“And once the storm is over, you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.” –Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore
“The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis.’ One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger—but recognize the opportunity.” –John F. Kennedy
I am SO HAPPY to connect with you again! It feels like forever since I have written to you. I love to write these letters. I love the whole process: what I learn about myself in the exploration, the struggle to piece together the right combination of words to make my idea clear to you, the ecstatic blend of calm certainty and dancing butterflies I feel deep down in my chest and my soul from the knowledge that I am acting on my purpose, the joy and relief of hitting the “Publish” button and seeing my labor of love go out into the world to mingle with your beautiful mind, and the connection I feel with you as a result. All of that is everything to me. I love to write. I am so grateful to be in your world, to share space with you today. This is where I am supposed to be.
So, why haven’t I been here more often lately? That is the logical question. In Pandemic America, after all, the story goes that Time itself has slowed down, and with it, all of our lives. We have the headspace and the minutes and hours (and days and weeks and months….) to collect ourselves, to nest, to make our spaces feel more like home, to set our priorities right, and to finally do all of the things we have been longing to do for ourselves. As disruptive as the coronavirus has been to our normal—our economy, our relationships, our work, our fun, our faces—it supposedly gave us this gift of a “RESET,” the time to get ourselves right and clarify who and what we love.
This is why I have been racked with guilt and frustration that I haven’t been writing more over the past several months. This would seem to have been the ideal time to churn out letters to you every week like I used to. After all, Journal of You is about digging into our own existence and coming to understand where we have come from, where our passions lie today, and where we see ourselves going in the moments we have left on this Earth. This should be our opportunity to nail that stuff down, right? A chance at complete clarity, at least for a moment in our otherwise-busy lives. Somehow, I have failed to capitalize on this most golden of opportunities.
I suppose it was some combination of laziness, busy-ness, and distractedness. That natural slowing down during the earliest, “lockdown” phase of the pandemic seemed to slow everything down, including my ambition. I was enjoying the relative quiet and solitude of my home and family, content to soak up their company and the extra moments without errands and commutes. The urgency to write it all down just wasn’t there. Then came the urgency to do the other things that are typically much more neglected than my writing. Like so many other people, I took on all sorts of home improvement projects, becoming an apprentice painter, landscaper, and organization guru. With my time going into those tasks, the hours allotted to writing diminished. Then there was the issue of headspace. For so much of the last half a year, my brain seemed to split its thoughts three ways: pandemic, racial injustice, and governmental/political nonsense. All three are psychologically and emotionally draining in their own ways, leaving precious little energy for regular functioning, much less for creative expression.
I found myself at the breakfast table this week reading up on the wildfires currently devastating the American West. The whole thing is absolutely heartbreaking to me on so many levels: the loss of life (human, animal, plant, and more), the loss of Beauty, the loss of habitat, the loss of personal property and the priceless feelings of “home” for so many, the loss of jobs and dreams, the recklessness of human-created climate change, the addition of even more greenhouse gases from the fires themselves, and all of the trauma caused, to name just a few. The thought that rose up from inside me was, “My God, I hope we are learning something from this, at least. There has to be some good that comes from it. Something!”
It came out like a plea, I suppose, an imploring of the people of the world to find a way to do better as a result of this catastrophe, to create a silver lining from these darkest of clouds. To make lemonade from this overabundance of lemons we seem to be tripping over wherever we step.
Just think about these last few months and the swirl of awfulness that has joined our already-tense and divided country. The gross mishandling of the coronavirus and subsequent spiraling death toll and economy. The very public murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor (to name but a few) and the subsequent protests across in cities big and small across the country. Unemployment and food insecurity for so many. The deaths of social justice giants John Lewis and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The continued lies and indecency of the President. The approach of a contentious election. The fires.
These are all things that have the potential, individually, to knock you down and leave you feeling lost and unmoored from your moral and emotional home base. They can also, individually, leave you deeply bitter and lacking faith in our country, its institutions, and its people. They have the potential, individually, to make you want to shut down, to retreat, to go into self-preservation mode. With powers of destruction that strong individually, when taken together, in a series of relentless, cascading blows one on top of another and often simultaneously, the cumulative effect of 2020 has proven devastating. The countless memes it has generated are a reliable testament to that (e.g “Cue the murder hornets!” and “Apocalypse Bingo”).
In a year when so much seems so wrong, the natural reaction feels like it ought to be to simply weather the storm, try to not get sick or committed to the asylum. Dodge the bullet. Just try to wait it out and hope to begin dreaming, loving, and achieving again next year. Save self-improvement for 2021. That makes sense. “To everything, there is a season,” right? This year definitely feels biblical, so maybe this is just the season of our lives to hunker down and ride it out, having faith that next year must be better.
That idea soothes me. It placates me, softening my usual urgency for personal and global improvement, lets me off the hook for my recent lack of achievement and production. My guilt is assuaged. I appreciate the pass for 2020.
But I can’t help being suspicious of it. I tend to disbelieve any philosophy that tells me it is okay to stop learning, growing, and making my life and my world better. Sure, I understand that our ambition ebbs and flows along our journey, and I try to listen to my intuition about how hard I need to push in a given season. And I am a huge fan of self-care and filling up one’s tank when it is running low so you can face the challenges of the present and the future. On top of that, I realize that some of these blows that 2020 continues to deliver require true grieving—they are just that painful–which takes its own time. Still, my internal dashboard is always measuring for Progress. I am naturally monitoring myself for signs of growth and surveying the world around me for ways I can both use my talents for good and be enriched. I am also naturally optimistic, so I live with the assumption that all situations can lead to better ones, and Growth is ours to claim.
With those traits in my nature, I should not be surprised at my response to the wildfires in the West (which are sending their smoke across the country as though to remind us that we are all in this together and no one gets away clean). Even in my deepest despair, I cling to the idea that we must learn and grow from our situations.
But have I? This year, I mean. Have I hunkered down and simply tried to survive—which may be enough, honestly, depending on how close to home each crisis has struck—or have I found any ways for these calamities to improve my life or the world around me?
I would say I have done very little directly for the world (e.g. I protested for racial justice and wrote some pieces, but I definitely didn’t write often enough), but I have improved myself in subtle but certain ways. Much of it has come in the form of solidifying my priorities and values. The pandemic, with its extra time to think and the need to stay in one place with only the people in my household, has served to thrust those values and priorities into bold relief, forcing an examination and a culling of the excesses and the things that just don’t feel authentic and uplifting anymore. And because all of these other tragedies and tensions have occurred inside of the pandemic, each has received a thorough vetting in the recesses of my mind and the pages of my journal.
It has become increasingly clear to me this year that my family is the most important thing. It turns out that I chose the right wife, and my kids are the right ones for me. With all of this working and schooling from home and acting as each other’s playmates, teachers, and co-workers, I can only imagine how many families are at each other’s throats during all of these overlapping crises. For all of my pre-family-life worry and fear I had over whether I could exist—much less be happy—with the responsibilities of a husband and father, I am so glad that I ended up with these guys. I feel much better about that now, and I believe that foundation will support me no matter what else I have to face.
In watching the way my country’s institutions and people have handled (or mishandled) the crises of 2020, I have become even more deeply committed to moral and political positions I have held in the past. The coronavirus pandemic has made crystal clear what a failure of leadership looks like. In the halls of Congress and the White House, and in examples from different governors and mayors from around the country, I have seen examples of the best and worst kinds of politicians. It has affirmed for me that, even though I am not a fan of our two-party system and neither party acts exactly as I wish they would, the folks that at least lean my way are doing so much more basic Good for ordinary Americans—that is, almost all of us—than the ones leaning the other way. The particular political issues that have come into relief through the crises—climate science with the wildfires, health care coverage with the coronavirus and its ensuing unemployment, voting rights and women’s rights with the deaths of John Lewis and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, racial injustice with the murders of George Floyd and others, and the need to protect our democracy with the regular assaults on it by the President—have made me feel stronger in my positions than ever before. My conviction has multiplied. I have become even more of Me.
These things have also cast each of my relationships and potential relationships into the light, making me very protective of the kind of people I want to keep in my life now and let into it in the future. Though my heart will be wide open with love, I have no doubt also that the gate will be well-guarded. Boundaries are beautiful.
These overlapping crises and the time I have had to consider them has made these things very clear to me. I am certain that this clarity will make me a happier person going forward, better able to see my way and also better able to use my gifts to serve the world and all of the beautiful souls finding their way through it. Though I am eager for this year and its many calamities to be behind me, I can honestly say I am grateful for it. I will come out the other side of 2020 as a better person.
How about you? Have you managed to grow and improve your world amidst the stress and tragedy of this year? Open up your journal and write out your own version of a progress report. What changes have you gone through internally as the various crises of 2020 have piled on top of one another? What is your balance of “just trying to ride it out” versus “I can thrive in this” mentality? How different is that balance this year compared to a “normal” year? Which aspects of the year’s drama—coronavirus, job loss, racial injustice and protests, social isolation, change of routine, economic stress, climate emergencies, death of heroes, murder hornets, political drama—tend to send you into self-preservation mode, where simple survival is the goal and personal growth seems out of the question? In which areas have you made efforts to address the issue head-on and learn more about it to achieve better clarity in your position and/or take action in the world to help the cause? How has that effort changed you? If this year has had you “stuck” at home more often and unable to physically interact with others much, how have you dealt with that? What have you learned about yourself through that aspect of the experience? Did you reach any conclusions about yourself that caused you to make any major changes? Do you feel like you have clarified who you really are this year? What do you value most? What are your top priorities? Are there things that you have reduced or eliminated from your life in this process? What about people? How has seeing your “friends” react to this year on social media (e.g. their responses to George Floyd’s murder) changed the way you feel about them or their place in your life going forward? If you have let some habits or people go, do you feel lighter and more authentic for it? Have you started some new habits? Are they healthy or unhealthy? Can you point to anything specific in your world where you are making a more positive impact than you were before this crazy year happened? Is it enough just to know that you are bringing a better self out into your regular life each day? If you feel like you haven’t spun any of 2020’s calamities into growth experiences, how might you start today? No matter what you have done to this point, which crisis area feels ripe for your next growth spurt? I hope you will take on the challenge. Leave me a reply and let me know: How have you turned 2020’s many lemons into lemonade?
P.S. If this letter resonated with you, please share it with your community. Let’s improve together!
P.P.S. If you appreciate this sort of personal introspection, I encourage you to purchase my book, Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth, at your favorite online retailers.