Rebooting Ourselves

COVID-19 has unmoored so many things that we are in a forced state of change. Because of it, this may be the perfect time to explore opportunities that you may have set aside, in the past; to revisit those whispers: “One day, when ‘x’ or ‘y’ happens, I’ll…” Here are some reasons.

David and Cecilia atop their ‘castle’ — Photo: Annie Schlechter

An old proverb goes, “To the world you may be just one person; but to one person you may be the world.” This beautiful expression is a metaphor for how we feel about someone whose actions have been foundational — transformative — in our lives. It is, doubtlessly, also an exhortation to be careful about how we tread, lest we cause irreparable damage to others. Our dependent children come to mind, first. But it doesn’t stop there.

Viewed with a broader lens, the same expression can be turned in on itself, from something interpersonal to something intrapersonal. That is, in lieu of meaning the world to someone else, we could easily apply the maxim to our own actions — and thoughts — as they affect the self. To ourselves, we quite literally are the world, in the sense that we have each created one in our minds, as the result of how we have interpreted everything in our lives; and that we are the chief protagonist in our own dramas. As such, we can also turn the valuable advice to “do unto others as we would have them do unto us” toward the self, by treating ourselves as we would have others treat us.

What am I talking about?

“Why would I ever treat myself badly? I’m not a masochist…”

Well, here’s why: First, most of us, if we are attuned to our inner dialogue, will notice at some point that we are in a constant conversation with ourselves. At every moment, we are filled with thoughts — mostly judgment and debate — whether or not something external is prompting it, and whether or not we wish to. Meditators know this. They spend years attempting to hear, then learn to live with, and ignore, their inner chatter. It’s powerful stuff. We are thinking machines, pumping out between 12,000 and 60,000 of them each and every day, depending on which source you read. Secondly, and more alarmingly, the majority of these thoughts are negative, according to the Cleveland Clinic, Psychology Today and others. That’s because we are hard-wired to see — and consequently avoid — threats to our survival. Our amygdalae and limbic systems do a fine job with this. But now that most of us live in relative safety, as compared with our hunter-gatherer selves, our biology has yet to catch up. In that sense, we are mostly all Needlessly Negative Nellies.

What these statistics also imply, interestingly, is that we are all likely doing better than we think we are. Meaning, very little of this chatter is founded on sound principles. We worry out of fear, not fact. And our fears are rarely justified. In fact, 85% of them seem never to materialize, according to an article on Huffpost. Psychologist and author of twenty-eight books on cognitive behavioral therapy, Robert L. Leahy, Ph.D., writes in The Worry Cure that 79% of subjects discovered that they were better equipped to handle what came their way than they had feared, and that in the process, not only did they learn new coping skills, but came away feeling stronger as the result of their trials. That means that just 3% of total fears that do materialize, in all, actually overcome us.

Simply put, we are suffering needlessly. The axiom, “I have known a great many troubles, most of which never happened,” speaks to this.

Worse still, we are doing so at our own hand, and in the process, we are polluting our ‘world’.

Reboot

So what does this all mean for life during COVID-19, when nearly everything in our lives seems to have been overturned overnight, giving us plenty to worry about? Countless people have lost someone, or a job, their savings or their property. If you have, my heart goes out to you. If you haven’t, it might still come to pass. This is the context of our lives, right now. But whether or not tragedy has befallen you, there are choices to be made. We can hunker down to await the storm’s passing, in the hopes that we re-emerge into something familiar, or are able to recreate it. Or we can use the opportunity to recalibrate our lives, whether by necessity, if we’ve already suffered, or proactively, if we have not. Why recalibrate? I’ve written pretty extensively about the enormous opportunities the pandemic has created for us to right significant wrongs in both our societal institutions and our treatment of one another. The pandemic has revealed fault lines everywhere, and simultaneously unmoored enough of us that we are all now paying attention — some of us for the very first time, in ages. We have been primed psychologically for things to change, as much as most of us hate change. Familiarity is safe. Change is risky. So, having entered a liminal — transitional — head space, we are no longer stuck as firmly to the ground as we are in ‘normal’ times. What this means pragmatically for our personal lives, is that we have just been handed a once in a lifetime opportunity to rethink past decisions, actions and trajectories!

Not that we needed the excuse, but so many of us are unmoored now that a good share of people are now forced to reboot their lives, while many more of us are considering changes that we wouldn’t have, just nine months ago, even if underneath it all, we secretly dreamed of them. That’s because unrest and upheaval are the ideal conditions in which to invest time reconsidering our worlds.

I’m not suggesting we ignore addressing larger needs like educational, policing or political reform. What I am suggesting is that before we can do any of that, we need to look inside and appraise where things stand, within us. If we are consumed with the idea of running for office to refresh a staid institution, or incubating a company to address inequality, now is likely the best time you’ll ever see, to do exactly that.

Regardless of what little control we may currently have over industry or government, we are in a unique position to rule our own roost — to self-advocate. We have sovereign influence over our own choices and actions. And in this regard, COVID-19 has provided us with a boon: the opportunity for a total rethink of past decisions, toward a potential life reboot.

The lives that many — most? all? — of us live today are largely the result of serendipitous (or calamitous) accidents. Few of us planned our romantic lives, our careers, our friends or our economic states. We may have seeded the opportunities and hoped for some of these things to turn out the way they did, through planning and skill, but frankly, two things betray the “life is planned” shtick. First, we cannot see around corners until we round them. Every step we take opens new horizons to something that was impossible to know before we stood before it, and we often make the best choices we can within the confines of what is presented to us. Meaning, they’re not the result of some abstract or willful optimization. We make choices within a very narrow range of options that may or may not be good for us. But we do so, regardless, because we feel the need to act. We may hold out hope for ‘better’ someday, whatever that looks like to each of us, but in the meantime, we plan.

The expression, “People make plans, and God laughs,” is a sardonic way of illustrating, “Life doesn’t work that way.” Or, Robert Burns’ famous line, “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.”

Same diff.

Second, we are insatiable tinkerers. However obsessed we may have been with any social status or objective — and for however long they have incubated in our minds — our horizons shift just as soon as we reach any destination, and more often than not, we set new objectives, or shift our inner narratives, without knowing it. When we do this, we often ask ourselves shallow, linear questions, like “What’s my next job/house/TV/relationship upgrade” — instead of deep, non-linear questions, like “If I didn’t have external pressures of any kind, what would I do? What truly matters? What choices/investments would be most personally meaningful (in any given life category)?” That’s because we are more often in reaction mode (I need to pay rent, increase my salary, get the kids to school, empty my Inbox…) than in reflection mode. Moreover, fear sometimes glues us to our seats. Risk is risky! While our goals and aspirations, our satisfaction and happiness, our yardstick for everything seems to be in constant flux superficially, if we were able to parse the noise to discover and service our true values, our decisions may come out differently. Certainly, deep values don’t fluctuate nearly as much as superficial aims do. Superficially, what was perfect the day before usually looks suddenly less perfect the day after, while we ‘kept up with the Joneses.’

The only stable truths are those that resonate deeply, and which apply to a life lived in line with our values, rather than superficially, applying to a life lived out of necessity, expectation, or surrender. When we justify to ourselves, “This is how the world works,” or “This is the best I/we will be,” those are false truths.

So COVID-19, through seismic disruption, has opened a fissure through which we now have a rare opportunity and path to reboot past decisions. We live in a huge moment when — perhaps for the only time in our lives — everybody’s world is topsy-turvy. Pragmatically, that means you won’t be alone if you choose to overcome inertia to reboot your career, your home, your community, your relationships, or your (deep) plan.

In fact, you may well be in the majority.

It’s an extremely powerful concept — the reinvention of self. We like to think of ourselves as dynamic forces, flitting about from opportunity to opportunity, or slicing through waters on the way somewhere, the result of our goals, in life, and our achievements. We believe that with every road taken, with every accolade achieved, and with every hurdle jumped, we get closer to ‘freedom’. Reality is very, very different. We are more like pack mules, loaded up, while one thing after another is heaped onto our backs, until we become unrecognizable beneath the trash heap of our lives. We don’t trade things so as much as we accrete them. With each one, we become less and less mobile, and more and more inflexible, until we are unable to crawl, even, under the weight of everything we’ve done to ourselves. Marriage, kids, debt, job security, investments, friendships, mortgages, possessions, mindsets… we are slave to all of it. Our wings are made of lead.

Forced Reboot

My friend David — a successful restauranteur and a man about town in NYC for 30 or so years — moved less than a decade ago to the Rockaways, in the farthest reaches of the city. If you don’t know the Rockaways, it does not in any way feel as though it’s part of New York. In fact, it takes two subways and 1–1.5 hours to get there from anywhere central. He had negotiated rights to operate the food concessions on the beaches there: a series 1940’s or 50’s open-air concrete pavilions along a multi-mile boardwalk. Once secured, he took everything he owned and had collected over ages, drove and stored it all in the basements under these follies. When Hurricane Sandy hit, he lost everything.

Every bit.

After his initial angst, he told me he’d never felt so free in his life.

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The Beach 97th Concessions — Photo: Merry

We are burdened by our belief that our choices are fixed, or complex, or that we need “x” or “y” to remain fixed, or to advance our lives. In truth, these are all justifications, and they are what is limiting us. We do it to ourselves because it isn’t easy to change things, and we are justification machines. “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t,” goes the saying. This is why, historically, presidents wage war during the end of their first term, and why Americans have never changed leaders during a war. A recent Medium article entitled No U.S. President Has Ever Blown Re-election During Wartime puts it bluntly.

This mindset is why we stay in marriages that are no longer good for us (or maybe never were), in spite of the fact that we know it. It’s what keeps some of us angling for promotions in jobs we don’t even like, but into which we’ve invested time and energy toward advancing our careers and our paychecks. It’s the mental databases we keep of our cities — the dry cleaner, the butcher, our favorite restaurant — that make us reluctant to move, lest we need to start over again, and risk not liking the new place or people as much as the old. It’s the relationships we’ve built, and the routines we have, both of which are so familiar that they are comforting, whether or not they’re boring or toxic. And on the flip side, it’s the mental gymnastics we perform while we talk ourselves out of what’s possible, beyond what we’re already doing. “Will I succeed in a new career, after investing so long in this one?” “Can I make new friends, at this point in life?” “Will I get to know another city as well as I do this one?” “Will the kids be okay?” “Can I do this (again) at my age?” “Do I have the energy?” “What if I fail?!?!”

Any single one of these things is tough enough to overcome. But you’ll be ok. Promise. That’s because it is intrinsically human to recover, and rebuild, if and when things don’t go as planned.

David’s also just fine; thanks for asking. He recovered from his losses, and decided to double down on the reboot, to throw himself into his reinvention. Here is a link to a story about what he’s up to, today. Quick summary: he bought a quirky urban castle on a busy intersection there that I toured with him as he was toying with the idea, and has turned it into a retreat and an arts hub, with his partner, Cecilia Dean. He runs a pop-up events space called The Palms; ran Rockaway Taco; and of course the Concessions at Rockaway Beach, where he lost everything he owned. To feed a different side of his value system, he runs Edgemere Farm — a half-acre urban organic producer of vegetables, eggs and honey. David is as proud of his honey as he is competitive. Last time I tasted it, he dissed another high-profile mutual friend’s own rooftop version. Apparently, honey’s no joke. (And frankly, it was better.) In the castle, he now curates third-party pop-up dinners, a few of which I attended, early on; he hosts concerts; houses a baker and an acupuncturist; and Cecilia runs her magazine and culture brand, Visionnaire, out of the house.

He is immensely happy in his new life; and while food remains a big part of his world, it is now framed by a community he has cultivated, and toward which all of his activities are now aimed. It is no longer purely transactional. Rather, it is about relationship-building. In my view, that is who David really is, deep down.

I tell David’s story because no matter how modest or successful one is, a reboot is firmly within your grasp, with or without a hurricane. All you need to do is to reflect on how you can be the change you wish to see in the world — your world.

And again, right now, for the first time in your life, if you do so, you will be in the majority, or at least a large minority. All you need to do is to overcome your inner Needlessly Negative Nellie.

Final Thoughts

In a storm, our natural instinct is to hunker down and wait it out, until it’s safe again. Well, we are in one — a cataclysm. If you want to hunker down, go ahead. But in doing so, you’ll miss out on the opportunity to rethink some aspect of your life, if not all, before the music stops and the chairs are once again filled. What this particular storm has done is to unmoor everyone, emptying a number of seats, and unearthing ones we may not have known existed. In my view, this is the perfect time to explore changes that you may have kept secret from others, or yourself; to revisit those whispers: “One day, when ‘x’ or ‘y’ happens, I’ll…”

Well, that day is here. And as much as I love a new opportunity to change things, I hope we don’t have another one like this in my lifetime.

You may want to take advantage of it, before it’s gone, and the dust settles anew.

To reboot.

If we think of the word ‘death’ as applying to a thing — a job, a relationship, a home, a routine, a prior commitment — and not to a person, then Herman Hesse’s quote sums up these thoughts nicely:

“The call of death is a call of love. Death can be sweet if we answer it in the affirmative, if we accept it as one of the great eternal forms of life and transformation.”

Architect | Photographer | Writer | Polyglot | Windmill Jouster | Nomade Civilisée.

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