March 2020: Things We Cannot See

And now here is my secret, a very simple secret:
It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince -

As I write this reflection, we are in the midst of the rapid spread of the Coronavirus outbreak throughout our state, our nation, and the world. This unprecedented pandemic has caused an even greater increase in anxiety and fear to an already frenetic and stressed-out society. Likely originating in Wuhan, China, this microscopic infectious agent causes a respiratory infection that has now affected countless numbers of people and has become a world-wide public health concern.  The pandemic has led me to ponder the things in our lives that impact us deeply yet cannot be seen.  

We can start with the laws of the universe.  While we go about our lives each and every day there are many complex systems and forces operating which are beyond our ability to perceive.  Did you know, for instance, that despite the age of our earth, we have only explored a tiny fraction of our visible ocean?  Or consider that just 5% of the universe is observable matter while the rest is dark matter and dark energy. Where would we be without the oxygen we breathe?  This vital life-giving element is essential to our existence, yet we can’t see, feel, taste or touch it. Has it ever occurred to you that we humans are clinging to the surface of a giant rock while hurtling through space around a massive ball of fire? I, for one, am certainly grateful for gravity. Here’s an interesting fact. Did you know that although we are made of atoms, only 1% of our bodies consist of protons, neutrons, and electrons? The other 99% of us is really just empty space!  Hmmm, perhaps this will teach us not to be so full of ourselves.  

So as we face this great unknown, and recognize that there are forces out there that we can neither see nor control, we can fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen and that, in fact, make our lives and world more beautiful. Artist, educator and social justice activist Corita Kent once wrote, “It is a huge danger to pretend that awful things do not happen. But you need enough hope to keep going. I am trying to make hope. Flowers grow out of darkness.”  

Just as we know that during winter, plants experience a period of dormancy and certain animals enter a state of hibernation, we know that in spite of outward appearances, winter is more than just a time of suspended animation. On the contrary, this phase is critical for survival. While plants appear to be inactive during this time, they are actually pulling up moisture from their roots, absorbing sunlight and releasing oxygen from their leaves. Animals, on the other hand, hibernate in order to conserve energy during times of scarcity and stress. If this is true in nature, could it not also be true for humans?  

Right now in this world of uncertainty, we may feel a sense of despair and hopelessness.  Many of us have lost our equilibrium especially as we practice social distancing and try to figure out how to navigate our days within the confines of our homes. We may feel isolated and more disconnected than ever before as we question when or how we will recover. But if we cultivate the practice of hope, we can begin to look beyond our current circumstances and know that, as in nature, life will continue to sustain itself even if we are unable to see or feel it in this moment.  If we use this time to our advantage…to slow down, to pick up that book we’ve been meaning to read, dust off the old board games, make a fort with the kids or engage in real conversations with our loved ones, we may just rediscover what is truly important to us.  

Between you and me, it is not the world we have come to recognize as normal in the past few years.  It is not the ability to purchase with one easy click the latest item we think will make us happy, nor is it the belief that our opinions are right - that our side holds the moral advantage. It is not getting into the best school, securing the dream job or winning the coveted award. While these things in and of themselves may be significant, without realizing it many of us have begun to define ourselves in terms of our things, our accomplishments and even our opinions. We have lost sight of who we are at our very core and we are not better for it.

Might it not benefit us then to use this time of forced hibernation to consider these things both individually and in conversations with our loved ones? What if, as we slow down physically and mentally, we share stories of our own youth with our children? (Is it my own imagination or was life really simpler back then?)  What sparked your imagination as a child? What made you laugh out loud?  What made you cry? Who was your best friend? Your favorite teacher? What made you proud? Or ashamed? What lessons did you learn through mistakes or failure or teamwork? Did you have a favorite movie, book or game? What made you envious? What inspired you to be generous or kind?

Pondering essential questions like these reconnects us with our heart and leads us back to who we are underneath it all. They can lead to essential conversations that may enable our children to see us in a new light, perhaps for the very first time. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our sons and daughters began to understand on a deeper level that they are lovable for nothing more than their unique, wonderful, amazing and quirky selves, rather than based on their latest accomplishments, academic or athletic achievements, or test scores?  What if we could remind our partners and spouses that they are loved for more than their ability to schedule the kids, care for the home, serve our meals or bring home a paycheck?

While we have little choice about where we spend the days ahead, we do have a choice about how we spend this time. We owe it to ourselves, our children, and to one another to be gracious and kind… even when we might not feel up to it. When anxiety creeps in, know that you are not alone. Although it may seem abstract, there are millions of others experiencing the same doubts, fears, and powerlessness as we are. We may not see them or know who they are but they are indeed sharing this common experience with us. 

In the days ahead I encourage you to be intentional with your time, your thoughts, and your interactions with others. I urge you, whenever possible, to recall the wisdom of Saint-Exupéry: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.  Be well. 

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