Still Finding Beauty in the Madness
In the midst of crises, there is often beauty. Within the sadness and chaos, we also find solace and precious moments of quiet. This time has been one of the strangest we’ve had in the last decade—a collective slowing down, pausing.
What strikes me most about this pandemic is the paradox of it. It’s like when I walk around depressed, with my eyes half gleamed over from the sadness, yet the world still spins. This time has been a simultaneous collective receding and overflowing.
Several weeks ago, I wanted to write a post about my refusal to self-improve during quarantine. I was angry that within all the destruction and death people could be talking about home workouts and learning a new language. Cognitive dissonance is not destructive, but it is a form of distress when you become lost in it.
Wondering What to Say
I’ve been hesitant to write anything about the pandemic because, like a lot of things, I don’t consider myself knowledgeable enough to have an authoritative opinion. I don’t know whether social distancing restrictions are too heavy in some places, or need to be firmer in others. Don’t ask me to comment on solutions, policy, and politics, because I really can’t say.
What I know for certain is that, at least for me, it was shocking how little changed for me. Our beaches stayed mostly open, so surfing wasn’t eliminated. I already worked from home, so I (gratefully) had no workplace to be banned from. Going out to restaurants was already a rarity, and bars weren’t much on my list.
The strangest part of this experience is the disconnect—in one moment I am proceeding life as usual, and in the next I’m walking into Costco where the line runs all the way out to the sidewalk, wearing a mask amidst hundreds of others.
Moments of Kindness
People are smiling at each other more now, it seems. They are also angry. More angry or less, I’m not sure. To me, we are always living in a state of cognitive dissonance. It’s something I’ve had difficulty reconciling throughout my life. I think many of us probably do.
On one side, I want to be positive, optimistic, and bright. I want to see the beauty in the challenge: the environment is revitalizing, we are slowing down, families are spending more time together. Yet, is it selfish, privileged even, to be joyful for the good despite all the bad? To look at quarantine as a time for self-improvement, at the outset, seemed to me like a gross highlight of privilege and disrespect to everyone affected. Celebrating all this “free time” we now had seemed decidedly blinded to the actualities.
How do You Balance Positivity with Awareness?
And then there’s the question of hyper-sensitivity and optimism. How can we be sensitive will being optimistic, acknowledging without becoming dismissive, joyful without being disrespectful? Does celebrating the repair of the planet mean denying the suffering of the unemployed?
Over a month ago, at the outset of quarantine and shelter-in-place and stay-at-home orders, I posted one of my usual photos on Instagram. The next day my mom called me, asking why I hadn’t mentioned what’s going on in the world. It surprised her that I hadn’t talked about it. My Instagram is a place for positivity and honesty, like this blog. I don’t want to talk about other stuff because that’s not what I want to share here. Is that selfish, though? Ignorant? Willfully unaware? I can’t be sure.
When this first started, I didn’t exercise for a week and a half. The gym was closed, and I was pissed off how quickly my feed filled up with ways to make myself better, ways to be healthier: home recipes, home workouts, decorating ideas, stories of positivity.
Feeling Conflicted within Ourselves
“Don’t you know the world is fucking exploding?” I wanted to scream. “Why the fuck are we worried about vegan brownies and bodyweight exercises when people are dying?” But I’ve always known people were dying.
People have been dying for a very long time, in horrible and horrific ways. Why was I so angered by the self-improvement movement now? Theoretically, I should have been incensed by the culture of self-optimization from the moment I created an account, from the moment I was born. Instead, I’d been happily re-posting positive quotes, following workouts, saving recipes.
But then, when something insane was happening, and this continued? That, for some reason, felt different to me. That made me exasperated with the culture of performance on social media: how to be your best, healthiest, most balanced, and empowered self. Like, why are we worried about that now?! Shit is getting real, ya’ll—a literal nightmare plague is upon us.
This is All New… Yet is Isn’t
But plagues have been around for centuries: the plagues of capitalism, racism, sexism, actual plagues, poverty, hunger, war, violence…the list is extensive. And there has been that need to pursue the self, I think, in part because now more than ever we are so deeply aware of what we cannot control.
My friend and I were DM-ing each other a while ago and in between the standard memes we send to make the other laugh, she said something that really struck me, something along the lines of, “There’s so much out there to read and I know I can’t believe any of it.” We are so acutely aware of what we don’t know, or conversely, so highly knowledgeable of so much, that it creates a kind of paralysis.
I imagine that’s why some people have such a hard time with the idea of political correctness—what can you say anymore?—because it leaves so much room for grey, yet calls for no grey area whatsoever at the same time. What we can and cannot, or are expected to say, at any given moment, is literally influenced by millions of different data points we take in every minute of every day. Whether it’s social media, or news, or just our interactions with other people.
We are Living in a Time of Uncertainty
And to me, that’s what Covid has shown us. It’s shown us just how much we really don’t know. Because, with other things like war and famine and environmental degradation, we have a sense of the why and the how. Conspiracy theories abound, of course, because the internet is many things, but it is invariably a miasma of commentary and illogic. Anyone can say, write, create, or post anything on the internet now.
We are living in an era where we possess more knowledge on our phones than they did when they put a man on the moon, yet we can’t necessarily trust any of it. We are living in an era where we can quickly chastise people in foreign countries, neighbors, politicians, and entire societies right from our couches. And now, suddenly, we have more time than ever to do just that.
I’m not trying to make a point. I’m mostly making myself write something because for the last month I’ve been afraid to say something that might offend someone. I’ve been concerned about being concerned enough, worried about being worried enough. I catch myself feeling guilt when I feel grateful for shelter-in-place, because, honestly, at certain moments, I do. I’ve liked the empty roads and the quiet. I’ve found a kind of comfort and beauty in people taking walks outside more, in our planet healing itself.
Living in a World of Grey
Does that make me a bad person? We can hold many different emotions and thoughts within ourselves, but at what point do those thoughts and emotions become irreconcilable? At what point do we lose a piece of our humanity for the sake of a conviction, and at what point does staying silent become the best option? At what time is it socially unacceptable for me not to mention Covid? Or are there no rules except the ones we make up for ourselves in relation to others?
It’s difficult to live in a world of grey. When you do, you’re always acutely aware of the other side, the counter-point, the opposition’s view. You’re always wondering whether your opinion really is “right”, or whether you’ve just ingested enough information to think that way, and frustratingly aware that someone else has probably ingested enough information to see things differently from you. At the core of it, though, it’s all based on subjectivities. And you know that, so it makes you wonder if any of your thoughts can be steadfast, if anything can be held as truth. Or just relative truth. Or relative rightness.
Am I Really so Open-Minded?
Philosophy courses always fascinated and infuriated me the most deeply of any class. Sometimes I wish I was the person who could raise their hand and know exactly what I believed in. I never have been. Rather, I’ve been the one raising her hand to answer the question, yet qualifying it with an understanding. Theses were always difficult for me to decide on. After all, it’s all subjective, isn’t it?
Who is best at surfing changes every year. Our presidents change, friends change, our favorite Netflix show changes. Our beliefs and spiritual practices and identities are revised countless times throughout the journey of life…yet so many people are so steadfast in specific beliefs about the world and other people.
I have a hard time wrapping my head around how people can be so firm in their ways of seeing the world, since I’ve always been someone who sees the world in many different ways. Yet I even question that—am I really so open-minded as I believe myself to be, or am I just a biased as the rest of us? Is my belief in my open-mindedness just another kind of blindness.
Are We All Just Kind of Jerks?
Maybe I’m just as close-minded as the rest of us. Or maybe I’m plagued by the exact same need to have my opinion and thoughts read by someone, anyone amidst the milieu of digital sound. I’m not special, I’m not authoritative. Or am I as equally authoritative as anyone else these days?
I guess that’s one of the reasons I’m so drawn to surfing. There are clear boundaries there. Opinions matter, sure, but they are unified by the central love and hunger for waves. Social media has overtaken surfing as much as anything else, but the experience of it is distanced. It’s become a political statement more than ever to surf, without being one at all. There are those who believe in #shredathome and others who see it as a constitutional right.
Are we being assholes for wanting to surf and not social distancing? Probably. Is surfing in the constitution? Last time I checked it wasn’t.
Our Rights and Freedoms
Yet the right to surf, walk outside, to wear or not wear a mask, re-open businesses or keep them closed, receive government funding, save the economy or the elderly—this is just the tip of the iceberg that is Covid. We are in a radically shifting time where we’re starting to see all the layers of each other, all the layers of society, open up in very strange ways.
That’s what big shifts do. They open you up and lay bare everything and anything that requires assessment. Our opinions are as logical as they are visceral, wrong as they are right. Because, there is no “right”. I honestly don’t think there ever has been. It’s another philosophical inquiry, the entire notion of the stability of “right” and “wrong”, of course, but at the root of it aren’t we all wrong? And if we’re all wrong, then are we all right?
What does Being “Right” Mean?
Maybe what I’m really trying to ask is whether being “right” means anything anymore. What does it mean to be right in the sea of lies and inconsistencies, half-truths, Face-Tune, and pretend? Am I more myself on Instagram, or less myself exactly because I don’t show all of my selves? Are we tearing at each other simply because it’s easier to do now than ever, or because we are living in a society that functions based on the idea that our opinions even matter in the first place?
That’s why, I think, I’m coming to terms with self-optimization and improvement. It’s about the self. These are things we can control. We can control whether we exercise or smile at someone, whether we call a friend or journal, whether we read a book.
An Era of Control and No Control
What is possible for the self, for growth and empowerment, and what is so deeply out of our control, is more apparent than ever. In a time when our freedoms have been restricted, and we are afraid, and there is uncertainty about so much, we know what we can do. I know I can paddle out and that is something wholly special.
I know I can love my friends and family. We don’t know who will have jobs or what the economy is going to do or how to pay bills, but we know how to be kind. It saddens me that so much time is spent being cruel on the internet.
As with aggression in the line-up, every once in a while it’s important when used correctly, but most of it seems to me like more spreading of hate, more denial of another’s voice. In the sea of voices these days, there are so many bringing others down, rather than lifting others up.
Still Searching for My Metal Straw Moments
At the start of Covid fears, I wrote about my metal straw moments, and I guess this essay is a Part 2 to that. There are all these small things we do to overcome hatred and sadness, pain and suffering. We wonder about our place in the world, how to make sense of what is and isn’t acceptable, how to love within all the pain, celebrate within all the sadness. It’s a testament to resilience how we can lift each other up through all the breaking, repair through all the hurt. But is that enough? Can it ever be?
Do we have to simply believe it is so we won’t go crazy?
Sometimes I wonder about the weight of good and evil. Like, were we to add up every single instance of negativity in the world, against every moment of good, what would prevail? What would we see in that algorithm? What would we find out?
And, most importantly to me, would we be proud of what that looked like?