Like many people right now, I’m hunkered-down in a small personal orbit of “only essential activities”. A bizarre situation that, despite having lived through multiple global pandemics I can’t find a similar comparison for. The difference? I feel impacted on a deeper level. My emotional and energetic health. On a daily basis now I search for new tools, ways to understand, accept and cope with circumstances far beyond my ability to control. With feelings of isolation. Today, I found some inspiration by being reminded of two things.
The first reminder (the book, “Sick Souls, Healthy Minds”) was that great thinkers (always my go-to’s) have always struggled with personal and global issues that threaten to defeat Hope. I am not alone. We are not alone in our confusion and angst. No one needs to “re-invent the wheel” for relief. The second reminder – from the same book — was that times like these force a re-calibration toward what really matters in our lives. Love. Safety. Security. Unity. Simplicity.
Philosopher William James was born into a family of crazy-smart parents and siblings: writers, poets, philosophers. Not surprisingly, James and a few of his relations suffered from over-thinking most things. James was a “polymath”: a poet, biologist (a medical degree), artist and mystic. His curiosity about life, and his thinking was all over the place. Which led James into serious periods of deep depression. And existential questions like, “Is Life Worth Living?”, an oral essay he presented to students at Harvard University.
There’ve been a few moments in my own life – they stand out in memory – when events have caused me to question Meaning and Purpose: the “why” of a very scary time. Some of these have involved tragic, unexpected and frightening changes in my world. Wanting to understand, needing to understand how something like the untimely death of someone I love – or the loss of a significant relationship – could possibly improve my life, once I got over the heartbreak.
Life can feel so arbitrary and overwhelming sometimes. The very first “pandemic” I lived through? I was nearing the end of third grade. Our U.S. president John F. Kennedy had recently been assassinated. My country was in shock and so vulnerable. From another country came the Swine Flu: a contagion that swept-away lives like a large, indiscriminate ‘broom’. It killed one of my little friends, age 9, in just a matter of days. I caught it also and was very sick for two months.
At such a young age, I didn’t have the capacity to understand that I was depressed about all of this. But I soon understood that uncertainty is a huge part of daily living. Over time, other life experiences hammered-home the need for personal perspective about how I think and feel about what “happens” to me. I’ve been reminded, when I’m just going about my business (optimistically, usually) and something large and scary enters my world, that my default habit is Fear.
Overcoming fear and the depression that often follows is not as simple as “mind over matter”. I can’t think, or rationalize myself into a place of well-being. It’s also not always as simple as time in nature, yoga, and drinking more water. I reflect now, on artists, poets, playwrights and philosophers like James, Shakespeare, Walt Whitman and Jean-Jacques Rousseau who all – literally and figuratively – dove-into the way that Life creates clarity.
It’s not through insanely happy times, but in our darkest times. Through the bravery that feels sometimes, like pure determination. Nothing more. Whether standing-still — or walking forward cautiously while in total darkness — pure belief, William James wrote, “will help create” the ultimate facts or reasons behind our will to survive. Life doesn’t need ‘understanding’, so much as our ability to hear and appreciate the more profound “bass-notes” of existence (a quote from Kaag’s book). Just one aspect, not even a dominant part, of the Music we all move and dance to every day.