I barely recognize the version of myself that existed before this pandemic. That particular patching together, that paper maché person collaged from all I had learned and feared. A marionette acting as if every day were an audition to get into Life.
“In the midst of every crisis, lies great opportunity.”—Albert Einstein
A year ago this week, our crisis arrived. On March 11, 2020, a global calamity of massive proportions was declared. We are still in the midst of this pandemic, with rolling lockdowns and outbreaks flaring up around the world, states and countries arguing over what needs to be done and who is at fault, industries crumbling, livelihoods lost forever, and the weak and the poor being trodden down even more.
When you’re in the middle of a crisis, it can be hard to accept a statement such as this one: “Sometimes the world needs a crisis,” the title of a Brookings report from April 2017. The report shows how crises throughout history, typically viewed as dangerous and wasteful, have also been catalysts for solutions and innovating, especially when conventional ways are challenged. Disparate groups have come together in crisis, bonded by their collective suffering, cooperating to create new systems. Danger also triggers the flow of communal adrenaline, focusing minds on what needs to be done.
A crisis is both danger and opportunity and we have experienced all during this pandemic. Shared vulnerability has pulled us together, but fear, suspicion of others, and restrictions on personal freedom have pulled us apart. In our defenselessness, we looked to our governments for help, who either gained or broke our trust. When things fell apart, we saw where our institutions were corrupt, and yet this awareness made us more willing to fight for change.
I have seen this phenomenon play out inside the microcosm of my own self. When the crisis hit, I was terrified of losing the only world I knew. I was afraid of breaking until I didn’t know the shape of me, until I spilled everywhere. Like regimes resistant to change, I didn’t want to let go and find new ways of being.
But danger woke me up and reminded me I was alive. Fear blasted away all those pretend stories in my mind and made me focus on what was real. The past was disappearing fast, the future was blank, and all I had was now.
We think of light as healing, but the blackness nurtured me. In quarantine, I was forced to feel my own feelings, instead of going out interpreting others’. Unable to keep searching everywhere for the key, I was forced to leave the keyhole empty. I was forced to stay, when I wanted to go.
With brutal accuracy, the virus showed me that I am not in control. When everything falls away, you find out who you are.
“Global crises that crush existing orders and overturn long-held norms…can pave the way for new systems, structures, and values to emerge and take hold,” the Brookings report says. “Without such devastation to existing systems and practices, leaders and populations are generally resistant to major changes and to giving up some of their sovereignty to new organizations or rules.”
This is a message of hope. And yet another kind of threat awaits us when we emerge from crisis. When immediate danger passes, we often wander back to our separate spheres, our private battles, the ways we numb our feelings so we can get on with life.
The pandemic is not over, but with danger receding, I can feel all the useless terrors returning. I feel myself constructing my armor again, pasting layer over layer around me, protecting me from enemies that don’t exist and judgments that have not been uttered.
Lacking a disaster to confront, “I” have become the problem that needs solving. The pulling-in effect spurred by crisis has dwindled, and now I feel a war brewing inside me, between the parts of me that don’t agree, the oppressors and the oppressed. Without the fear of imminent death, I have to fight to stay awake, to keep my heart open, to pay attention. The body wants to slip back into comfort, ease — sleep.
When 10, or 20, or even 50 years have passed, we who have been through this pandemic will know each other by our scars. I hope my scar will always remind me of the wound that healed me, the cut that went so deep to touch that place that connects me to every person, plant, and animal, stone, stream, and cloud. The part of me that sees in every human being a friend, teacher, a child.
I am not courageous. I am terrified every day. But my wish is that I will confront the private crises of my life, the ones I suffer alone, that rip into the curve of my emotional globe, with a sliver of recognition. A gleam of insight from this gash. I hope I will remember that old orders must die into the eternal river of life. And from the greatest pain comes the greatest love.