I used to have these night terrors as a child, and even occasionally through college. I would be half awake, struggling to break fully free of sleep, but find myself paralyzed. I would push, and strain, and try to scream, afraid that if I stopped, I would fall backward into a state from which I would never come back. Eventually, I would wake up.
That’s what this current state of suspended animation feels like. I’m pushing, straining, trying to get to the end. Accepting parts of this would be easy…always being virtual, the end of busyness, staying “safe.” Just assimilate, stop fighting. But, while I’m discovering that placing such a high value on busyness was wrong…that I had become the person I had never wanted to be…so is giving into the throes of despair, a darkness from which one cannot awaken.
Eventually, we will wake up. We will. And there will be sunlight. There will be joy in the morning.
I’ve been intending to put down some thoughts here about this pandemic gripping our world for a few weeks. The problem is that, as it has kept evolving so rapidly, I feel as though I can’t keep my thoughts straight. What I think I know today I suddenly don’t know tomorrow, and the intellectual jostling and resulting emotional whiplash has been difficult enough to manage internally, to say nothing of writing anything that’s remotely coherent.
That said, there’s a theme that I’ve seen, a through-line that’s been pervasive from the last week of February until now, and it’s a concerning one. Everyone is terrified.
The first two weeks of March, Karen and I were with my parents to see them through an important medical procedure. When we left for the trip, the dreaded pandemic was confined to the West coast…troubling news in the paper, but not impactful to us otherwise. The area in which my parents live was among the last in the country to have anyone test positive. There is some providence in the fact that we were essentially self-quarantined just by being there for two weeks. A week before our return trip, Boston experienced its first surge, but the town in which we live was free of cases. By the time we returned, restrictions were beginning to be put into place, but by that time, the underlying mood was already at a fever pitch.
As Karen and I were leaving the town in which my parents live, we stopped for gas, to find that there was none. Just as everyone was running on grocery stores for toilet paper (a topic of its own), in that town, everyone was running on gas. We finally located a station that wasn’t sold out, an older station in which I couldn’t pay at the pump. I went inside and conversationally asked the cashier if they had been this busy all day. She affirmed that business had been crazy. I commented that we were leaving for our road trip home, and I hoped that this wouldn’t be common everywhere (my overactive imagination was painting apocalyptic scenarios of being stranded by the roadside on a desolate interstate with no fuel and no one venturing out to come to our aid for fear of some Andromeda Strain). She responded, “I just hope you don’t have to through one of those states that are closing their borders! Some of them aren’t letting anyone in or out. I heard we’re going to start doing that soon.”
I’m going to be honest…by the time I returned to the car, I was a nervous wreck from hearing this (remember my aforementioned imagination). Karen and I talked it through for a moment. Were a state to do this, the amount of police and military presence required to seal a border entirely from its neighbors would be unsustainable. We decided that this was unlikely at worst, impossible at best, and, though we kept NPR’s hourly updates streaming on the drive, went on with the trip.
That gas station attendant, while meaning well and having no malicious intent, had succumbed to, and was disseminating, the fear that was beginning to grip the country. She was paying it forward, and not in a good way.
Fear is a poison. Its presence brings a toxicity to all that it touches. It drives people to purchase toilet paper, despite the absence of a logical reason for doing so (nowhere in the dreaded virus’ symptoms are diarrhea). It also spreads with a voracity unmatched by any virus. Quickly, it seeps into decision making, and there is an inversely proportional decline in the quality of those decisions when it does. Because a lack of ability to engage in critical thinking is also pervasive in our culture, the popularity of those decisions become mainstream, resulting in pressure on others to conform, resulting in blanket political decisions that do harm.
Regardless of where you stand on steps being taken or opportunities missed to handle this pandemic, our interactions with each other (especially as they become virtual and knowing that social media is a breeding ground for rage culture and mob psychology) would do well to be dialed back a bit. Advice that is meant well (there’s a big difference between staying at home and staying inside) takes on a fervor and becomes implanted with the effectiveness of the most insidious marketing campaign with enough repetition. We lash out at each other, we spread rumors which are unvalidated, we contribute to a phobia.
When we do so, we rob each other of hope. And right now, we’re all in desperate need of a bit of a hope.
A few days ago, I read some history of how the town in which we live handled the influenza outbreak in the 1900’s. The steps that were taken then were remarkably similar to the steps that we are taking now. The difference lies primarily in scale. Yet, a favorite phrase among media professionals today is “unprecedented times.” This isn’t at all unprecedented, but rather the first occurrence in our generation of something of this magnitude. We’ve dealt with it before, we’ll deal with it now. Life will be changed, but it will go on. It just will, because that’s what life does. And yes, many will get this virus…likely most of us will. And the toll will be tragic, too painful to speak of for some, and I grieve for them.
We need to take a breath, though, a deep breath. And then, we need to each love our neighbor. And then, we need to make calm, rational decisions, even though they may be unpopular and incur Twitter-rage. If we do so, we may just get through this more quickly, and certainly with less of a scar to our collective psyche when we do.
Every boy is into cars at some point. This fact is, as they say, as American as apple pie. I wasn’t any different. When I was a boy, the popular choice was Hot Wheels, which, until writing this, I had no idea were still such a big deal. And, though I would soon move on to action figures and comic books by the time I was leaving elementary school, I still managed to put together a decent collection of toy cars.
Eventually, my parents bought a collector’s case in which I could store these cars (they were likely tired of always finding them underfoot). That case returned with me after last summer’s vacation, and our kids have quite enjoyed giving the cars contained within a second life. Last week, our oldest, ever inventive, strung a rubber band between the legs of a dining room chair and discovered that she could launch the cars to spectacular effect. She couldn’t wait to show me, and I was immediately enthralled in the game. I was fascinated by how these cars, long dormant until a few months ago, could still roll with such speed, and I have much respect for the fact that they were built well enough to still withstand the collisions and blows that come with serious play. They just don’t make them like that anymore (said every Dad ever).
One of the cars that my daughter pulled out was a Bell Systems van, modeled after the vans that workers of the regional “Baby Bell” phone company drove in our area. My father retired from “the phone company.” When I was little, he bought me that toy van because it was identical to the one that he drove for work every day. I had forgotten how we had bonded over “racing cars” in my childhood, which proved to be so important for our relationship as I think that Dad struggled to relate to my later interests. I recall one Christmas morning racing cars around the toy track that I had opened that morning, surprised later as my Dad played back the audio of the morning on a cassette tape that he had made with his new stereo system. Those were different times, and so foundational to us keeping our relationship as I moved from an obsession with comic books and superheroes to music in high school, and later to writing and theatre in college. When I came home on weekends, we would still sit down and watch a basketball game together, and those car races were, I’m convinced, the reason why. They had grounded us somehow, provided a connection.
There are signs in the mundane, tiny monuments to help us recall essential and explanatory moments from our pasts. Across all of those years, that toy van helped to connect us in a very similar way that it did for my father and I. That evening, my daughter had found a tiny miracle contained within a Hot Wheels car, without even realizing that she had done so.
There’s an old adage which claims that ignorance is bliss. There was a point in my life in which I think that this bothered me, assuming that it was an excuse for not wanting to educate oneself on a given topic. Anyone who has worked an unpleasant job, however…you know, the sort of part-time gig that pays the bills while you’re in college?…has learned the truth that, the more you know, the more that is expected, and likely decided that you just didn’t want to know.
This doesn’t stop when we enter the professional world, though. I discovered this the first time that I was in a leadership role. There was a heavy self-examination that took place before I would accept the responsibility. I recall my father coming home and discussing how he turned down, or had no interest in, more leadership responsibilities than he already had at work. He wanted to just do his job and come home. The extra burden was a weight that he chose to live without, and I will always have respect for his courage to make that decision.
Sometimes, I consider this when I think of how much information thrusts itself into my daily life. A few years ago, I used to have conversations, as I’m sure most of us did, around how “it’s never been easier to access the information that we need,” or words to that effect. Now, we have conversations about how information is always there, whether we want it to be or not, like the illegal off-switches predicted in Max Headroom. My phone includes a screen time monitor that, among other data, tells me how many notifications I receive each week. The first time that I saw the number, I was astounded at how many I receive on an average day. The number was huge.
And that number is another piece of information, another data point, which makes its way into my life.
I think that we forget that knowledge brings with it responsibility. Just like that old college job, a truth in life is that the more that we know, the more that is required of us, because that knowledge brings with it a burden as well as a benefit.
“Knowledge is a burden–once taken up, it can never be discarded.”
Stephen Lawhead, from The Paradise War
I thought of this a few days ago when I read about a new service offered by the U.S. Postal Service called Informed Delivery. While it’s a really interesting capability, and while I can imagine use cases for certain people and scenarios, especially surrounding the holiday rush that will impose itself upon our lives all too soon, my initial reaction was that I have no place in my life for this information. This would be yet another notification, yet another data point showing up on a device, something that I would be checking periodically, all for information that I can easily live without.
And that, I think, is the key. What information can we live without? I think that the answer is a greater amount than we think. In a way, the older that I get, the more my view of progress changes, the more that I consider the wisdom that, just because we can do something, doesn’t mean that we should. The rapid pace of our digital milieu seems to be based entirely on doing everything that we can, simply because we can.
I’m far from a luddite. I really like new toys. Lately, though, I’ve been working through the clutter and identifying what is too much, keeping what is necessary, and leaving behind what is not. I think that some people have a use for Informed Delivery, as well as for many other new technologies and tools that we hear about every day. I just caution that we don’t all have a need for all of the things that are out there, and that, if you don’t, perhaps…just perhaps…your life might be better off without.
Recently, one of my colleagues unexpectedly announced his resignation. This was actually his second resignation in a couple of years…he had left and then returned…but this time was moving on for good. This happens with some frequency in today’s world, and not just in my field. These days, anyone with a marketable skillset shifts jobs with some frequency.
I think of my father, who worked for the same company throughout my childhood, finally retiring while I was in college after decades of “service” to the company. The idea of this is foreign in today’s vocabulary. Workers just don’t do this anymore. As soon as something becomes too irritating with the setting of one’s employment, one moves on.
In a way, I think that this is a sign of a positive change in the power dynamic within the workforce. Those with in-demand skills ultimately hold more power in the employer-employee relationship, because they can (often quite literally) have a new and competitive job tomorrow if they suddenly decide that this one isn’t working out. The burden of performance lies with the company to take care of its workers and keep them happy, and this is a good thing. I wish that it were more widespread.
All the same, I’m convinced that the lack of permanency in our culture is damaging, because it makes our human interactions more fleeting. When we lived in Raleigh, I did a contract gig in which I worked with a completely remote team. I really liked all of the people with whom I worked, but I never met most of them. We were spread out all over the world, and, despite some great conversations and a lot of commonalities between our different cultures (parents just understand each other), you never form the sort of connection that you do when you interact with someone face-to-face. I feel as though I came so close to forming a real relationship with some of those colleagues, but never really achieved a connection.
Synergy is one of those things that just happens with a team, something that’s either there or not. Despite what organizational coaches try to teach, you can’t force a creative spark and camaraderie. When this connection happens, it’s great. I’ve experienced it profoundly in ministry groups and professional settings, and it’s motivational to keep going back and doing the work. The issue is that, in the business world, these groups are almost always, in my experience, broken up because of some organizational shift that is perceived to have a greater potential for profit.
Or, as happened a couple of weeks ago, because people just simply move on. The resulting impermanence breaks the connection.
I think that this is why marriage is intended to be permanent, and also why parent-child relationships are so strong…because the permanence is just hard-wired in. There is no choice in that relationship. My child is my child, and I am her parent, forever.
I’m left with the thought that I need to make more of an effort to remain connected with people in my life. I exchanged contact information with my colleague, but we haven’t spoken since he left. I don’t want my friendships to become victims of this impermanence. Even with some of my oldest friends, the act of remaining intentionally in touch with each other is more difficult because we have moved to different geographic locations. Essentially, we’ve introduced yet another type of impermanence in doing so. Is it possible to keep these friendships intact? I have to think so. Before emails people wrote letters, and many friendships endured for years over great distances.
Yet, we’ve moved on. I still recall a theatre group with which I volunteered years ago. We were a ministry group. They were my close friends. I still wonder at times today what advice they would give me for situations with which I am confronted. I can almost hear their words to me…they echo in my head. Yet, I haven’t spoken to them in so long.
The relationships withered because I moved away, because there was a greener grass on the other side, because it was what had to be done. There was motivation, there was dissatisfaction, some valid and some otherwise. This created impermanence, which drew my friends and I apart.
When my colleague moved on, I sighed, adopted a “chin up” attitude, and kept going through my day. One can’t let oneself become sad about these sorts of things. People move on…it’s what we do. Just as I have moved on from so many friends, from so many places, in search of the next thing.