1. You’re Walking Around Minding Your Own Business
If you’re able-bodied, the last thing on your mind is the probability of kicking a portion of raised concrete, of the placement of a stray cable, or of an upturned corner of a rug. Chances are you’re thinking about something you’ve been meaning to do, or thinking about something instead of what you’ve been meaning to do. Life is like that. The unexpected is, well, unexpected. A good parent will say to a child “that’s why we call it an accident.” When things go awry in life, it’s important to say that to yourself.
However, think of the concrete. Think of the cable. Think of the rug. These objects were there all along. They were slowly becoming the unexpected. Life is also like that. Slowly becoming something new where you expected things to stay the same. Slowly deforming into something potentially hazardous. In our deep genetic past, we learned to expect this to be true of our environment at all times. It gave us anxiety when we needed extra sensitivity. It gave us strength when we needed to push through pain. It gave us overwhelming tears when we lost someone important. It gave us laughter when an unexpected event turned out to be harmless. Most importantly, it gave us the smile, to signify to our fellows that we are indeed alright.
If you’re reading this in the early spring of 2020, you’ve probably just realized that you’ve just taken your last step in this state. It was yesterday. It was last week. Maybe last month. But one thing is for sure, you remember it, and wish desperately to return. You do not feel alright. Maybe you can smile, but it is not a smile for you.
We are alive in a very important time. Every generation says this to themselves, but history only remembers a few of them. The last generation of the Bronze Age. The first generation of the Ancient Philosophers. Those alive during the insurgency time of Jesus as well as the first splitting of the Han Dynasty. The conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity. The end of antiquity and the birth of Middle Ages, and Islam. The Renaissance and Reformation Period of Martin Luther, which coincided with the height of civilization in the Americas. The early colonization of the New World. The American Revolution and subsequent fall of the European Empires. The Industrial Revolution. The birth of advanced applied physics which changed life, war, and technology forever. The World Wars. The 68’ awakening. And us. Those alive long enough to remember life before globally networked society, but young enough to have been shaped by the internet our entire lives.
It may seem hyperbolic, but in the span of 5000 years, very few generations have lived before the world tripped on a stair and survived all the way down the staircase to get back up again and continue on. So, this longing you have for things to be the way they were just a few short weeks ago is a feeling whose intensity has only been felt to this degree by humanity a scarce few times.
So if you’re feeling incredibly uneasy, remember that our bodies have learned to live in this state over millennia. It is why we were anxious about things we now, in this moment, find trivial in hindsight. Our bodies are real memories. Our minds are real feelings. We were minding our own business. But something has changed.
2. You Stumble
There is a brief moment before a fall when your mind is still moving forward while your body is going down. In Sunday morning cartoons, the foolish rascal is left suspended in the air for just a moment before he looks into the camera as his legs fall, his torso stretches like elastic, and his head stays right where it was the moment he noticed he had run off of the cliff’s edge. We don’t always remember these experiences, because our sense of time has yet to slow. They say that severed heads sometimes blink their eyes once or twice before realizing they’re gone for good.
In fact, our brains are running on a 100 millisecond delay. In rare cases, image recognition can bring that down by half, but most of our sensory input takes a good while to reach the brain. The real world you can see and touch was about a tenth of a second ago. You are reading these words now, but understanding them in the future. It is an important thing to remember. When things are happening quickly the brain just guesses what is actually going on. It manipulates your sight, sound, taste, touch, smell, and hormones to prepare you for what it expects will happen.
What does it mean that our brain is tricking us for our own sake, and that it is sometimes wrong. What does it imply about free will if we are making our decisions based on yesterday’s news? When we stumble, some time will pass before we realize it’s time to act. That’s not abnormal. Our bodies are used to having a brief moment before response. It is the glimpse of something … spiritual … that those who have had a near-death experience report. It is the moment in our stream of consciousness that does not belong to us. Where mind and body part for a vignette encapsulating all we’ve suffered, enjoyed, seen, and done. It is the thing we desperately wish to experience again whenever we have been shaken from the slumber of daily life, but are too afraid to seek because that was how we learned what comes next.
3. You Realize You’re Going to Fall Over
Yep. You see what’s happening. You’ve got a body and it’s about to hit the ground. If only you’d put it together sooner, but you have a half-second to commit to some kind of response. Ah. Yes. You are a person. A person capable of making decisions. Time to make a decision.
Why? Because you are going to fall over. You’re going to fall over. You’re going to fall over. It’s going to happen. In some sense, it just happened a few moments ago. You are going to fall over. Things are going to be different. It’s happening. It happened. This isn’t a breath-holding contest, things are going to be different. Don’t consider. Do.
What is it exactly that one should do when everything is turned upside down? In this instant, it barely matters. What one does is the first thing that comes to mind. And the first thing that comes to mind is whatever you’ve put away in the rarely visited part of your memory where the answer to “how to fall” is stored. But what if you haven’t stored anything there?
4. Your Practice Becomes Instinct
White belts spend their first lessons falling. Instructors toss them around, bark at them to throw themselves headfirst into the mats. Tuck. Roll. Slap the ground. Do it over and over. Skateboarders who are any good have fallen more times than they have landed. Gymnasts start with summersaults before ever reaching for the bars. What you practice is what you do when things go wrong. If you haven’t practiced anything, you throw your arms forward, posting. Bracing for impact. The most common bone fracture in America is the wrist. We do not know how to fall because we do not expect we ever will.
Anthropologist Margaret Mead once noted that in the mammal kingdom, a fractured bone (specifically the femur) never has the chance to heal. Prey mammals can’t escape. Predators can’t chase. The sick and injured are always the first on the menu. When a broken bone heals, it leaves a permanent scar in the bone, and a healed femur has never been found in fragment or fossil. There is a singular exception to this rule, Mead observes — humans beginning about 15,000 years ago.
Throughout the world today, people are looking at the oldest generations and learning a difficult truth about why those who survived in times of global strife carry the lessons of frugality even in times of plenty. Keeping gardens. Saving food for hard times. We are looking at the so-called “preppers” with a new-found respect. We are digging up the old warnings of the catastrophists and doom-sayers and wondering why we didn’t listen more carefully. Those are the people who were ready to fall, the people who will help the broken bones to heal.
5. You’re On The Ground
“Help, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” We millennials have laughed at the LifeAlert commercial our entire adult lives. Today, we clutch our phones as if they were just such a device. We are suddenly so happy to have the technology to connect with those we love, to have the peace of mind that we will be able to reach out at a moments notice to those we’ve been unexpectedly separated from. To see a familiar face from an entirely post-geographic world.
The realization that nothing will ever be the same is a tranquil calm that eventually replaces the panic of staring up from the ground. It happened. The Black Swan. The life you had before this moment will forever be qualified with “before the crisis started”. The life you will have after has yet to begin. Take in a sip of this air.
Russians have an old tradition of sitting quietly together at a table at the end of a vacation or family holiday. Letting the time pass in quiet. Looking at one another to form a memory of time spent together. Mindfulness of this kind when practiced in a gentle state of mind can be a powerful form of neurological transition and rest. However, the same process under conditions of extreme stress produces adrenal hormones called Glucocorticoids that can do long-term damage to the nervous system. We call this Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but rarely understand it as a physical process that begins with the conscious experience of memory formation. It is material. Emotions are real. Your attitude is a medicine, a prophylactic against all other physical harm. Take this medicine now, as you read this, if you haven’t already. We are going to get through this. Even the few of us who don’t make it will help those who do, just as it has always been. When Gilgamesh returned from his fruitless quest for immortality, he was consoled by a priest who brought him to the walls of Uruk to see how the city he had left behind was now teaming with life, and had grown in his absence. Immortality is not for one person or another, it is the product of all our living and dying together. We will all be part of building a better, freer, happier, more-just world. Broken wrist or not.
6. You Think “Am I Ok?”
We have already done away with our fear, so we can actually answer this question without causing further harm. It’s time to assess the damage. To pat our bodies down for pain signals. To check for blood. To shine a light into our pupils. To ask yourself “what year is it?”
It’s 2020. We are living in the future. Our economy is going to change. It will have to. Our politics is going to change. It will have to. Our cultures are going to change. Indeed, change is the only thing they have ever known. We must identify with being agents of this change. We can — and must — form new practices. We will need new ways to fall safely. This was not the last unexpected challenge our species will face.
We will need new kinds of family structure, perhaps beyond the old bloodlines and legacies. We will need new forms of togetherness. Structures that can survive distance. Relationships that can be strong remotely. New business models that can emerge in virtual spaces. These changes were already long overdue, and now we must do the hard work of making them reality sooner than previously thought possible. The good news is, like the balcony songs of a quarantined Italy, those ready to do that work are together in chorus. We sing, We Must Change Everything! The secret, of course, is to begin.
7. You Stand Back Up
If you can manage it, stand up. Dust yourself off. No crying over spilled milk. There was something sour in it anyway. If you can’t stand up alone, ask for help. The bravest thing to do is admit you need it. Pick someone up if they can’t stand alone. If you can’t pick someone up, it’s OK. Help them find someone who can.
We now know the true meaning of “minding our own business”. It is not so great as we thought. It is foolish to not understand how we each fit into the world, and depend upon it. To not care what happens to those around us who don’t think as we do. To be self-righteous. To be arrogant. To not forgive those who are mistaken. We were all mistaken, one way or another. And we must forgive one another. We must forgive ourselves. We will do well to mind the business of humanity. To carry it with us, even when nothing much else is in our minds, so that when we kick an unexpected piece of concrete, we know how to roll through and land on our feet.
The most important question to ask yourself in the wake of an unexpected shock is what have you learned about yourself? Why was this so unexpected? What do you have to change about the way you view the world? What were you wrong about? The answer to these questions will chart out a map of/to the world we must now rebuild. Of course, not all of these things will be emotional life lessons. Some questions will need to be answered with farms. With new kinds of buildings. With new kinds of schools. New kinds of cities, and indeed, new forms of governance and decision-making.
These latter things will be the subject of this newsletter. Looking deeply into one issue at a time from as far away as is necessary to see the whole problem, and as closely as possible to understand how they can be solved for everyone. This is not a politics newsletter. I won’t be spending any time discussing which bill should get passed, or which representative has the brightest future. As far as I’m concerned, those subjects are the rubble which must be scrapped for parts and made into totally new tools. Tools we will need to build a society that isn’t so top-heavy. That won’t tumble in a great storm. A society that can bend with the strongest wind, and flex with the ground as earthquakes roll. A society that doesn’t have a “carrying capacity” or a suicide rate or a sunny day flood or a vulnerable minority. A society where everyone is kept safe from harm merely by participating in earnest community. We’ve known what we’ve wanted this whole time, we just thought it was impossible. It is not. Not only is it possible, it is our only safe passage to the future. We must learn how to fall.