Roger James and I were taking a glorious walk in the early morning sun around the Arcata Marsh. We had just stopped for a few groceries when a distraught man passed by screaming through a bandana, “This is bullshit!” Continuing up the street, he continued ranting about how he had had to enter the Farmers’ Market through a roped entrance and walk opposite to the direction he wanted to walk. His rage was palpable even from across the street. His anger upset me and poked me out of the defensive numbness I’ve been feeling occasionally over the past few months.
Well, get over it, I thought. He expected to be able to walk the direction he wanted to walk. Well, my expectations are thwarted too. I’d like to walk around the marsh without a mask, so my glasses don’t fog up. I’m fed up with not being able to have in-person dinner with friends, not being able to browse in bookstores, or being able to have a coffee in my favorite café. I used to assume that society could keep my privileges intact: that it could keep most, if not all of us, safe.
I watched him continue to rant, and my internal disturbance continued. I am appalled by the frightening protests around the country. The protocol to wear masks has morphed into a polarizing political battle in which some think their rights are under attack. The protestors, mostly white, are outraged that they should be asked or required to wear a mask and keep six-feet apart from others. They don’t believe the science or see the danger. This anger has escalated into violence and in one case even murder—all over being asked to wear a mask.
My thoughts proliferated. Is it merely coincidence that the demonstrations grew in number when it became clear that the virus is affecting communities of color disproportionately more than white people? Is this becoming an “us” and “them” pandemic? Politicizing mask-wearing and other safety measures, like one-way traffic in a market, clearly reveals who some people include in their definition of “society.”
As the man continued walking up the hill, I paused, noticed my breath, and observed my thinking. I asked myself, “How does my internal disturbance differ from his?” It doesn’t. We are all upset right now. There are no easy answers.
When angry or frightened, it is hard for any of us to see beyond the object of our immediate attention. In this instance, this man was fixated on his frustration, and I on my expectations of life.
What if asking “what I expect from life” is the wrong question? What if I were to turn the question around? What does life expect of me? The question shifts my attention from looking inward at my expectations to looking outward. It pops me out of the internal disquiet and periodic numbness that sometimes occurs outside of conscious awareness. Noticing this internal disturbance or deadness shifts me into an expanded awareness or meta-awareness. In other words, I am aware of this man’s consternation, his unconscious behavior, the impact on those around him, along with my own internal state. I also “see” the bigger picture—that this time is difficult for all of us to greater and lesser degrees. Asking what life expects of me enlarges my caring to include others, lots of others, along with me.
As I watched the man who had sparked this shift in attention disappear over the crest of the hill, I mentally thanked him and wished him well.
These two worlds—the immediate and the broader and deeper view—are always there. They live side by side. Being aware of BOTH is a breath and a choice away. This takes a lifetime of practice but is definitely worth the effort. It puts anything we think, feel, do, and say into the real context of circumstances in which we’re all living in today.
Pausing for that minute allowed me to get off the train of habitual thinking and enabled me to ask the larger questions: What does life expect of me? What task is mine to do now? And, when I think of “society,” who do I include in my mind’s eye? Is it only people who look and think like me?
So, what does life expect of us? What is our responsibility? To treasure and protect the lives of others? To care for and tend to all of life as a whole? YES. Even and especially when that gets hard. Like now.
With gratitude and respect, always
* Eleven months after he was liberated from the Nazi concentration camps, Viktor E. Frankl held a series of lectures in Vienna in 1946. They were published in English in March of 2020 as Yes to Life In Spite of Everything. He is also the author of Man’s Search for Meaning.
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