Over the last few weeks, this quotation from author Michael Lewis has been on my mind.
“As I’ve gotten older—I would say starting in my mid-to-late 20s—I could not help but notice the effect on people of the stories they told about themselves. If you listen to people, if you just sit and listen, you’ll find that there are patterns in the way they talk about themselves.
There’s the kind of person who is always the victim in any story that they tell. Always on the receiving end of some injustice. There’s the person who’s always kind of the hero of every story they tell. There’s the smart person; they delivered the clever put down there.
There are lots of versions of this, and you’ve got to be very careful about how you tell these stories because it starts to become you. You are—in the way you craft your narrative—kind of crafting your character. And so I did at some point decide, “I am going to adopt self-consciously as my narrative, that I’m the happiest person anybody knows.” And it is amazing how happy-inducing it is.”
In Melbourne over the last week, several suburbs went into lockdown again to tackle a spike in COVID-19 cases. As of last midnight, my neighbourhood joined them.
For a minute our thoughts may have turned to the sense it was somehow unfair. There was a strange resignation as news spread along the streets and we were sent back inside.
It was also certain that the second time we locked down, many people would reveal their true natures, especially if measures were not evenly distributed.
This expected phenomenon revealed itself in social and mainstream media. Views ranged from the childish exclamation of ‘it’s not fair!’ to the downright crazy notion that nasal swabs are really secret government programs to microchip the population like cats and dogs.
Pass the tin foil hats…
So Lewis’ belief about personal narratives and their tendency to be manifest destiny for a lot of folks got into my head.
Perspective suggests that, in the vast history of what human beings have been asked to sacrifice in the interests of the greater good, staying home is pretty low impact.
Of course, the caveat is always on the specific context – fortune delivers me a pretty comfortable place to bunker down.
To be honest, even if it feels unprecedented, which it may be in terms of scale, there have been countless occasions when human beings were forced into isolation by all manner of external events.
The fact we are here to write and ruminate on it is testament to how they got through it, like we will.
Beyond circumstances that people really can’t control, many are completely within our grasp to influence and change.
We know this because generations of people came to this understanding via their experience of ‘unprecedented’ life events.
One such man is Viktor Frankl, who survived the holocaust and spent the rest of his life trying to understand why. He said:
Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.Viktor Frankl – Man’s Search for Meaning
As a man who lived through the unimaginable horror of genocide, the wisdom he discovered relates to our ability to choose the attitude we hold towards any event. When linked to Michael Lewis’ idea, it is possible to argue that our attitudes and responses are embedded in the stories we tell about who we are.
Which is a longwinded and indulgent way of saying that when this situation arose, I decided to make the best of it and emerge better somehow.
Heading back into lockdown, the dominant feeling is gratitude for another opportunity to reflect and challenge and learn about the narrative that shapes my character and situation.
For what its worth, for most of my life it would have been negative. I was a complainer, a whiner, a navel gazer. I was very much the man in Stephen Crane’s poem, addressing the universe:
A man said to the universe:
“Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.”
Right now there are many people wrestling with this truth, locked away in their homes or perhaps experiencing some freedom after a long confinement.
And while conceding that the journey is incomplete and perfection continues to elude, without opening up to the opportunity and choice, the entry into shutdown in the second week of a well earned holiday would be very different.
Three ideas central to this openness can be found in Ryan Holiday’s series of books based on ancient Stoic philosophy.
Holiday is an overachiever who now devotes his time and influence to spreading the word of stoic thought and practice, revisiting the writings of Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and Epictetus.
Each book deals with a central concept that is more applicable than ever in the current climate. What is more, the mix of philosophy and historical case study makes them easy to digest, just in case you encounter flashbacks to turgid lectures about philosophy from houndstooth jacketed, monotone academics.
The Obstacle is the Way borrows from Aurelius, Roman Emperor, who determined that ‘the impediment to action advances action, what stands in the way becomes the way’.
In essence, the only way through challenge is through. Indeed, it is valuable to think differently about events like, I dunno, the lockdown associated with a global pandemic, seeing it as an opportunity rather than a burden.
His second book, Ego is the Enemy, challenges the notion that Stephen Crane wrote poetry about. It explores the heavy, destructive weight that ego has on people throughout history. It challenges us to reconsider or explore the widely held belief that we are special and entitled to recognition and success. It poses the question of the impact of living within our own little ego bubbles and how that impacts our personal narratives.
The third in the series, Stillness is the Key, relates to the ability to be comfortable and find peace in just being rather than always doing. This is where the world of mindfulness and meditation comes to the fore. Most clearly, it challenges the belief that getting away from it all was the answer to an unquiet or depleted mind, or you always had to be doing something to live a meaningful life.
This might be the most relevant idea to explore just now. In a hyperconnected world, where there are endless ways to keep one’s mind busy and distracted, how can we learn to sit still and enjoy what we have and be more mindful of the moment? In this way, we may reduce the chances of becoming overwhelmed by the amount of time we have to focus on what we cannot do, both now and in the future.
What is in the way becomes the way. How true.