The jarring dislocation that I’ve felt over the past six weeks is both startlingly new and strangely familiar. My sense that our world may never be the same is palpable and foreign to my innate optimism. My heart aches for all the families whose loved ones have been taken, and the health care workers whose lives have also been radically altered by the COVID-19.
So far we’ve been fortunate. Our family and friends have been mercifully spared any direct encounter with the virus. We are also lucky that some of its indirect impacts — on our personal and professional lives — are already known to us, and COVID-19 has brought them into heightened focus.
Fifteen years ago, having led to an education start-up to national prominence, my skyrocketing career was hurtled into a brick wall, when our founder was accused of professional misconduct. We reorganized to deal with the fallout, and I left what remained of the company in a trusted lieutenant’s hands. I was then forced into an unplanned transition just as our kids were entering middle and high school.
As I had spent most of our sons’ early years on the road, I decided to embrace the pain and use the sudden shift in fortune to reorganize my life so that I could be more present at home.
Instead of working for a big company that would put significant boundaries on my personal life, I launched a small business. Instead of commuting and traveling non-stop, I worked out of our home. Instead of recharging my batteries through daily social contact, I worked remotely, connecting with colleagues by phone and email.
Instead of getting a big paycheck, my personal financial situation took an extreme hit, as the business I launched progressed slowly, and I was forced to liquidate my personal savings in order to keep it alive. It has been extremely challenging to juggle the demands of being an entrepreneur trying to earn a living, and a father trying to raise two boys. Fortunately, I have a loving spouse.
Our situation grew increasingly desperate as my reduced income faltered and then stopped completely. We were lucky to be able to refinance our house using the small emergency fund I had carefully saved for 35 years. I don’t expect that we will ever be able to rebuild the financial position that we were once in unless a sudden positive reversal of our fortunes occurs.
The pain and suffering that I feel about my losses at work are vastly different from the grief that I have experienced losing a loved one, and it’s important to separate the two, especially in this COVID crisis. The personal losses that surround us seem so completely random, an aberration in the cycle of life and death that we learn to cope with as we grow older.
The deep psychological wound from my professional meltdown has triggered feelings of inadequacy and shame that permeates my self-concept. It raises fundamental questions about personal agency, my ability to make shit happen in life. In the end, I have been left with the existential belief that I am not in control.
My advice to everyone who is feeling pain, anxiety, or stress during these times is unorthodox, but I will offer it anyway. In addition to pouring ourselves into an infinite variety of distractions and self-therapies — virtual cocktails, family games, binging Netflix and Amazon Prime, long walks, all of which, have many benefits — make sure to also make time to embrace the pain, and the interior space that its wound has opened.
Western pop culture teaches us to “solve” the problem of grief, and soften its impact. I think such an approach, beyond clinical interventions to deal with serious anxiety and depression, is a mistake.
It has been my experience that the pain that I felt as my life fell apart was a necessary step in my personal transformation, because it forced me to get really clear about my priorities and how I would pursue them. As I learned to surrender and acknowledge my losses instead of mitigate and manage them, new fields of action emerged.
There are many gurus who will tell you that when your life falls apart and you accept that you are not in control, your life will come back together. That’s true. My relationships with my wife and sons blossomed. I found myself working on projects that are energizing psychologically. They have brought in just enough income to keep us going. I have learned to take better care of myself physically, making sure that I was getting adequate exercise and rest.
But there is more to be gained in submitting to the pain that you are feeling, embracing the ambiguity of your situation, not racing to a resolution, and it’s important. If you let yourself sit with the pain, you will discover an inner stillness, a secret place of solitude. Cultivate that space.
In the beginning, you might feel numb. That’s okay. Go deeper. Anxious thoughts will arise. That’s okay, too. Let them come and go. Sit for 10-20 minutes every day, and let your mind begin to clear. If you are of a contemplative bent, pray or meditate. I think you will discover that underneath the tossing and turning there is a base reality that is unaffected by these events. You might even feel an inner sense of peace that you did not know existed. If you visit this interior place of refuge regularly, it will become a pool of serenity that you can access at any moment in your busy life.
For me, the expanse within became a port from which I went on a spiritual journey of unimaginable beauty that healed my sense of being an inadequate and incomplete man. And now my adventures as an everyday mystic are the subject of a memoir that is currently working its way towards publication.
Do not be misled, I am still working through the pain and suffering of my losses, now compounded by COVID-19. There are days when my level of exhaustion is so extreme that I just want to lie down and die. But that’s the point. It isn’t until we reach a state of emptiness with nothing left to give that the boundless gifts of a new life can begin to emerge.
I am learning that the object of this pain is not just to get to the other side to a pot of gold, good times, and all the other things that I might wish for. That would be awesome, of course, but it will just put me back into being cast about by the tides of fortune. It’s something more.
It’s about learning how to stay present in the space that has opened, a wound that will not heal, from where I am witnessing and co-creating a life that is unfolding to a deeper sense of joy, connection and higher purpose.
I pray that we will get through these dark days soon. I also pray that we might all discover that the seeds of personal transformation are being sown during these difficult times.
(For contemporary interpretation of the transformational growth that can occur during periods of grief or loss, irrespective whether you believe in God or a higher power, I refer you to Mirabai Starr’s books, Wild Mercy and Caravan of No Despair, and Richard Rohr’s recent reflections ] on the coronavirus).