A short bit of advice for those who are casting about during this crisis.
There are rare times when something takes place in history that is so large that we can think of nothing else. Pearl Harbor. 9/11. This coronavirus fear.
We try fruitlessly to look away, to divert our attention, to assert the normal. But we can’t. Beneath all our thoughts is the concern, even the fear, that this thing we cannot control is ultimately going to control us.
We fear for ourselves, we fear for our families, we fear for our elders, we fear for our children. We fear for our very way of life and the world as we know it. There is no escaping this fear.
These moments have great power, because they give focus to our minds and thoughts. We cannot escape into movement and diversion. Everything returns to the source.
One of the great balms in times like this is to turn to writing. We all have stories within us; we all dream of sharing them and telling them. But most of us never do, because we think we aren’t talented enough, aren’t important enough, aren’t capable of shaping something as shapeless as our lives into a something worth sharing.
But we are wrong. I tell you this as someone who writes for a living. This is a moment that needs to be recorded. It needs to be recorded for your children and grandchildren. It needs to be recorded for your own understanding. Writing it down, documenting it as you are experiencing it, will force you to give shape to the shapeless, and will offer a precious glimpse into a time that will be impossible to recreate in our hearts and imaginations once it is over. And it will be over.
Have you not longed for your grandmother’s memories? Have you not found the old letters from relatives and ancestors to be something precious?
Did you assess their writing style? Did you critique their spelling or the way they structured their thoughts? No. They were a window on the times, and no matter how they chose to express themselves, you receive it as a gift.
Did they speak only of their daily lives? Did they open their hearts and express their feelings? It does not matter. They gave you themselves.
I assure you that if you sit down with pencil and paper or at your keyboard, and just start where you are, your story will unfold. And in the unfolding it will allow you to walk through the confusion of your own feelings and give shape to this shapelessness, because you will have to choose what to include.
And here is the magic. Choosing will not be hard, because it will be done for you. You have wandered into a garden of possibilities, and no matter where you turn, no matter what you touch, it is a bloom worthy of the picking.
Do you write a journal, going day by day? Do you go back to the poetry that you used to write in high school? Do you just write down your shopping list and say why you chose what you chose? Do you start with your fear? It doesn’t matter. This moment will give you your voice, because only you can tell the story as you are living it.
I’ve used this time of enforced isolation and, yes, discipline, to work on a novel I’ve been threatening to write for years. And I have no greater pleasure than passing through the doorway of that world and finding the people and places who are living inside. But I could as easily be recording the thoughts and feelings and frustrations and fears that animate this moment. Once inside of any writing – any creative act, actually – the world starts to take form and you begin to give shape to the shapeless.
This moment gives us what I like to call “a fine attention.” It is giving us the gift of mindfulness, where the small is as large as the great. Take advantage of it. Grab a notebook or a legal pad. Open a new file on your computer. Speak in your own voice. Judge nothing. Throw away nothing. Everything you think or feel is important at this moment because the moment is important and you are given the dark privilege of living through it.
You are a living document of the times. Do not let your voice go unheard.
Several weeks ago I asked my several thousand Facebook followers — most of whom are on the left, some of whom are on the right — what they would not give up of their beliefs as we move forward in these politically fraught times. Things have only gotten worse since that time, with Trump raging out of control and executing a political scorched earth policy toward anyone who challenges his personal position on anything at all, having now blurred the lines between his increasingly erratic internal monologue and the national self interest.
The Republican senators, one of the most cowardly groups of politicians ever, who somehow have forgotten their morals and courage in an effort to appease the unbalanced narcissist who hijacked their party, have gone the extra step of floating out the idea that since Trump’s position equals the national interest, anything he does to achieve reelection is legal because it is in the national interest. This is the clearest path to dictatorship we will ever see, and moves us into territory that imperils the very system of government on which our nation is based. This must be stopped so that no one, from the left or the right or anywhere else, can ever hijack our government for his or her personal interest. Whether or not you think Trump is a bad person, this represents governmental suicide for a democracy such as ours.
What my facebook followers showed me in their answers is a possible way forward that can salvage our national dialogue and, hopefully, our democratic system. It involves elevating that dialogue from an argument over what is right and what is wrong to a dialogue about how to achieve what we all see as a common purpose. And the place where my followers showed me a common purpose is our common belief that the future of our children must be our paramount concern. This sounds obvious and even a bit naive, but it is not. Right now we are contending over a grab bag of specifics that can all be subsumed into the overarching argument of individual freedom versus collective responsibility. This argument is at the core of our American political and cultural identity, but it is predicated on a philosophical difference, not based in a search for a solution to a commonly shared political aspiration.
My unscientific survey through my facebook page showed me that our commonly shared political aspiration is creating a better life for our children. Now this can easily subsume differences in opinion and political positions. The right-leaning folks will say that the way they choose to do this, and their moral responsibility, is to provide the greatest opportunity and the best economic footing for their own children. The furthest left will say it is teaching our own children the need to share and sacrifice and always making decisions for the seventh generation. In between will be any number of arguments about obligation versus opportunity which can, of course, devolve into arguments about individual freedom versus collective responsibility. But if we keep the discussion focused on the common goal and always return to that commonality, we will not devolve into the kind of political fistfight we find ourselves in at the present moment.
Right now our minds are completely filled with the poisonous presence of Trump. Although we are a culture that celebrates personalities and individuals, it is unhealthy to have the focus of our national dialogue be an individual, not matter who that individual is. Individuals, both the best and the worst, die. Ideas do not die, or, at least, they do not have to. We need a common unifying idea to pull us out of this malaise. The survival of the planet is a worthy one, but it is too subject to argument. The good of the children is more immediate and ties immediately into images that touch each of us at our moral core.
I do not know how we change a national dialogue, and I am not claiming that my idea is the only one or the best. But our national dialogue must change, and I believe it must change to something that touches us all at our moral heart. As always, I go back to Chief Sitting Bull: “Come, let us put our minds together to see what kind of life we can create for our children.”