With both eyes open
April 27, 2020
I said to my therapist recently (over FaceTime, of course; everything is mediated by screens now) that this moment in time reminds me a lot of the months right after my strokes. When I felt fine, and probably was fine, but we were investigating all kinds of horrific possibilities for what might have caused the strokes -- and might therefore cause them to recur.
I remember feeling as though I were looking at the world through stereoscopic glasses with one red lens and one blue one. (Those were a regular feature in my childhood ophthalmologist visits.) Through one eye, everything looked rosy and I was fine. Through the other eye, everything looked terrifying and maybe I would die at any moment. Red lens, blue lens.
Ultimately the specialists concluded that the strokes were cryptogenic. (Of unknown origin.) They concluded that as long as I keep my blood pressure low, I should be okay. But there was an odd sense that my body might be lying to me. I might feel fine but have a ticking time bomb in me, some kind of disorder or brokenness or haywire tumor we hadn't yet discovered...
Over the weekend I woke to news about covid-19 causing strokes in asymptomatic people who didn't know they were sick. The more we learn about this virus, the scarier it becomes. According to that piece in the Washington Post (a media source I trust), the virus can attack almost every system in the body, even in someone asymptomatic. That shook me.
And then I thought back to the time right after my strokes. Now does feel a lot like then. The difference is that now, everyone who's paying attention to the world is navigating these anxieties. We're all living with the possibility that an invisible virus might unexpectedly destroy any organ system in our bodies. Even if we're doing all the right things. We might feel fine, and still...
There's a lot of cognitive dissonance. Between "I feel fine" and "I might be harboring a deadly virus and not know it." Between "I'm doing okay" and "the world is coming apart at the seams." (And I'm speaking as someone who has the luxury of feeling okay, having a home and a job, and enough food, electricity, internet...! I recognize how fortunate that makes me.)
The cognitive dissonance and uncertainty is exhausting. Trying to navigate ordinary life -- childcare, work responsibilities -- along with that cognitive dissonance is exhausting. But "whatever gets in the way of the work, is the work" (thank you Jason Shinder z"l), so sitting with the cognitive dissonance itself must be part of the spiritual work of this moment for me.
After I had my strokes in my early 30s, I did a lot of reading and thinking and praying and spiritual direction, trying to come to terms with the mortality they had shown me. I studied the Baal Shem Tov's writing on equanimity. I journaled endlessly. Eventually I reached the conclusion that yes, I could die at any time. But until that happens, my job is to live as best I can.
The strokes brought home my participation in our common human mortality. In truth, none of us know when our lives will end. I don't mean that to be depressing or paralyzing: on the contrary! I mean it as a reminder that the only time we have is now. The time to be the person we want to be is now. Because now is what we have. It's all anyone has. It's all anyone has ever had.
"Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?" wrote Mary Oliver. This, right now, is our wild and precious life. Even in quarantine or lockdown or shelter-in-place. Even in uncertainty. (Especially in uncertainty.) Life isn't on pause until a hoped-for return to normalcy comes. This is life, right here, right now. Our job is to live it as best we can.
Even with the possibility that we're already incubating the virus. Because so what if I am? What can I do about it, other than what I'm already doing: wearing a mask in public, keeping my distance to protect others in case I'm an asymptomatic carrier, and meanwhile doing what I can to care for my child, my congregation, my beloveds, in the ways that are open to me?
I've more or less made my peace with that. I have not made my peace with the possibility that someone I love could fall ill or die. It's easier for me to face the end of my story than to face the possibility of losing someone who matters to me. But that too is outside of my control. All I can do is be real with the people in my life, so important things don't go unspoken.
I've been thinking lately about how I want to be remembered, when I die, whenever that is. What acts, what words, what principles, what choices will add up to me being remembered in the ways I want to be? I hope not to die for a very long time. I trust I will emerge from the constrictions of this pandemic. And... if I don't, or if I do, how do I want to be remembered?
If our purpose is to be real, to help others, to build justice and love in the world however we can -- that purpose holds, pandemic or no. That purpose holds whether I die now or in forty years. If I knew I were going to die before morning... I've explored that question before. Those answers still hold true, even if some details would need to shift for social distancing reasons.
Right now, physical distancing and mask-wearing and doing rabbi work via Zoom are how I can help others and build greater justice and love in the world. (And comforting my kid, and feeding us, and making our home as safe as I can for him.) And accepting uncertainty and sitting with the dissonance are part of how I can be real -- and maybe help others through it, too.
One of the things I'm trying to teach my kid is that it's possible to feel gratitude and grief at the same time. Gratitude that we're okay (so far); grief at everything we've lost (and the world has lost). One doesn't cancel the other. They can coexist in us, in an ever-shifting balance, all the time. Like the red lens and the blue lens. The trick is to learn to use both eyes at once.