Some 14 months ago, a few days into the U.S. lockdown, on March 30, 2020, in a piece titled "Constrained Growth," I tried to imagine how the lockdown might change us.
Today’s constraints on our physical movements can provide the opportunity to enlarge our mental and emotional capabilities to such an extent that it may lead to a great re-invention.
Emotionally, the crucible of change we are in can make us feel differently about our lives, our connections and our work.
Mentally, the stress in the foundry of uncertainty will twist our thinking in one or more ways as we seek to make sense of what has happened and plans for when the constraints lift.
In many ways it will make us appreciate what we took for granted.
In others, as we forgo certain behaviors and have the time to ponder and ruminate on our previous days, we may question why we did certain things.
We will question many aspects of our lives and we will make resolutions.
Every one of us will adapt, evolve and meld different versions of ourselves and interact with a world of people and institutions that are different.
We may have gone into this crisis as MS-DOS and focused on the narrow corridors of ourselves, but if we spend the next few weeks correctly we could come out as Windows 10 with expanded horizons …
Over a year later.
The pandemic is still with us, and it is causing great devastation in India. Many areas of Japan are back in an emergency lockdown with the Olympics only a few weeks away. However, in the U.S., with significant portions of the population vaccinated and an easing of the need to wear a mask, life will likely return to familiar routines.
As the constraints ease and the limits are removed will we return to the way we were?
Every individual will be emerging from the past year in different ways. Over half a million people in the United States who were lost to COVID will not be here to register these days. The tens of millions who were connected to them will always see a gap, a shadow and an empty chair which was previously occupied. Others among us may have lost jobs or needed to move back home or move away to a different place. Relationships have been strengthened and sundered. Rituals were postponed, delayed or virtually held. All these have made their mark and left their invisible tattoos.
Limits can lead to growth.
Many have found growth amidst the constraints and limits.
In the ordinary. In less. In enough. In endings.
There is a newly found appreciation for the ritual of the ordinary day.
We might have pined for the extra-ordinary, the special and the memorable eighteen months ago.
But as we sat socially distanced, masked and locked down the little habits, movements and freedoms of every day loomed large.
Sometimes one does know what one has until one loses it.
Happiness is not often in the one day in the future or getting promoted to the right level at work or when the right "number" is reached.
It is in the ordinary of good health, relationships and freedom.
The extra-ordinariness of "everyday ordinary" is what is special to many.
All we may need is less.
For many people the tragedy of COVID-19 has been a lack of food, shelter, jobs, money and health care. For many others, especially people with white collar jobs that can be done remotely, we are realizing that except for space we could do with less. How many of the things you have, or the past harried routines or frenetic travel are you missing?
All the frenzy of movement and much more remind us of William Wordsworth’s lines: "The world is too much with us; late and soon. Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers ..."
Many people are using this time to re-consider their lives and many are discovering that all they need is less. And if one needs less, it opens a world of options since we may be able to pursue the dream our previous lifestyle may have priced us out of.
Jack Brennan, the CEO of Vanguard, has a new book out called “Straight Talking on Investing” in which he quotes the journalist Jason Zweig from a January, 2000 Money magazine column: “I once interviewed dozens of residents in Boca Raton, one of Florida's richest retirement communities. Amid the elegant stucco homes, the manicured lawns, the swaying palm trees, the sun and the sea breezes, I asked these folks - mostly in their 70's - if they'd beaten the market over the course of their investing lifetimes. Some said yes, some said no. Then one man said, "Who cares? All I know is, my investments earned enough for me to end up in Boca."
The moral of this story is three-fold.
a) What are our goals in life?
b) There is a need for finish lines. Comparison is the thief of joy. Continuous benchmarking is a recipe for always coming up short. Living in the minds of other people might leave us empty. Are we happy with what we have when we have them or only when we can show others that we have them?
c) Enough. The most satisfied people recognize the power of enough. Living in a fervor of continuous measurement means you live by the scoreboard, and we stop focusing on the ball.
Life is the ball and not the scorecard.
Franz Kafka wrote, “The meaning of life is that it stops.”
In the future the ritual of the ordinary day will be special, just as we have come to realize after months of a new way of living that the simple pleasures of free movement, meeting friends, sitting in a crowded bar and watching a sports game were so special.
Life does not have to be lived forward and understood backward if we decide to pay attention.
We can use the lessons of 2020 to be aware of the fading moments of now.
Look around you. Watch the special quality of light or listen to the hiss of the air duct. Treasure the conversations and even the repetition and lack of differentiation of day after day.
Because one day it will not be so.
So, as we get back to the way it was, maybe the year of constrained living with anxiety, fear and uncertainty has grown all of us in ways that show that limits can free us and concentrate the mind and heart on what matters.
Photos by Rishad Tobaccowala
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