The question that arose for us in March 2020 when the schools first shut down, and our AmeriCorps service year was interrupted was- How Long?Most people were thinking- perhaps wishing- this is only temporary, a precautionary measure, till we get this infection under control. But here we are 6 months to the day March 16-September 16th. We are still not even sure where we are, or even if we are in the middle.
Where do you feel you are right now in the unfolding story?
Some experts are saying this is still the first wave. With Fall starting next week, with its usual flu season, we are a long ways away from the end. At least if it is a middle of sorts, we have to start thinking of COVID19 as a year long event. We have not lost a few months. We have lost a whole year, at least, if not more. Ignoring or minimizing what we have lost is not healthy.
BEGINNING AND ENDINGS
In the study of narrative design, research shows that the two most valuable pieces of real estate in the territory of story are the Beginning and The End. The Ending is meant to create a sense of Completion ( not closure). The Beginning is meant to invite Creative energy needed for a fresh start. This is critical to creating a coherent memory.
In this unfolding story design, orchestrated by the virus, those endings have not been cleanly completed, and these beginnings are not being freshly started. That has enormous implications for memory and how we make sense of the event. It is one of the reasons why most of us are not coping- its a broken story. COVID does not disclose enough of itself to reveal an ending and with an ending, some promise of meaning. We are stuck in the middle. Some call it trauma, the results of such narrative dysfunction.
In narrative design practice, the middle has 3 main energies- of complication, clarification, and the call to re-commitment. We are certainly experiencing that but it is not because of us, its because of where we are- in the Middle.
THE KEY QUESTION
The key clarifying question for this Middle Passage is this:
What do we know from here (M)….that we did not know from there (B)….that knowing the difference ( between B and M)…. will increase our chances of reaching our desired ends. (E)
Like a voyage stuck in the doldrums of mid passage, what cargo can we ditch because it weighs us down? What adjustments to the sails are called for, and how do we repair and lighten the ship to get us moving again?
What lessons have your learned from these last 6 months?
I threw this question at Jack, one of my staff this morning, and we came up with a few insights of what we had learned en route.
-`the pandemic is lasting much longer than we thought. We prepared for a sprint or a middle distance effort but it has become a marathon. We may have spent energy for the short run and not conserved enough to endure the long run. How do we build that energy now? How do we rig for a longer sail?
-the shut down has so challenged our life routine that we are forced to reconsider what matters, especially because of what we are missing. We are all on a forced sabbatical. Are we enduring it or using it?
–time seems to have lost its moorings to any particular moment, and days merge into each other so that its easy to become bored or lose our zest for life. Since we will not get these months back, what are we doing to make time matter?
-we are all challenged to learn a new technological literacy that we did not have to bother with before- and this isolation has increased connection on another level. We are all experiencing that movie title “Far Away, So Close”.
-we, and especially parents, now understand the gift of a teacher and the role our schools play not just to educate but to socialize our kids.
-we realize how person to person “in the flesh” contact matters to our mental and emotional health. No matter how good the virtual is, it is no substitute. How can humans live without hugs and kisses and pats on the back?
–we are forced to slow down and learn patience. Some people have more patience than others, but let’s face it, none of us are really coping that well.
-yes, we are in a shared story of COVID19 but as my friend Lex likes to say, we are not in the same boat, just the same storm. Some are navigating through in their cruisers and some are drowning and some are falling overboard.
What about the second half of the question- how can we use our learning to increase our chances of a happy ending? I can only share some of what I am doing.
How are you applying what you have learned going forward?
LESSONS TO CARRY FORWARD
First, I am not trying to hurry up. Slow is OK. In fact, SLOW is better.
Second, I am not rushing to get back to normal because this abnormal in-between time is potentially a doorway into doing life differently. I am welcoming the liminal space.
Third, what the COVID finally means is dependent less on what I do with it now and more on what I do with it afterwards. So I invite the future more into my imagination. If COVID is the unavoidable hibernation, what comes next? Let’s all play Rip Van Winkle and wake up to a startlingly different world. Turn endurance into emergence. That is what emerge-ncies are for.
Fourth, when I know what I am battling with, and see that look on others’ faces on ZOOM, I know more than ever, I need to be kind. It is not the solution to every problem but right now, anything else is likely to only make things worse.
Fifth, when it is over, we will both miss it and we won’t remember much about it. So, I want to remember it-and mark the passage of time so it does not go unobserved. Hence declaring this Middle Moment today is my way to honor this place in the stream. I am using Narrative Design to consciously live today in the way I want to remember it tomorrow.
Reading the history of the 1919/20 Spanish Flu, one is stunned how the tragedy of the war years ending in 1918 seemed to have crowded out any communal memory of the death toll of 1919-20 which was a much larger tragedy. Spanish influenza was as unpredictable in its start as its end and that is the enemy of memory. But that forgetting did not serve us well in 2019/20.
One final learning from applying the maps and principles of narrative design to the COVID19 experience is that it proves the point- Where we are is who we are. We did not chose to be here. And though so many are blaming so many others, that to me shows a lack of Awareness meaning A-Where-Ness.
How we are feeling right now has more to do with WHERE we are and not WHO we are. I mean, how does anyone show up and survive during a pandemic? How does anyone predict or get a pandemic right? President Lincoln took 2-3 years to get the Civil War about right, and even then.
We are in the Middle. It’s messy and it’s complicated and it feels like nothing is going right. But that is how a story works. Rest assured underneath it all, the future is slowly emerging. If we are only looking backwards, we will miss it. A story works best when its plot pushes our attention forward to the cusp of “What comes next?” If time is not offering much chance for that suspense right now, then we need to invent a future that will get us back in the game. That might be the only way we can keep ourselves sane.