It is one of the illusions of these times that we can control our world and the people in it—an understandable desire, certainly, because it’s comforting to think we can make everything go our way. For many people, being in control gives them a feeling of security. And truthfully, it is possible to live that way for awhile. But eventually we encounter something beyond our control—an extreme weather event, a dramatic economic downturn, or a serious illness.
At the time, I was thinking of individual money management and being prepared for the unexpected. I certainly had no idea that we would, in my lifetime, experience two of these events at once and collectively—all of us, together, across the world.
I wanted my students to recognize that navigating the consumer culture is challenging, and requires us to be aware, to skillfully use our tools and resources, and to master ourselves and our impulses.
The consumer culture fosters none of that. In fact, it is structured to get us to act mindlessly. Encouraging students to think for themselves—rather than responding in knee-jerk reaction to cultural expectations—was one of my themes.
We are all being invited to rethink…
The double whammy of a pandemic and economic disintegration has shaken our culture to the core. Even the cleverest of us is not able to avoid it, so what are we to do? From my point of view, it seems a shame to miss the opportunity for thinking more consciously about the choices we make. If we don’t embody what we can learn about ourselves in a crisis, we slip back into habitual thought patterns as soon as things begin heading in the direction of normal.
What is “normal”?
Being normal means conforming to a type, standard, or regular pattern. It refers to the usual, average, typical, or expected condition. In essence, “normal” is what we get used to, our expectation of the way things are or should be. But notice, nothing in the definition says that normal means the only or the best way.
As we navigate life in a world shaped by COVID-19, we are experiencing an intense disruption of what used to be considered normal. This is the perfect time to ask ourselves if we want to go back to those previously-normal ways of being when this pandemic is over. We might—or we might not—but at least we should think about it rather than default mindlessly to how things were.
If you have an inkling that your answer is “no”—that there are aspects of your life that you do not want to return to—then this is your chance to set the stage for some rethinking,
Steps for Constructive Thinking….
1 Become aware.
Open your eyes and your mind. See what’s going on, even if you don’t like it. See how you are responding (or not) and don’t judge yourself. Feel what you feel, but don’t wallow in it.
Ask yourself questions to help you zero in on what you value. What do you miss? Why? What do you like better in your life now? How might you make the situation better in some small way? Now? In the future? Here’s a question to get you started…
2. Capture your insights in writing.
Make a list of your insights…so you remember them when the crisis is over. Without conscious attention, it’s too easy to lapse into previous patterns, losing sight of the new way you’d rather be.
It’s a human tendency to default to what we’re conditioned to consider normal. Examples from two recent interviews of people who were in major cities during and after life-changing events. Author Adam Gopnik has lived in New York for much of his adult life. When asked if he thought things would be different after the current crisis, he said that, based on his experience of 9/11, he guessed not. Apparently, after things settled down, people largely went back to life as before. The same happened after the SARS epidemic in Asia in the early 2000s, according to Mark Machin, President and CEO of the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, who lived in Asia at the time.
Obviously, then, change requires our conscious effort. And capturing your insights is the first small step you can take in the heat of the moment.
3. Get a sense of your “new normal.”
Create your “new normal” by being intentional about it. Imagine it. Feel it. Picture it. Give it a chance to become your expected state of affairs.
In our daily lives, we are not often intentional about our future. Businesses, on the other hand, often use formalized processes to spark creative thinking to keep the business thriving. One of these techniques is “assumption reversal,” described this way in the Business Survival Toolkit:
Assumption reversal was developed by Stephen Grossman, a creativity consultant… The purpose of this technique is to deliberately question your underlying assumptions about a problem to help spark new ideas for addressing it.
…By turning your assumptions on their head and creating a mirror image view, you can generate new ways of approaching problems and issues. …Your original assumptions are not necessarily wrong, but in reversing them you can generate new approaches. There is also the possibility that you may be harbouring false assumptions. If so, this technique will also help you to discover that this is the case and avoid the limitations that this can cause.
Assumptions become deeply entrenched, so much so that we are often unaware of the extent to which they dictate our actions and decisions. It takes deliberate effort—or a crisis like a pandemic—to put us in a frame of mind to reverse our assumptions.
If I were asked what could possibly be beneficial about the experience we’re having now, I would say it is the deep disruption of our assumptions about what is true, necessary, and constructive in our lives.
For further exploration about applying assumption reversal to everyday life, see this recent article from BBC News by Matthew Syed, British journalist, broadcaster, table tennis champion, and author of Rebel Ideas: the Power of Diverse Thinking. He writes, “Our world has changed immensely in the last few weeks but amid the upheaval and distress, there are reasons to believe we can emerge from the crisis with some human qualities enhanced.”
Think about it, talk about it…
In these days of physical distancing and staying home, there are a lot more telephone and video chats happening. After you’ve caught up on the news of how family and friends are doing, you might be looking for other topics of conversation. Talking about some of the philosophical issues that are coming up for you is a good way to increase your own perspective.
Conversation starters might be observations or questions such as…
I’ve been thinking about…
Since I’ve been home more, I’ve noticed that…
Do you find you have more time to think these days?
In the midst of all this, I’ve been surprised that…
After this is over, I think I’ll…
What will you no longer take for granted?
I have even found this time of upheaval an opening to talk about death and dying, which was the theme of my writing last year. If you have insights or conversation starters to share, or other comments about any of this, I’d love to hear from you.
If you missed it last week…
A free digital version of my book is available until April 20 as part of Smashwords’ Authors Give Back sale. Download your free copy using this link which takes you directly to my book page. Click on the orange button in the right-hand column that says “Buy with coupon.” It will take you to the cart and show a price of $0.00. You can download the book in whatever form you prefer (epub, mobi/Kindle, pdf, etc…)
It’s the end of the week in which life turned upside down where I live.
A couple days in, I was seized by an urge to bake. Every day since, I’ve had porridge with raisins and hot milk for breakfast. I have a no-knead bread recipe on my counter, waiting for the next baking urge to hit.
I imagine this activity arose from a desire to ground myself in the familiar and ordinary as an antidote to the extraordinary circumstances we find ourselves in.
Like nothing else…
“Extraordinary” almost seems too tame a word. Even those of us who’ve lived more than seventy years have never experienced anything like this.
It’s not that life has always been smooth and lovely. Lots of bad things have happened throughout history, and none of us has been completely untouched by the trials of being a human.
So what’s different this time?
Two things come to mind immediately:
There is no place to run. This is not happening to someone “over there” to whom we can send money and sympathy. It is affecting all of us directly, in every way imaginable.
It has shaken our foundations. We have discovered that most of what we’ve taken for granted is actually not secure. What could demonstrate this more graphically than gigantic systems being brought to their knees by a microorganism?
What good is a crisis if it doesn’t prompt us to revisit and rethink our assumptions about life?
In recent days, I’ve found myself thinking back to things I wrote in Conscious Spending, Conscious Life. And so, I’m offering the digital version of my book free until April 20, as part of Smashwords’ Authors Give Back sale.
Download your free copy using this link which takes you directly to my book page. Click on the orange button in the right-hand column that says “Buy with coupon.” It will take you to the cart and show a price of $0.00. You can download the book in whatever form you prefer conscious(epub, mobi/Kindle, pdf, etc…)
And what about you…
What have you noticed about your response? What are you thinking? What are you craving? I’d love to hear from you…
*** Time for this post? Reading… 5 minutes. Listening… 28 minutes.
In North America, we have a bad impression of aging. Most of us would like to avoid it. Since that isn’t possible, we tend to ignore the subject as much as we can.
And really, who would want to get old, considering that the cultural messages are largely disparaging and dismissive. We are generally seen as failing adults, rather than people with something to contribute.
Where can we find a better vision of aging?
I was inspired by an interview I heard a few days ago on CBC’s “Tapestry.” Geriatric psychiatrist Dr. Marc Agronin has written a book which is invites us to stop thinking of aging as an “implacable enemy and start seeing it as a developmental force for enhancing well-being, meaning, and longevity.” A summary of The End of Old Age goes on to say:
…the focus is squarely on: “So what does this mean for me and my family?” In the final part of the book, Dr. Agronin provides simple but revealing charts that you can fill out to identify, develop, and optimize your unique age-given strengths.
It’s nothing short of an action plan to help you age better by improving how you value the aging process, guide yourself through stress, and find ways to creatively address change for the best possible experience and outcome.
Dr. Agronin is an expert in Alzheimer’s disease and other geriatric mental health issues, and runs both a memory center and one of Florida’s largest Alzheimer’s clinical research programs. He is the author of nine books and hundreds of articles, has been published in the New York Times, and writes regular blogs on aging and retirement issues for the Wall Street Journal.
In the interview, he said that if we celebrated when people enter older stages of life, there would be a really profound shift in the way society thinks about aging. Instead of dreading it, we would look forward to it.
Dr. Agronin has plenty of experience with older people since his average patient is 90 years of age. He does not deny the challenges they face. But I was struck by how he’s able to both acknowledge the downsides of aging and yet still see that aging has the potential to be about growth, change, and even strength.
Strength is not something we typically associate with aging. I think that’s because we have a narrow view that defines strength as only physical robustness. Yet, Dr. Agronin says he has seen people who are both frail and vital at the same time. Their strength, he says, is in their wisdom, purpose, and creativity—qualities that grow and deepen with age.
For a longer presentation that develops Dr. Agronin’s ideas about the five aspects of wisdom, among other things, go here.
There’s a lot that begs for further exploration. Next week we’ll consider the intriguing notion that age might be just a state of mind.
*** Time for this post? Reading…4 minutes. Viewing…20 minutes. Reflecting…as you wish.
It seems natural to me that our interests change as we move through the last years of life. I think of it like the arc of a story—there’s a welling up of action in the middle and then things sort themselves out and resolve for the finale.
Reflection. Assessment. Wondering what it’s all been about. These are on my mind… and I’ve been on the lookout for perspectives I can relate to. You may recall that I recently asked nonagenarian Nora Bitner for her view on the tasks of aging.
In his video about aging, he discusses worthy goals such as generosity and givng back, gratitude, living an ethical life, recognizing that everything is connected, and kindness. He says, “Kindness is one of the gifts older people can bring to a society, because they’ve seen what happens when kindness disappears from the world. It’s not pretty.” His video spoke to me and I thought you might enjoy it too.
The explanation of meditation as it relates to aging was a revelation to me. When he said there are two functions of meditation, I had a light-bulb moment. Suddenly I understood why I don’t relate when meditation is promoted for its calming and relaxing benefits. I don’t need or want that. I prefer to sit quietly with my thoughts, tune in to my body, and gain perspective and insight.
As Lewis Richmond explains, what I’m engaged in is the other function of meditation—the ability to see what’s real. Not as I imagine it, not as society tells me it should be, but what it really is for me. What’s bothering me about my aging body? What am I afraid of? What unresolved emotions are lurking in the background? Quiet time gives me the space to explore these questions.
Reflection and contemplation help us make sense of our lives as we approach the finale. In our elderhood, we need space to reflect more than we need time to calm down.
“Attending to your inner thoughts” is one of the worthy goals Lewis Richmond identifies. This, for me, is one of my major tasks as I age. I want to allow unresolved questions and issues to surface, face them with kindly attention and care, and transform them so they’re no longer burdens and preoccupations.
I want to be free of encumbrances as I go into my last days. In my view, that will make it easier to make a graceful exit. Every day that I’m still here, I have new chances to lighten my load and get ready.
There’s so much else to unpack from Lewis Richmond’s presentation. What spoke to you?
*** Time for this post? Two minutes and that’s it!
My family and friends know that I can be pretty focused when I hone in on a project. That has certainly been true as I’ve been learning about dying. My motivation is to be able to help myself through the process when the time comes…and to share what I learn along the way.
The downside of such focus is that single-pointedness can arise. So I’ve been consciously tuning in to counterbalancing viewpoints. I heard this quote in a recent radio interview… Continue reading →
*** Time for this post? Reading…a couple minutes. Viewing…15 minutes. Changing your attitude…no time at all.
I started an exploration of fear of aging with Scilla Elworthy’s perspective. Today’s post is about a common fear that she didn’t mention—losing authority over our lives. It happens. More, and sooner, than it needs to in many cases.
*** Time for this post? Reading…5 minutes. Considering…the rest of your life.
I’ve been wondering…if aging is a stage of human development, then what are our tasks as we move through this stage.
So I asked someone I knew would have ideas about this. Nora Bitner is a Therapist. Mother. Grandmother. Great-grandmother. Writer. Thinker. And did I mention that Nora is 90 years old? At the end of a message on another topic, she said… Continue reading →