And the unexpected is happening right now.
I’m feeling it and seeing it more acutely being here in Veneto, one of the “hot spot” regions for the coronavirus outbreak. I can only imagine what it must be like in Lombardy, where the map really glows red, and several villages are in serious lockdown. Here in Treviso daily life has been visibly knocked back a good 60% to 70%. The streets, bars, and shops are unusually sparse. People are hunkering down as the news spouts statistics, theories, and advice that doesn’t install a huge amount of assurance.
For a while, Italy was like most of the rest of the world, thinking the problem was “out there” and someone else’s problem (and responsibility). Two weeks ago, that flew out the window and I realized more than ever:
We don’t control anything, do we?
Maybe part of this is also coming from being a man who passed the mid-century mark several years ago and now I’m looking at life with different eyes. Maybe I’m finally dropping the belief that life is an endless highway without an exit.
For all the supposed intelligent and technological advancements of our time, the coronavirus has caught mankind with its pants down. Talk about a whopping dose of the unexpected. Thankfully, good people and great minds are hard at work on a vaccine and an effective treatment. Once there is news on that front, especially with the latter (since a vaccine is at least a year off) I hope we’ll calm down. Less uncertainty. There’s plenty of that right now.
How much have we made friends with uncertainty?
When the unexpected shows up in such a pronounced way we might find ourselves asking this question. I have. A lot. I employ plenty of mental trickery and self-delusion in this regard. I congratulate myself on having made such a massive life change by coming to this country. Learning to become part of the Italian culture and not be a pretender has come with plenty of discomfort. But the truth of the matter is that I’m still a control freak. I still like to believe that I somehow control life through the vigorous machinations of a hypervigilant mind.
When life and nature deliver the unexpected, we’re reminded that we’re not in charge.
Lately, I’ve been chewing on this more than usual. I laugh at the folly of believing that I can steer the course of the river of life. I see how I dig my heels in when the river starts taking a direction different than my imagined (or should I say dictated?) direction. I don’t excel at surrender and trust. Maybe with simple things, yes. But, life has a knack for sometimes throwing us a massive curveball that invites change on a more fundamental level. And, instead of “awfulizing” and fretting about outcomes, maybe this is an opportunity for humanity to hit the reset button and snap us out of our stupor of thinking we dominate life and nature).
A “black swan” event?
I’ve recently come across several articles about this phenomenon. Wikipedia sums it up nicely (click this link to get the fuller explanation). Here’s an excerpt:
The black swan theory or theory of black swan events is a metaphor that describes an event that comes as a surprise, has a major effect, and is often inappropriately rationalized after the fact with the benefit of hindsight. The term is based on an ancient saying that presumed black swans did not exist—a saying that became reintepreted to teach a different lesson after black swans were discovered in the wild.
I think we can pretty much agree that the current coronavirus breakout is a “surprise” and is having “a major effect.” I ask myself how will it change mankind and whether this event will somehow make us smarter and more prepared for something of similar proportions? Or, will this be “inappropriately rationalized after the fact” and we grow complacent and drive right back into our well worn and comfortable grooves of conditioning?
So, what can I do in the face of all this uncertainty and upheaval?
Start by looking into my own fears and resistance to the unexpected.
Coming to live in Italy has been ripe with opportunity in this regard. Mostly my journey has been an uneven exploration and evolution towards what I believe life wants to teach me to do: really surrender. Not pretend. Not give lip service to it only to pout when things don’t go my way. Be willing to have all the false constructs and attachments to my idea of an idealized life stripped away. Let life take its wrecking ball to tear down what doesn’t serve me or others.
At times like these, I keenly feel my internal panic, my desire to feel safe and secure again, and my internal resistance to pain. I’m reminded of a quote from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet—one that spoke to me decades ago and told me this would be an inescapable eventuality if I wanted to grow.
Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding. Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain. — Kahlil Gibran
What can propel me forward during these dark clouds of uncertainty?
This is a tricky one, especially for my clever ego and overactive mind that demands the “carrot,” the endpoint it deems worthy of its efforts. Pointing myself into uncertainty without a defined outcome is not something my ego wants to do.
I’ve always believed, as a result of copious church attendance in my youth, that I was supposed to have faith in “something.” You know, a doctrine, God, or an idea of God. I chided myself for being weak in this regard and that bad occurrences were my payback for falling short.
I hadn’t considered that perhaps life was asking me to have faith in the unknown, to drop my ideas of how things are supposed to work. What about living on the razor’s edge of uncertainty, letting life provide feedback and direction as we park ourselves in now? What about focusing on putting one foot in front of the other, pursuing the passions and dreams that are placed in each of us, and trusting that we’ll know what we need to know and when we need to know it?
I’m finding comfort in the Tao Te Ching and the words of Lao Tzu. I’m drawn to it more and more because it seems to flip many of my concepts on their head, inviting me to discard my ideas about what “should be.” It helps me see that the endless efforts of my mind to control life and to ward off the unexpected will only bring more angst.
Worry does nothing.
We convince ourselves that it does, that somehow we’ve warded off bad things by mentally obsessing. We believe we’re obliged to worry. Often other people think we’re insensitive and naive if we don’t. Jesus said, “Be anxious for nothing.” If we take that in, “nothing” is pretty definitive. I believe his words invite us to trust in the wisdom of something bigger than us without demanding a preconceived outcome. I believe we’re asked to discard attaching reason to why the unexpected shows up with its wrecking ball.
In closing, I share a favorite quote of Lao Tzu, and an invitation to let go:
To the mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders. — Lao Tzu