Writing a truer story
As some parts of the world rush to return to normal operations, I’d like to take this moment to round up some of the most evocative things this unprecedented time in our collective history has been called: The “great pause” that is affording all of us a time to reflect and recalibrate. The “dark tunnel” between the old paradigm we are leaving behind and new world order we are walking towards. The “birth canal” through which we are ushering our brand new selves.
As a writer, there is a metaphor that powerfully evokes for me the same feelings as the above of the fear of the unknown, the anticipation of the new, and the mind-numbing, stress-inducing second-guessing about how it’s all going to turn out: the blank page of a Word document.
No matter how many times over the past 26 years as a professional writer I’ve faced that blank page, signaling the beginning of a new writing project—whether it be a book, a screenplay or an essay—my initial reaction has always been the same: naked fear. All my issues--my insecurities, my self-judgments, the unforgivable transgressions that I committed when I was three years old—come out of the woodwork like a fresh army of Orcs ready to devour me.
Will this be good? Are they going to hate it? Will I get slaughtered? Will anybody even read this? Do I know how do this? Can I really write? Who am I kidding? And…is it too late to switch to accounting?
Fear. Fear. Bottomless fear.
Much as I’d rather think otherwise, my writer angst is not sophisticated. It’s actually pretty basic, primal. Now I can judge myself all I want for this primitive habit of lugging around the same hang-ups all these years, but science—and all the wisdom teachers, in fact--say that, as a human being possessed of this homo sapien brain, this reaction is simply a function of my biology. It’s our instinctive, natural response to the new and unfamiliar. Us humans are biologically hardwired to fear the unfamiliar. When faced with something unprecedented, we come to only one conclusion: Protect ourselves at all costs from this enemy.
This protective instinct was extremely useful at one point in our evolution—it saved us from saber toothed tigers, from the lions; it fended off an attack from another tribe; it helped us protect our resources. To this primal, basic part of us, anything that we haven’t seen nor experienced before is a threat to our survival. And survival is the name of the game. In fact, to our primitive mind, it is the ONLY goal of life—to continue to exist. And this goal is expressed in one of only two ways: We either fight off the threat to our existence or we run as fast and as far away from it as possible. As a human being, this survivalist fight-or-flight response to the new is a given; it’s an intrinsic part of me, as well as of every single human being on the planet.
And so this current blank page that we are facing—this as-yet-unwritten, unknown chapter of our history book, so to speak—is rousing to heightened levels our collective primitive fight-or-flight response. What now? What’s going to happen next? Will I still have my job? If I lose my job, will I still get hired? What will happen to my business? How will I earn, pay my bills, my mortgage? Will we have to give up this house? Will we still live in a house? How will I support my family?
We are faced with this great unknown, this unfamiliar landscape where the life we had grown accustomed to is no more, and we feel in the most acute way the threat to our survival. So we oscillate from tuning into the latest live television press con on the pandemic and once again feeling our blood boil and working ourselves up to a state of rage, to escaping into the warm, cozy cocoon of our nth round of the latest Korean tele-drama. Just switching between two basic, primal responses to where we are now: Fighting it or fleeing from it.
Of course, not just our way of life but our actual lives are at stake here. This virus is as life-threatening as saber-toothed tigers—even more—as it is wiping out record numbers of us from the planet at such an alarming rate. But even before this pandemic, this was how we were already responding to situations in our everyday lives—constantly feeling under attack, needing to counter-attack and to defend ourselves, aggressively or passive-aggressively, exploding in anger or imploding in resentment. This is how we reacted to our bosses, our colleagues, our spouses, children, the driver of that car that suddenly swerved in front of us in traffic—at alarm-level fight-or-flight, as if we were protecting an entire tribe from extinction.
While we were no longer living in a physical jungle, we stayed stuck in our jungle mentality and continued to live in survival mode. All our reactions were knee-jerk, primitive. And all our actions were really just reactions, so that our lives became one repetitive, predictable pattern. This predictable pattern, which gave us the illusion of safety, stability and, thus, control, then strengthened what psychologists and spiritual teachers call the ego in us—the false self. By its very nature, this false self thrives in falsehood, in illusion. Run by this false self—this reactionary, predictable pattern—we lived in an illusory jungle, the corporate jungle, the capitalist jungle, fighting, fleeing, fighting, fleeing, trapped in an endless cycle of just trying to make it through the day.
That’s why we were so exhausted. That’s why our stress levels were off the charts. That’s why we would stress-eat, consuming in this fevered state to try to calm down the fear in our bellies. That’s why we couldn’t have enough clothes, bags, shoes in our closet and were overwhelmed by things. That’s why we were drowning in debt. That’s why we were so sick, with chronic illnesses widespread even among the young. That’s why suicide and suicidal thoughts were so rampant—everyone and everything had become the enemy, including and especially oneself. And that’s just the things we’ve been doing to ourselves, not counting the mind-blowing harm we’ve been inflicting on one another in the most obvious deadly ways—declaring war on another group because of religion or political affiliation, ethnic cleansing, the mass shootings, continuing to “pave paradise to put up a parking lot” and threatening the extinction of other species, poisoning our waters, polluting our oceans…We had created an environment that was nowhere near as hostile to humans as the jungle. The one we had created—and that has now ground to a halt--was hostile and becoming increasingly uninhabitable not just to humans but to ALL life forms.
On one level, we all accepted this existence as “normal.” We didn’t stop to ask ourselves, “Am I OK with this? Am I really OK with working this many hours and getting only this much sleep? Is this pricey apartment in a posh district really worth the extra workload just to keep up with the monthly rent? Am I really OK with missing my parents’ anniversary/child’s birthday/best friend’s wedding because of another product launch?” How could we begin to ask these questions when we could hardly stop to catch our breath? The pace of life had become manic, impossible. We couldn’t stop or slow down--we didn’t dare—because we had somehow been indoctrinated that that meant falling behind. And falling behind meant failure. And failure to the the ego meant death. So we kept scrambling to keep up or to keep ahead of “the curve.”
In the meantime, on another level, a deeper part of us—a truer self—was telling us something else, something completely different. This part of us carried its contrary message through the low level anxiety that made us reach for a pack of cigarettes, the nights that had us tossing and turning in bed till 5:00 AM, the moments when everything looked bleak and hopeless, and even breathing seemed pointless.
When these messages escalated, we popped a pill for our anxiety, another for insomnia, yet another for depression. But it was really just one pill we were popping—the blue pill, the one that kept alive in us the illusion that, really, this is how things should be, that this is “the real world,” and that we should all live like this. But we had caught a glitch in the matrix, we had glimpsed a sliver of the truth—and it had disturbed our soul. When we spoke of what we’ve seen, what we’ve experienced, we were told there was something wrong with us. We were accused of fairytale thinking, of being “unrealistic,” of being unable to “grow up.” And then we were given a full jar of blue pills, for good measure, and a pitcher of Kool-Aid to wash it all down, to drown out all traces of the truth. And so this stifled truth ate away at us, turning us more and more into zombies, as we continued to mechanically, methodically, mindlessly move about in this matrix of fear and its modern twin—the culture of relentless, manic consumerism. Until this virus came along.
It is poetic that the coronavirus bears the exact same qualities of the toxic environment in which it was born, the environment that we accepted as “normal”—insidious, invisible, widespread, and deadly. It is mirroring back to us the insane culture that we had all contributed to, showing us in the most dramatic way that that mindset was madness, that that lifestyle was unsustainable, that that “normal” was the killer. It was already killing our souls and now that it had become dense enough to take on a physical form, it was taking bodies, too.
“Our pre-corona existence was not normal other than we normalized greed, inequality, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding, hate and lack,” social psychologist and author, Brené Brown, posted on Instagram. “We should not long to return, my friends. We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment. One that fits all of humanity and nature.”
“THIS is not the problem,” says Dr. Shefali Tsabary, a clinical psychologist, author and one of my favorite contemporary wisdom teachers. “The problem is all the moments that have led us here.” In one episode of Viral Wisdom, the daily live Facebook course she has been teaching for free since the start of the pandemic, Dr. Shefali says, “We are in the greatest spiritual reset. This virus is our Zen master, our wisdom teacher. It has given us one big, tight spiritual slap to go, ‘Humanity, wake the F up!’ Yes, there’s tragedy. But there is an opportunity. There’s a window, a peeping hole that we can pass through and evolve as a species.”
“Use it, don’t waste it,” spiritual teacher and author, Eckhart Tolle, says of this opportunity. “There’s a saying that goes, ‘When the ego weeps for what it has lost, the spirit rejoices for what it has found.’ So what looks bad on the surface has an essential function.”
This is a difficult, even impossible, thing to wrap one’s head around—if all we are acquainted with is our primary, egoic self. There’s no way to find comfort in this situation without sounding like…an egomaniac head of state, especially when hundreds of thousands of human lives have already been lost to the virus and the body count continues to rise—if our physical eyes are the only lenses through which we view the world.
And yet, there is another, better way of being, the wise ones always say. There is another way of seeing things. There is another response besides just fighting or fleeing. There is another way of living beyond striving and failing. There is another reality that is far more real than what we perceive through our five senses. There is a more authentic you and a more authentic me than who we know ourselves to be. There is a truer story here than what we’ve been told and what we’ve been repeating. If we are curious enough to know the alternative, thus begins our spiritual journey.
And this is why I write. This is why I keep facing a new, blank page, even as I know that my most aggressive demons await me: To keep connecting to the truer story that I once glimpsed and couldn’t forget. The truer story that I tried to stifle for a long time in order to feel “normal.” The truer story that wouldn’t let me rest until it was told, again and again.
This is what our blank-page moment in history is presenting to us now: The opportunity to discover another way, to write the truer story about who we are, so that, ultimately, we can live in a better, braver world.