The Pandemic's Life Lessons

Like most of you reading this, my dreams have been altered and entering the grocery store leaves me breathless. Every stranger walking toward me is the enemy and every time I touch my face, I feel as though I’ve pulled the pin on a grenade. No matter if I release my aggression on a hard uphill run or become the space for fear and calm to swirl like Tabasco and ice cream in meditation, the global pandemic is the greatest challenge of my social and intellectual life.

There could be many triggers. As a news aficionado, there is non-stop reporting; as a political junkie, Trump’s lies seem more malevolent and likely to stall progress; as an engineer, the data is worrisome and, at least in America, less than we should be able to muster; and as a professional, the macroeconomics of recession and depression impact my livelihood. But none of these is the trigger — the trigger is the ever-presence of death.

Like the silent specter of the grim reaper, coronavirus might be in the asymptomatic person you meet or on the box that was delivered to your door. Your health may be there one day, swept away with your ability to breath the next. 

My heart breaks for these lonely, almost transparent, haggered men and women caught inside plastic tubes — untouched and frightened. More than the statistics of deaths and cases, the unknowns around where the virus is and if it was transmitted to you; more than even the mode — the strangulation of COVID-19 fatalities — it has been the social fabric, already weakened in America, that has been damaged the worst.

These are just two tweets in a longer thread by Dr. Spencer during the worst days of the New York City outbreak. Heartbreaking. Still make me cry.

With a pandemic raging and all of us physically distancing, I needed to figure out a way to put on a brave face in front of a faux beach backdrop. I needed to find some way to come to terms with my fears and, if possible, to appreciate life even as death was all around. I wanted to honor the dead with a life newly invigorated, not as some invective useful to prove a point. 

So I turned to a book (recommend on the Waking Up app and Making Sense podcast by Sam Harris), to an author who has served as a witness and a guide to thousands dying at the Zen Hospice Center he founded. Frank Ostaseski wrote the book Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully from his thirty years serving in hospice care. During the pandemic, it is a balm for all of our souls caught up in a global cycle from loss through losing, loosening, to a wiser form of living.

“The contemplation of life, death, and the inherent mystery in each moment is too important to be left to our final hours. Coming to terms with our fears and discovering what dying has to teach us about life are essential to our transformation. These Five Invitations are a call to that transformation. They can take you to the threshold, but it is up to you to walk on.” - Frank Ostaseski

The Five Invitations

Ostaseski’s book cannot be distilled into bullet points. Instead, its power to persuade us to walk through the threshold to the life that death invites us to live is in the many stories of the rich and poor, mindful and grumpy, managed and messy people he has served in their last days. With that being said, Five Invitations is focused on the lessons, the invitations, that dying teaches us about life. The Five Invitations are:

  1. Don’t wait

  2. Welcome everything, push away nothing

  3. Bring your whole self to the experience

  4. Find a place of rest in the middle of things

  5. Cultivate don’t know mind

In this short list, there is something for everyone to work on, something that is more poignant now during the pandemic. My difficulties are always in welcoming everything, even my fears and weaknesses, into my self-consciousness, and in reducing the cerebral attachment I have to the models I have built for myself in my mind palace. However, in our current lock down, we are all seeing the benefits of the invitation not to wait, to seek out relationships and kindness in others, and to cultivate positive experiences. Furthermore, the pandemic puts us in an uneasy state of confinement with our thoughts and fears, making the ability to find rest within it more necessary than ever.

With death now a global concern and our lives altered as we live with the virus, we should consider the invitations of life set (as it always has been) against a backdrop of death.

Live like you were dying

The first three invitations can be succinctly summarized into the Tim McGraw lyric, "Live like you were dying," an invitation to appreciate the preciousness of life and act on it by living each day as if it was your last.

“Don’t wait is an invitation & encouragement to step fully into life. Never miss a moment waiting for the next one to arrive. Don’t wait to act on priorities. Don’t get stuck in the hope for a better past or future; be present.” - Frank Ostaseski

We often fool ourselves into believing that our life will reach a state of Hakuna Matata--free of problems--when that is not a true read of existence. We grasp for a life that is not possible and that squanders our life to one of mediocrity. Entropy will always prevail. At best, we have the knowledge and the motivation to solve each of the problems that are presented to us in our work, lives, and relationships with others.

Whether we are ignorant of our capability to contain our problems or actively avoiding dealing with our pain, this resistance causes suffering. If we welcome everything, push away nothing, pain and entropy will still arise, but suffering will be minimized.

"Now the blues can come to you in any shape or form... Now I got the blues and I'm not ashamed to say, I been tryin' to shake them, each and every day" - Albert King

The most poignant balance sheet cashed in by the approach of death is our relationships with our loved ones. Do we hold grudges or offer forgiveness? Even better, can we short-circuit this faulty wiring in our false sense that there is an "unchanging us" that was wronged and let go of our selfish narrative for a shared one? Our sense of self, this model that there is an "I" at the center of experience, is not only a model that evaporates upon deeper reflection, but this self is also often playing a game of realpolitik with those we are in relationship with. Instead of seeing a slight as a fault in faulty creatures, we see the impact it has made on "us" and keep these past ills with us to inform the conduct of our present lives. As we will discuss later, it is better to share in the field of consciousness with other sentient creatures, than it is to act semi-autonomously as an avatar for the thought of "yourself."

“There are these people who come in the room and tell me to love. Then there are these other people who come in the room and tell me to let go. Which should I do first?”… “You are going to know what to do, and you can trust that. But the thing is, they are almost simultaneous actions. Love is what allows us to let go.”… “You can’t love and cling at the same time. Too often we mistake attachment for love.” - Frank Ostaseski

The pandemic has meant that we are all dying, grieving, and/or sheltering. All of these have been performed over Zoom, Skype, or FaceTime. We are separated by a few filaments in fiber optic cables from someone saying goodbye to a loved one, we are a small selection of bits in a link from the last lines of forgiveness. Each of us can accept the invitation to bring our whole selves to the collective experience of accompanying those dying of COVID-19. Our grief, loneliness, and desire to be of service to others can rise above "thoughts and prayers."

To accompany a dying person, to make the journey through grief ourselves--these may be the greatest challenges we will ever face in our lives. But don't turn away. Bring your whole self to the experience. When we take care of someone we love and do it with great integrity and impeccability, when we feel that we have given ourselves fully and completely to our grief and didn'