple of weeks. And it makes sense, doesn’t it? We’re all trying to find a little bit of certainty and comfort during an uncertain time.
And the thought of living without food or toilet paper is perhaps a thought that had never before even crossed our minds. And now that it has, perhaps it’s too unsettling to ignore.
But, it’s not our behaviour, per se, that we might want to reflect upon — it’s the emotions driving our behaviour.
Are you worried? Concerned? Afraid?
There is a lot of change going on. People are losing their jobs. Industries are on the verge of collapse. Air travel has all but ceased. We’re virtually trapped in our homes.
Our ability to deal with all this change matters, doesn’t it? If this pandemic has taught us anything it’s that life is uncertain. There is more outside of our control than we typically give any thought to. And that’s scary.
We like to think we’re in control of our lives. We like to feel like we’re the captains of our fates. But right now, we probably feel like we’re on a rollercoaster, helplessly waiting for that next heart-stopping loop.
The question is, if life is just one loop after another, how do we best prepare for them?
Change is not a new concept
I’m beginning to believe that every generation of humans has thought itself to be fundamentally different from every generation that came before it.
Do you think we’re the first generation to go through a rough patch?
Well, there was something called the Cold War not too long ago, when the entire world sat on the brink of nuclear annihilation.
There was World War II before that.
Then there was the first World War and the Spanish Influenza, which infected a quarter of the world’s population.
During each of these periods people must have thought, no one in the history of the world has ever felt this kind of fear and despair.
Yet, where are those things now?
They have all come and gone. Everything has changed.
As Stephen King might put it, the world has moved on.
Twenty-five hundred years ago, the Buddha pronounced that nothing is permanent and everything is subject to change.
Seven hundred years later, Marcus Aurelius wrote, the speed with which all of them vanish — the objects in the world, and the memory of them in time.
This too shall pass, they say.
Change is not a new invention. Yet it’s so palpable to us, especially now, while things are so uncertain. It feels like nothing in the history of the world could have ever compared, doesn’t it?
Perhaps we’re wrong.
Perhaps, if we look a little bit closer, we’ll see that change is always present.
Change is everywhere
For many of us, our pre-COVID lives seemed stable. We had a bed to sleep in. We had family and friends to rely on. We had our favourite TV shows, sports teams, and books. We had our phones, our videogames, and our movies.
There seemed to be a degree of constancy in our world.
But were we just fooling ourselves?
If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that anything can change at any time.
Does that sound scary to you? Does that sound like we should be constantly looking over our shoulder, expecting the grim reaper to show up at any moment?
I don’t think life’s inherent uncertainty needs to be a monster in the closet. I think it’s a fact that needs to be acknowledged regularly.
Your car might break down today. That TV show you’ve been binging might come to an end. Your partner might be in a really bad mood and put you in one, too. The stress of your job might hit a peak.
These regular, ever day occurrences often send us flying off the rails. Yet, this is life. The good things we’ve been anticipating eventually fade away, just like the bad things we’ve been dreading. Our dissatisfaction only arises when we hang on to what we like and push away what we dislike, knowing fully that neither can last.
If we stand firm in the face of change, if we accept the arising and passing of the good and the bad, we will live at ease in the world. This is equanimity — the surrender to that which we cannot control.
And as we are seeing today, there is much we cannot control.
Does that thought seem unappealing to you? Does it cause you anxiety?
We often ignore this truth because it’s ugly. Yet, how does sticking our heads in the sand protect us from the truth of change?
In fact, it is our denial and avoidance of this fundamental truth that is the cause of much of our dissatisfaction, anxiety, and fear.
What COVID-19 is forcing us to come to terms with is just how much of life is outside of our control.
If we listen, the lesson we’re being taught is that life is precarious and fleeting but that this isn’t something we need to fear — this is something we need to embrace. I think that by acknowledging the uncertainty in our lives, by acknowledging our helplessness in the face of change, we will come to a grand and obvious realization: each moment is precious.
COVID-19 has the potential to wake us from our fantasy of immortality and permanence, in which we take for granted the smiles of our children, the company of our spouses, and the sunshine pouring in through the window. When we think we have forever, nothing has any value. When we realize that time is short, suddenly everything is beautiful.
This doesn’t mean hardships don’t exist. They surely do. But just like every other hardship you’ve ever faced, you can either make the best of it or not. Is there anything else that can ever be done?
Making the best of each moment doesn’t mean we’ve given up, either. It means we’re doing all we can in the face of uncertainty and powers beyond our control.
Besides, isn’t your desire for control and certainty exactly what make the rollercoaster uncomfortable and scary to begin with?
If you can submit to the authority of the rollercoaster, if you can accept your helplessness, doesn’t the ride become enjoyable?
No matter who you are, you cannot escape change. It is everywhere, always. We just tend to forget about it and ignore it.
Stop ignoring the truth of change and you will see yourself relax. You’ll stop being so fixated on forcing life to be one way or another, and you’ll be able to appreciate what you have yet still work toward building something better.
But, recognize that this shift in perspective takes time. Your mind despises change, and will continue to kick and scream long after you have intellectually accepted the inevitability of change.
So, remind yourself regularly that each moment you’ve been given is precious, and every moment that passes means you have one less to enjoy.
Take advantage of the gift of life by ceasing to deny the truth of change. Embrace it. Surrender to it.
If you do, you might just find yourself enjoying the next loop-de-loop.
Thanks for reading!
The ideas presented here were influenced by a variety of sources, including Joseph Goldstein, Sam Harris, Ryan Holiday, and Eckhart Tolle.