Posted by Lisa Fitzhugh on Mar 26, 2020
Upended we are.
It’s the feeling of being in a small craft in big swells and then suddenly we’re all in the water. The boat we were in had given us the semblance of safety – we were still somewhat dry, oars helped us navigate. And then we’re fully immersed in open water with an instant realization that what we need to survive is now completely different.
We can play this metaphor out a thousand ways. A friend asked me this week what kind of boat did I have. If the very wealthy were cruising around in large yachts with plenty of comforts, maybe she was in a trim sail boat requiring mastery of the wind to navigate. We both worried about those of us who may just have a raft like the one Tom Hanks made to leave his island in Cast Away. Or those of us who depend on an errant log to keep afloat.
No matter the craft, all of us have been tossed into the big blue wobbly thing. And making our way in this new medium requires entirely different skills applied very quickly. The good news is these skills are innate to us – they’re part of an evolutionary intelligence encoded in our DNA. We’ve been here before. So the work right now is simply to remember.
The first thing to remember is we’re in salt water, a metaphor for life’s inherent abundance, which supports us naturally. We remember to fill our lungs with deep breaths, and to move slowly and gently to conserve energy so we don’t exhaust ourselves. We also remember the careful dance we must do with the fear. It’s there. There is no running from it. But survival depends on accessing the same amount of trust in ourselves to temper the fear, to balance it out.
Yes, the ocean is a completely new environment with unfamiliar and shadowy creatures swimming about. But we can choose to see them as monsters or as allies. It’s clear which choice keeps us whole.
Last year a drone captured footage of a woman swimming off the beach in New Zealand being approached by a small pod of orca whales. At one point the largest ‘killer whale’ swam behind the woman nudging at her feet. Of course her first reaction was great fear, but she felt instead their companionship and continued swimming with them even when she had the opportunity to swim away. Some part of her was able to transform the fear and experience the moment’s profound beauty. This is possible for any of us when fears in the form of monsters appear.
We also remember to look around and see so many others in the water with us. Soon we come together (virtually in our case) in small groups to bolster our spirits and remind each other we are not alone. We offer each other love and much kindness. We witness each other’s immediate vulnerability and also our strength. We speak the truth to each other because there’s nothing left to hide.
The strongest of us remain as calm and clear as possible because our calm is contagious and essential. We trade off hanging on to the few objects we have in the water for respite. We know that if we think only of ourselves and horde the finite resources we have available, more of us will suffer and more of us will die. So we share and share and share again, a sharing that blossoms from the undeniable truth of our shared fate.
We focus on the simplest things. The changing light, the infinite sky, the connection between us. These hold the symbolism, the sacred. And we ‘love the one you’re with’ because family and friends are now spread out and over beyond some distant swell.
The startling new oceanic world we’re swimming in forces us to drop all our plans, those ‘maps and navigation charts’ that were so important to us while in boats. Those well-made plans that gave us so much certainty in an uncertain universe are no longer helpful. Instead, staying awake and aware moment-to-moment becomes our primary attention.
Clearly, in this pandemic world we’re now swimming in, many people still have to plan -- to build new hospitals, to maintain the supply chain, to arrange child care. And still, planning will require maximum adaptability to changing circumstances and an ability to let go of everything we thought we knew and stay open to what’s needed now. Or tomorrow. Or next week.
In his book The Culture Code, Daniel Coyle describes the essential training of the Navy Seals in just this way. They develop their listening skills, to the outer world, to themselves and to each other, into a high art. That keen listening guides them when they must ditch every pre-imagined scenario and respond to the unexpected. This acute listening keeps them, and those they are sworn to protect, safe.
Yes, it’s true, we’ve gone ‘soft’ with so many instant comforts. This evolutionary intelligence may indeed be atrophied. But we can remember these skills, we can commit ourselves to practice them and in so doing we can stay afloat for much longer than we realize.
I’ve been waking up every morning trying to articulate a prayer. One that I can remember to speak or sing into dawn’s light to keep me grounded and contribute to the light. Writing this now, I see the prayer is just a memory of what we already know how to do, and how to be, while swimming together in an expansive and sometimes unforgiving ocean when we’ve lost our craft.
This time, the ocean is not as stormy as it might have been. This virus’ fatality rate is lower than the experts say is possible with more virulent strains. We’re also coming out of winter in the Northern Hemisphere and the warmer temperatures are on our side. What a blessing it is we have a chance to practice being here without all the protections we’re used to.
Like a gift disguised as a nightmare, we discover ourselves alive and awake within the premier training ground for re-learning the ancient ways life has always known for surviving and landing back on shore deeply humbled and forever changed.
So I offer up this metaphor as a prayer to any and all. And extend my heart and my courage to meet your own.
Speaking of courage, and to remember what courage looks like in all its creative splendor, tune into Arts Corps 20th Anniversary Festa. Rather than coming together as we have every spring for 20 years to celebrate the voices, beauty and confidence of our young people, Arts Corps is livestreaming these performances this Friday the 20th at 7pm (PST). Here’s the streaming link and here’s a way to register for a free ticket. Registration isn’t required, though it gives Arts Corps a way for us to contribute that night if we feel so inspired.