Feeling/Doing

“In one word, write down how you are feeling right now.”  

This was how I started each class over the last month at the two different universities where I teach.   

Students were encouraged not to use terms already added to the zoom chat by another student. Some results were predictable.  Anxious, tired, afraid, nervous, unsure – always made the list. More practical needs were also expressed – allergic, hungry – as were, albeit more rarely,  the aspirational – hopeful, grateful.

This simple exercise created an opening to a dialogue that put that day’s lesson in its proper context.   

Some students were waking up at 3:00AM to join class from South Korea or China – often having internet issues, especially when they were in state ordered quarantine, separated from their family.  Others were experiencing loss on all scales – from their jobs to their homes to the lives of loved ones.

Last week every one of them finished their final projects – which was the focus of their semester’s work and the culmination of their education. As all would now enter or return to a very uncertain job market.

In watching them approach the finish line, we emphasized not grades but finding satisfaction and taking pride in what they were able to accomplish under spectacularly difficult circumstances.  Intrinsic, not extrinsic, value was the currency of our courses.

If they asked me to write down how I was feeling after having reviewed their final papers and presentations, I would have had to choose from proud, impressed, respect. 

But ultimately I think I would have written “optimistic.”

You see each of them had been working on projects that in one shape or another would improve the lives of others – addressing issues ranging from mental health, grief alleviation, prison jobs programs, sustainability, child hunger, education, mentoring, financial literacy, green jobs programs and so on and so on. It would have been understandable if the present conditions would have led to cynicism and doubt. Instead, and despite their daily feelings and realities, their projects were driven by hope and a confidence that they could make a difference in their world.

It is so important that we take the time to speak and share our feelings – and to create the space for doing so. It is a necessary prerequisite for moving forward.  Once freed from holding them in – what can come out next is often powerful.

So how are you feeling right now?  And what will you be doing next?

mom

Yesterday was a mother’s day unlike any other. Under normal circumstances this would be a day where mothers would either be lavished with gifts, taken out to dinner, or maybe just given a break.

No doubt children and families did their best to try and cobble something together along those lines despite our current limitations. 

To repeat a well-worn cliche, now more than ever, mom’s deserve the recognition that too often gets taken for granted. Even as we all shelter in place, mom’s end up shouldering more of the load – in ways too many to number.

A recent study suggests that men believe that they themselves are picking up more of the workload. For example, half of all men believe that they are doing most of the homeschooling.  A statement that only 3% of moms agree with. This overstatement is not just a sign of the times, but a sign of every time.

In my own home, it is hard to overstate how much I appreciate what my wife is doing these days.  Yet, I don’t state it often enough. I hope our daughters reflect upon this time with an equally deep sense of appreciation. Recognizing how hard it is to hear “Mom” yelled from all corners of our home with needs sometimes cloaked in anxiety, anger or tears. Or realizing how challenging it can be to create fun ways to have family picnics, sister gym class, or game nights with their friends while physically distancing.  Perhaps most of all remembering the sacrifices she makes in pursuing her interests, growing her business and maintaining her own sanity in order to make their lives easier during difficult times. 

It shouldn’t take either a holiday or a crisis to appreciate the fullness of a mom’s contributions.  Yet it does provide a perfect opportunity to do so.

So to my wife, Julie, thank you, thank you, thank you for being the amazing mom that you are. Without you we’d be an absolute mess.  With you, we’re a family making the best out of an awful situation.

With my own mom, our interactions these days largely revolve around awkward facetime chats held at hectic times and odd angles (somehow always involving looking up into her nose.)  Like many, I miss my mom more and more these days – and cannot wait for the day I can give her a big, enduring hug.

I am grateful that I will hopefully have that opportunity at some point.  And I also recognize that many others will not. My heart goes out to those who have lost their mom during this crisis or at any time for that matter.

I hope that in thinking of her, a smile comes to your face remembering her and what she meant in your life – during the best and worst of times..

Belated means “happening later than should have been the case.”   Which means that every day, we can say “Happy belated mother’s day” to all who hold that esteemed role and deserve our daily admiration.
 

Public

One of the defining American debates is the ongoing question of Public vs. Private.  Another way to think of it is — what is mine vs. what is ours?  This question runs through issues related to economics, rights, education, health, property and so on.

Some see these ideas of public and private mostly at odds.  An example of zero-sum thinking (see here for a great summary of research on how this thinking plays out politically).  If the public benefits it must be at the expense of the private and vice versa.  Others believe that the public and private can co-exist in ways that are beneficial for both.

There has been an historical ebb and flow of how we generally perceive the relative value of private and public things. As a country founded on principles of liberty and freedom, we have often prioritized the private. Yet when we feel as if private interests have exploited the greater public good, we have whipsawed back to protecting the public (e.g national parks, social security). Conversely, when we feel as if public goods either no longer serve us well or overreach, we course correct the other way (e.g. charter schools, outsourcing government functions). Throughout our history, you’ll find other examples of this yin and yang at play.

So where does that leave us today?

We see that our private well-being is greatly impacted by our public health.

We increase how we value both our private homes and our public spaces.

We’re grateful for the public investment that created the internet and private companies that bring us our service.

We no longer take for granted the public roads that allow the transport of our private goods.

We miss the public amenities like parks, libraries, beaches and museums and our private moments alone.

We feel the strengths and limitations of public education, in comparison to private institutions.

We question whether our private data should be shared for public good.

We clamor for public leadership and programs and in their absence hope that private leaders do the right thing.

We lead our private lives while longing to return to a more public life.

We often conflate the public with the government. They are not the same. Public means “of the people” or “for all the people.”  Government is just an entity (albeit a large one) that is tasked with serving the public. Creating services, programs and policies accessible for the greater public good. 

But we, as individuals, also serve and contribute to the public.  You are private, but we are all the public.  When we fail to invest in it, we fail to invest in ourselves.

The ideas of what is public and what is private will continue to resonate as we make our way out of this. It will serve us well if we opt to not to pit them against one another but find the value in each and invest accordingly.

Open?

There has been a lot of talk and some action about “opening” lately.  Most of it has been focused on opening the economy, or more specifically businesses.  Some are clamoring to get back to life “as normal” while others are concerned that such a move would endanger our individual and collective health. This debate, if you want to call it that, is taking different shapes depending upon circumstance, geography and is greatly affected by leadership of lack thereof.

While the pragmatic question of opening the economy rages on, it reveals an equally important personal question also around the issue of “opening.” 

This report from the CDC, The Psychology of a Crisis, suggests that during times like these, when we most need to be open to the ideas and experiences of others, we often do just the opposite.  Among the common responses during a crisis are:
– Oversimplifying what we hear: often missing the nuance of the situation
– Holding on to existing beliefs
– Looking for additional information that confirms what we believe
– Denying of the potential harm to ourselves or others
– Seeking special treatment for ourselves or those close to us
– Stigmatize others who behave or believe differently than we do
– Creating or spreading damaging rumors directed at others
– Encouraging an unfair distrust of others

Generally speaking, I like to consider myself an open-minded person. But reflecting on the list above, I see myself in too many of them. This has been a time when it has become all too easy to judge others for behavior or attitudes inconsistent with our own.

Looking from my perch of privilege that so far has allowed me to be remain unscathed by the crisis, I can espouse the benefits of sheltering in place for as long as needed.  

But would I feel the same if I was unable to feed my family?  Or if I lived in an abusive household?  

I run a small business whose work is made more relevant by the crisis and is well acclimated to done virtually. But what if I owned a restaurant or event business?

My family is healthy, but what if a loved one had an underlying health condition that put them at particular risk?  Wouldn’t I want everyone to stay at home as long as possible?

I can continue to home school my children as we have both the time, technology and schools that have allowed a relatively smooth transition. But what if I had a child with special needs or a school that was under resourced and my child was struggling to keep up? Wouldn’t I clamor for a return to school?

In difficult circumstances it is natural that we all turn inward to protect ourselves, our families, our dreams.  But with this can come a shutting out, a closing down.  

All this at a time when it is more important than ever that we remain open to see the pain and the possibility, the fears and hopes of others.

Regardless of how long parts of our lives and economies may be closed, let us all strive to keep our hearts and minds open for as long as possible.

Laugh

“What kind of tree can you fit into your hand?”   —- “a palm tree.”

Each morning our daughter’s elementary school principal shares a taped video message.  She concludes it with a joke submitted by a student – similar to the one above. This ritual is a new one, as  previously the morning announcements in school did not include any joke telling.

While not privy to the reason behind this addition. My assumption is that the principal as well as the teachers who do the same, do so to bring a smile or laugh to the students during a time that is confusing, difficult, perhaps even scary.

The relationship between comedy and tragedy has been well documented.  In ancient Greek theatre, there are two masks.  One, Thalia, representing comedy and the other Melpomene, representing tragedy. The intent was to telegraph on stage the two extremes of human emotion.

Later, talk show host Steve Allen first defined comedy as “tragedy plus time.”  The comedian Carol Burnett created a much more direct connection when she said that she received her sense of humor from her mother, saying, “I’d tell her my tragedies and she would make me laugh.”

Like many, I have had many serious, difficult, even tragic conversations with loved ones over the last several weeks. But even within the most dire ones, we have found a way to share a laugh.

During the many struggles of my youth, I turned to humor to mask pain, act as a reliable defense mechanism and when possible, to bring light to others during a dark time.

As I grew older, I have grown more serious – much to my dismay and to the detriment of those around me.  Still when tragedy strikes, I turn back to my 12 year old self, trying to reach into my bag of old tricks and strike some kind of balance between acknowledging the depth of pain while finding some momentary light. While there have been fails that missed the mark, the risk to turn to humor has been worth it most of the time. 

The benefits of laughter are not just psychological, but physical.  It stimulates your heart, lungs and muscles. It releases relaxing endorphins, reduces feelings of pain and can even boost your immune system. Laughing can lessen depression and anxiety. One study found the positive effects of a good hearty laugh can reduce stress for more than 45 minutes. 

There is nothing funny about the pain people are experiencing today, but it doesn’t diminish their need for joy, humor, and laughter.  In fact the times when it is most hard to come by may be when we need it most.

I encourage you to reach out and share a laugh today with someone who you think could use one. You can share a funny story, relive one from your shared past, send a link from a funny skit, watch a funny movie, or even tell a corny joke. If you’re in need of one, here is one more:

“What sound does a nut make when it sneezes?   —  CA-SHEW!

God bless you and be well.

Heroic

She drove almost 2,000 miles from Pennsylvania to Texas to deliver a truckload of eggs.  On the way back, her freight was 29,000 pounds of berries – among whose final destinations was a Philadelphia hospital.

On a normal week my sister’s driving comes with its own set of risks. She has lupus and being in a truck is not especially good for her health – even though she does split the driving with her husband.

During the COVID19 outbreak, it is even more so, given her autoimmune disease and compromised lungs. In the last several weeks, the government has relaxed the normal safety rules limiting how many hours someone can drive at one time – making the road even more dangerous.

While other safety precautions have been added, non-compliance comes with a steep fine (truck drivers who don’t wear a mask can now face a fine up to $1000.)  Of course, they need to find a mask first.  Adding insult to potential injury, while she has also delivered literally tons of toilet paper across the country, she was unable to find a single roll in their local stores when they returned home recently.

My sister is also a registered nurse. Lupus forced her out of the profession she loved – although she still maintains her license to practice.

She will soon put that love to practice once again. When she next steps out of her truck, she will step into a situation where she will be providing hospice care for the closest person to a father she has ever known.

When her service and the mourning that will inevitably follow is finished, she has talked about temporarily returning to nursing. In spite of her compromised state, she feels the need to serve others during the coronavirus pandemic.

There are many lofty and inspirational quotes and definitions of heroism.  But perhaps the one that most appeals to me is from Arthur Ashe who once said:

“True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others, at whatever cost.”     

I think this definition suits my sister well.  She might be embarrassed when she reads this and I doubt she considers her actions heroic.  As she recently texted me, “I’m an average girl, and I’m ok with that.”

Some might suggest that we throw the term heroic and hero around too loosely.  Maybe you think I’m doing it right now.  But I am inclined to think that heroism is in the eye of the beholder.

And lately there is so much of it to behold. 

When we see it personally, I believe we should draw attention to it with whatever tools we have at our disposal.  

Just like these firefighters – heroes in their own right – who recently used their trucks and sirens to recognize others now on the frontlines of the crisis.

However, you define heroism, the next time you see it – say something.  To the heroes and to anyone who might listen.

Thanks for listening.  Be well.

Essential

It is early, but my frontrunner for word of the year is “essential.”  We’ve heard it often lately in the context of “essential businesses.” But when life comes in a stripped down version it causes us all to re-evaluate what is essential for our own lives and what are the essential roles we play in the lives of others.

Two of my nephews work at a food distribution center and my sister hauls food across the country in an eighteen wheel truck.  A month ago, few would have considered their jobs essential. How times have changed.

The definition of essential is “absolutely necessary.”   It has become abundantly clear that people who work in food– from farm to table– are absolutely necessary.  It has always been known that healthcare workers are absolutely necessary (although the depths of our appreciation run deeper today – just watch this video).   Our first responders are absolutely necessary. As any parent trying to home school their child has reaffirmed, our teachers are absolutely necessary.  

We have also learned that a well-functioning federal government is absolutely necessary.  So too are governors, state and local officials and workers who in many ways have proved even more essential.

For better or worse, we are seeing that certain technologies are increasingly essential so we can communicate with one another. Family walks have never been more popular – a sign of the essentialness of being outside and getting some exercise.  

Most of all, we are seeing how essential we are to each other.  Even if our job does not define our work as essential, we are discovering or reaffirming how essential we are to each other.  All of our relationships are evolving in extraordinary ways. Ideally strengthening, occasionally fraying.  

If you’re struggling to find what your essential role is right now, then consider this question from Otto Scharmer from the Presencing Institute that was shared with me recently. He writes:

“If we let go of everything that is not essential — what’s left?… Whatever the answer is that emerges for you from this contemplation, keep it in your heart.”

Now in thinking of what is left, think about all the people who make what is essential to you possible.  

Connected

The speed of everyday life can make the strings that connect us invisible to the naked eye. When life grinds to a halt those same strings might as well be thickly knotted ropes.

Recently, we have seen these connections first in ways that frighten us.  A virus can spread across continents, oceans, and states, while making the rest of the world stand still. The economic reverberations ring out from Wall Street but come crashing down on every storefront on Main Street.  

The chords of individualism and self-reliance ring hollow in today’s context. No one is an island.  

Yet just as these connections can bring fear. They also can bring hope.  

Isolated Italians inspire us with music that flows out from windows and into living rooms not just across their streets but across the globe.

People rally to support their small businesses by gobbling up gift certificates – putting cash in owners pockets now for services to be rendered when sanity returns.

Friends reach out to friends to check in with greater frequency and deeper meaning.

Young children hangout with friends on google and giggles echo throughout houses and neighborhoods.

Neighbors look out for neighbors as communities grow stronger even as distance separates us.

Loved ones reach out to each other in ways so profoundly touching even when physical touch is not possible.

Our connection to nature seems renewed as parents enjoy bike rides or walks with their children with seemingly greater frequency than ever before. 

Even the connection to our planet becomes more real and healthier, as evidenced by how clear the Venice waterways and Chinese skies have become without our industrious ways.

And so on and so on and so on.

When normal times return – and they will – our lives will undoubtedly speed up once again.  The race to consume and experience what was missed will be on. The rope that connects us now could once again appear as a string.  

Or maybe not.  Sometimes you see something in such a profound way as to never see them in the same way ever again.  I hope this is true of our connections to one another now. May we never forget what we’re seeing today.

If you’re looking to go down a rabbit hole of goodness, then check out this growing stream of people connecting to one another in beautiful ways -courtesy of the the Obama Foundation.  At the end, you’re invited to share your own experience of hope and connection.

Be well and stay connected.

Canceled

They came one after another. A work event I’d been helping prepare for months. Both universities where I teach canceled classes and would move the rest online. A trip to Boston with my youngest daughter for her first basketball tournament. Another local tournament for two daughter’s soccer teams. Then the postponement of the youth soccer season altogether. Then their basketball season. Then one’s theatre program, another’s gymnastics etc.

In a matter of two days every single activity or plan that would take us out of our home for the next two months was canceled.

The only exception was their school. Which has since been closed and moved online just as I was writing this post.  

This experience will undoubtedly be all too familiar for anyone reading this. The new normal is that the old normal is canceled.  Major conferences, all sports leagues, all youth activities, stores, schools, events, vacations, travels, jobs and so on.

As each domino fell my initial reaction was one of loss. But quickly you realize that your loss may be trivial compared to others. There is a cascading effect of each cancelation as people’s livelihoods, incomes and experiences are sacrificed at the altar of greater public health. The hardships this will place on families, small business and especially those whose health may be compromised can hardly be imagined. 

Trying to calculate the personal, economic, and societal loss thus far is impossible and so much of it is beyond anyone’s control.

But while we can’t quite grasp what is being lost, we can get a handle on what we can give.  

We can give respect, compassion, understanding and patience to one another.  We start with charitable thinking which assumes that everyone is trying to do the best they can with limited information during fluid and unchartered times.

And then there is the question of what those of us can do with what that canceled time. Yes we have to juggle our work with our kids being home.  But if you do the math, you may find more time than you realized. For example, in my own situation, I have calculated that with all the cancelations, I now have an additional one hundred and fifty hours of additional free time over the next two months.  

How will I use it?  Will I spend it online going down rabbit hole after rabbit hole – occasionally finding valuable information but mostly adding frustration and worry?  Will I look to escape and go full ostrich by binge watching shows on Netflix or HBO? 

Or could I use that time for good?

That time that was spent traveling, commuting, coaching, watching sports, and chauffeuring children around can now be used to check in on seniors, help stock the local food pantry, read with my children and guide their home schooling, mentor other students online, help a neighbor with a need, support a local business, play games or music with my kids, donate to a worthy cause impacted by this crisis, pick up the phone to have meaningful conversations with my family and friends, and so on and so on.

The opposite of  “to cancel” is “to keep.”  We must do what we can to keep calm, keep perspective, keep working, keep our lives running – all while keeping our sanity.

But I hope we can use also use some of  the time that was “canceled” to keep finding ways to support and care for one another.

Are you contagious?

Contagion is the second most popular movie on Netflix this year as people turn to this 2011 thriller for some combination of information and escapism. I watched this movie when it first came out and remember it as absolutely terrifying. But not for the reason you might think.

Yes, the physical effects of the virus that spreads rapidly across the globe are devastating and graphic (it is portrayed as exponentially more lethal and dangerous than the coronavirus.)

But it is the spreading of fear and panic that is most horrific. People turn on neighbors, violently compete for precious resources and become primal in their quest for survival.

The circumstances in Contagion are more extreme than what we currently face.  Yet you can begin to see the fraying of the social fabric that binds us together.  Even as it is so desperately needed to protect us during especially trying times.

We have seen seemingly innocuous hoarding of hand sanitizer (which is now causing a sharp increase of prices online).  I have read coarse online conversations that criticize closings and cancellations.  I have even heard of numerous reports across the globe of Chinese people being taunted, even beaten, for reasons related to the virus.

As public officials promote “social distancing” in an effort to prevent community spread, we need to better appreciate what is and is not meant by the term. It is specifically asking us to be smart about our physical distance and contact with others.  We can do this without emotionally distancing ourselves from the needs and feelings of others.

Fear makes us do strange and terrible things, often bringing out the worst of us when it is the best of us that is required.

So yes, we should be prudent and prepared to keep our physical distance, when appropriate, so the actual virus does not spread. But we should also be kind and supportive, closing our emotional distance, so that our goodness does.

For your information on what you can do to prevent the spreading of the virus, see this valuable CDC resource.

For more inspiration on how to cause the spreading of goodness in your community, skip Contagion and check out the film Kindness is Contagious instead.