Same as it ever was
Same as it ever was
Same as it ever was
Everything about The Now Times is ambiguous. Change and ambiguity are the biggest things we humans struggle against, and we struggle against them constantly. Everything is changing due to Covid-19. We don’t know how it’s going to change, and that’s very uncomfortable. We can’t figure out what we should do to plan for the time when the change is finished. And we can’t quite manage to face the truth that change is constant. It’s never going away. There’s no “Before Times” or “After Times”. There is only change.
To use the term in a technical way, negative reinforcement is about doing something in order to escape or avoid a situation. We want to avoid Covid-19, so we wear masks and wash our hands more often. We stay away from people as much as possible. We worry when we can’t. We worry about those who won’t. If we were in a burning house we could easily come up with a clear plan. Get out of the house through a door or window. But with Covid-19 no one in the world knows where the exit is. To be particularly negative, there might not even be one. We don’t know. Not knowing is scary AF.
Right now with Covid-19 we are in a universal place of uncertainty that is extremely uncomfortable. In many other situations we can work toward an outcome that we hope we will eliminate our uneasiness. We can learn a new skill, hire someone to fix the roof, donate money to our preferred candidate, whatever. But the reality of Covid-19 is that it is changing our lives in some big ways, in addition to what it has already done. Our grandchildren will not know the world we know. We don’t know what their new world will look like.
We scramble to get in control. Being in control is much more comfortable. In some ways we can have some control over our worlds. When you’re in school you avoid failing by studying. At work you avoid losing your paycheck by performing the tasks expected of you. But in reality, even those things are ambiguous. Think of the students right now whose futures are in flux because they don’t know if they will go to school in person, or online, or for foreign students in the US, if they will have to leave the country and their plans behind. And think of the people who have lost their jobs or businesses and their paychecks because their businesses didn’t survive. There’s no clear view of whether they need to escape a bad situation or strive toward a better one, because no one has ever navigated this situation in our life times.
War correspondent Chris Hedges used the phrase, “the moral ambiguity of human existence”. Pema Chodron commented on this phrase by writing, “How can we relax and have a genuine, passionate relationship with the fundamental uncertainty, the groundlessness of being human?” The first step is to really explore the fact of human experience being fundamentally uncertain and ambiguous. This experience is part and parcel of being human. We can’t escape it. No organism can. We feel we have control of bits and pieces of our lives, but the well laid plans for a happy marriage can can be disheveled by divorce. Your job may “decide to go in a different direction” and leave you behind. You may whole-heartedly believe in a politician or religious leader you later learn is corrupt, and have to really step back and reevaluate your beliefs. That’s the hardest thing you’ll ever do. You have this You that seems to be solid and reliable, but to keep living in this ambiguous world, sometimes you have to tear your You apart and rebuild it. Over and over and over again, all your life. The people that take this courageous step are the ones that suffer the least. The ones that cling to their ideas and habits even though the whole world is constantly changing are the ones that stay trapped inside a cocoon that won’t open.
So, what’s the answer? The key is to identify your story-line about the situation, and then to step out of the story in your head and just be with the actual situation. Your story line has to do with the anger you hold tight to when people won’t wear masks, or when your governor insists on opening schools too soon. Instead of being pulled around by the anger, just be still and attentive to it. Where do you feel it in your body? What is the physical sensation? What words do you formulate in your mind? Set the words aside and just be with the feeling. Do this a little bit at a time, a minute here, ten minutes there. Notice rather than running after the thoughts. Explore what you are thinking and feeling with open curiosity.
This is not to say that you should never do what you can to improve your situation. Not at all. But it is to help you identify what is helpful and what is not helpful. In her book called My Stroke of Insight, the brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor wrote about her recovery from a life-changing stroke. In it she discusses the physiology of emotion. The automatic response of anger, for example, lasts 90 seconds from the moment it’s triggered until it runs its course. That’s all. Pema Chodron wrote about this by saying, “When it lasts any longer, which it usually does, it’s because we’ve chosen to rekindle it.” That’s our choice.
We can make different choices. Go ahead and be scared or mad for 90 seconds. Then turn your compassionate attention to whatever it is, like Covid-19 and our uncertainty about it. Without labeling it good or bad, just be with it.
Chödrön, P. (2020, February 11). The fundamental ambiguity of being human. Tricycle: The Buddhist Review. https://tricycle.org/magazine/fundamental-ambiguity-being-human//fundamental-ambiguity-being-human/
Hagen, S. (2020, April 28). Dharma Talk “We’ve Always Been in this Place”. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rhEXK6LCoBg
Taylor, J. B. (2008). My stroke of insight: A brain scientist’s personal journey. Penguin.