Playing the role of Forrest Gump (the small-town dimwit of the 1994 movie by the same name ) Tom Hanks sits on a bench by an outdoor bus stop with a box of chocolates on his lap. A nurse shows up, sits next to him, and rudely ignores his offer of one. Unfazed, the ever loveable Forrest remarks in his childlike southern drawl: “My momma always said life was like a box of chocolates… you never know what’cha gonna git.”
We humans are the petulant nurse in the story, stubbornly refusing Gump’s chocolatey truth. Amid a universe in constant upheaval, we demand certainty. We are spooked by spontaneity and bewildered by change. We can’t seem to live without controlling every aspect of our lives and insist on knowing what’s inside every chocolate before we take a bite. We are never patient, as Rainer Maria Rilke wrote to an aspiring young poet who sought his advice.
“Be patient,” he counseled, “toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms or books that are written in a foreign tongue. Live the questions now, and perhaps, gradually, without noticing it, you will live some distant day into the answer.
Each experience has its own velocity according to which it wants to be lived if it is to be new, profound, and fruitful. To have wisdom means to discover this velocity. — Rainer Maria Rilke
In exile from his homeland during WWII, philosopher Walter Benjamin said that “to be lost is to fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery. One does not get lost,” he added, “but loses oneself. It’s a conscious choice… a chosen surrender.”
This doesn’t mean giving up, but giving oneself up, which the ancient Greeks called kénōsis — the act of self-emptying — the arrestment of one’s will and desire. It’s Christianity’s notion of the self-emptying of Jesus’ own will to become receptive to the will of God, or fate.
Our world today is awash in uncertainty. Thousands are dying while millions lose their jobs. Whole industries are in peril and many countries at the brink of ruin. We’re at the mercy of an invisible, virulent scourge that has undermined our sense of control and proven how powerless we are.
When free falling into the abyss, it’s natural to want to flail our arms in search of a tree branch to save our lives. So is flapping our arms or praying for wings. But from what I can tell, no amount of flailing, flapping, or praying is going to stave the fall. It seems we are headed toward a nasty pileup. Quarantined and curled-up in crash position inside our homes, we can keep grasping at nonexistent branches, or choose to let go, surrender to the moment, and live the questions.
What is Covid-19 trying to tell us? What has it revealed about the human condition and the way in which we lived our lives before being turned upside down? What does it say about society at large and each of us in particular? Were we even in our right minds before the pandemic? What must change?
My friend and fellow writer Mary Reynolds Thompson may be right in saying “we often need some cataclysmic event to crack us open, just as bishop pines require fire for their seeds to fly open, like tiny stars in the night.”
Man builds on the ruins of his former selves. When we are reduced to nothingness, we come alive again. — Henry Miller
Like a massive earthquake, Covid-19 has toppled our most cherished illusions — of certainty, security, invincibility and control. And like a receding tide from what seemed a flawless beach, it has also laid bare all the ugliness — the fetid pools, turds and rotting carrion in society; it’s crappy values and misplaced priorities, its ruinous paradigms and widening fault lines of injustice.
Before rushing to clean up the mess, though, we need to purge. To self-empty, like the ancient Greeks suggested. To use this dark moment to come to terms with ourselves and the fat turds we’ve dumped on the world while frolicking in abundance and denial. Time to also come to terms — once and for all — with uncertainty and the little control we’ve always had, always will. With so many lives being upended, so many fortunes changing, about the only thing we can control right now is how we choose to navigate the gauntlet.
About me are great natural forces — colossal menaces, Titans of destruction, unsentimental monsters that have less concern for me than I have for the grain of sand I crush under my foot. In the maze and chaos, it is for me to thread my precarious way. — Jack London
Fortune is a capricious, unsentimental bitch. One day she bestows upon us all the gifts from the horn of plenty and, the next, jolts the tiller of our lives and throws us off course. That day has come. Our world is tossing and heaving in unchartered waters.
“Never have I trusted Fortune,” declared Stoic philosopher Seneca, “even when she seemed to offer peace. All those blessings she bestowed on me — money, public office, influence — I relegated to a place whence she could claim them back without bothering me. I kept a wide gap between them and me, with the result that she has taken them away, not torn them away.”
Inner peace, suggested Greek philosopher Epictetus, “begins when we stop saying of things, ‘I have lost it,’ and instead say, ‘It has been returned to where it came from.’” Arriving at such sweet state of serenity must be apex of bliss, but if we are to get there, we must learn to accept any chocolate given to us from now on and know when to let go when the time comes. The important thing, Epictetus said, is to take great care with what you have while the world lets you have it.
No doubt we’ll figure this out. But how we emerge from the crash will depend on what we do before we hit rock bottom. A new world, or new way of life, said Henry Miller, is not made by trying to forget the old; it is made with a new spirit, with new values.
If we use this time to live the questions… if we surrender our old ways of thinking and dare crack open our imaginations, we will come out of the dark — like tiny stars in the night — with saner, more fruitful answers to give our lives and the world a new orientation.