Breakdown or Breakthrough: Changing the Covid Crisis to Opportunity
by Lois Farfel Stark*
(*Author: The Telling Image: Shapes of Changing Times; TEDx, Shape : Hiding in Plain Sight. See Authors Page for more details.)
A few years ago, I asked a Tibetan monk whether we were in a time of breakdown or breakthrough. He answered with this story. He spent his entire life in a monastery in Tibet. That monastery kept its knowledge sequestered for thousands of years. One night, he was alerted to wake up and escape. The Chinese were invading. He ran that night and was able to make it across the border to India.
Now you might say this was a time of breakdown, when cloistered teachings passed generation to generation broke down. Or, you could say the teachings broke through. Decades later, think of how Buddhist ideas, Dalai Lama quotes, and Tibetan meditations have seeped into the west and blended into our culture.
A crisis carries the potential for both breakdown and breakthrough.
This idea can help us understand the current Covid-19 crisis. The name of the virus is a shortened form of Coronavirus Disease of 2019. Another way to read the word Covid is to notice that it combines Co, meaning together, and Vid, a root word meaning to see, as Rhonda Fabian of Kosmos Journal explains. This is a time of Seeing Together. Our connectivity is literally staring us in the face, even our masked faces.
Covid 19 is highly infectious. You can catch it from anyone, whether they know they have it or not. It is invisible, just as the connections that bind us are invisible, but understood intuitively.
An early language of the Dagara tribe in Africa had no word for ‘you’. Their closest translation for the word ‘you’ was: ‘my other self’. That is as close as we can come to describing today’s situation. We are all potential infectors, potential helpers, potentially sick and some of us are scientists who can devise potential cures. The very cure may be from antibodies in the blood of another who lived through it.
You are my other self.
Covid 19 is a virus. A virus does not replicate by itself. It needs a host. Every human being, regardless of age, nationality, race, or belief system, can be a host. This is so fundamental it is easy to overlook. Our most common and connected truth is that we are human beings. We have the same bodies.
It is as if at the same moment, everyone on the globe realized we have a potentially fatal disease. To be reminded of our own mortality wakes us up. All of a sudden, we pay attention to time, to those around us, to the environment we are a part of, to the echo of every action we take, to life itself. It is a time when the same awakening is felt by all humans on Earth at the same time.
How it changes us is our choice. Breakdown or breakthrough.
Through this pandemic, we relearn we are part of nature. Viruses are part of us, between us, in us, connecting us. Viruses are highly adaptive. They mutate easily. Maybe they are teaching us how to evolve.
One small change can affect a larger system. Just by staying home, we can save lives. Each of us has individual power to affect the larger whole. The virus had an origin and then a spread. And so can positive changes.
The virus is showing us humanity at its best. Doctors, bus drivers, grocery workers, put their lives at risk to help others. Scientists share data between countries and between companies. At-home isolation is teaching us to value family time and unstructured time. The virus is teaching us we are part of the natural world that we have abused. We breathe clean air and see blue skies and realize—we almost lost them. The virus is underscoring the fault lines in society, the disproportionate effect of the disease on the poor, on minorities, on the jobless.
In just a few weeks, the virus has made dramatic changes in culture. In education, online learning is upending old formats. New forms may separate knowledge from social learning and reinvent the very use and cost of a University education. Judicial systems are switching to virtual courts. Working from home could change the financial value of downtown real estate, airlines, hotels.
The outbreak was first framed in terms of saving lives. Increasingly, it is framed in terms of saving livelihoods. As the jobless, the hungry, the homeless increase, what is ahead economically may be devastation that lasts even longer and hits an even larger population.
You may be aware of Einstein’s quote, “You cannot solve a problem from the same consciousness that created it.” But you may not know the next line, “You must learn to see the world anew.”
The virus is also teaching us about exponential thinking. The number of cases can double and quadruple in a snap of time. Yet we are still stuck in linear thinking. The older generation is accustomed to reading in lines on a page and thinking in progressive order. The new generation is accustomed to reading and to thinking in the hyperlinks of a network. But we don’t have to be trapped in one way of thinking. Now we need to understand even more dimensions.
This viral crisis arrives at a time when we are already in other massive exponential changes. Artificial intelligence is changing our brains and our jobs. Technology was eliminating jobs, even before Covid-19 shut down cities. Climate change is so pervasive we can hardly put our minds around the exponential thinking required to understand what we are doing to ourselves.
These are all tsunamis. We need to learn to ride these giant waves. We need to transmute breakdown into breakthrough.
Our angle to the situation can make all the difference. What if we can learn to see uncertainty as possibility? What if we can learn to experience upheaval as potential?
This situation gifted us with a giant RESET button. How we use it can determine breakdown or breakthrough.
I end on a line from the poet songwriter Leonard Cohen:
“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget the perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.”
May this crisis be how the light gets in.
4 thoughts on “Breakdown or Breakthrough: Changing the Covid Crisis to Opportunity”
Thank you for publishing this incredibly timely, elegant and insightful piece of writing! Exponential changes are indeed hard to fathom with linear thinking and here is a video that makes the mathematics of that more concrete: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fgBla7RepXU. Also, the theme of how we are (unavoidably) interdependent and the example of climate change inspired this Midrash-based song released right before the pandemic hit the US: https://www.amazon.com/Rowboat/dp/B082PCY35J
We so appreciate Lois Stark’s insight, brilliantly articulated, during these times. “My other self” helps me sense my way into transforming relationships, and reminds me of Buber’s “I and Thou.” A deep bow of gratitude to Lois Stark.
Lois’s letter is incredible. I have learned new things and new insights about the pandemic and the opportunity to respond to it in a productive, responsive, and thoughtful manner. Thank you for giving me infinite hope.
Absolutely fantastic short essay by Lois! Volumes spoken in a short space that captures the catastrophe theoretic nature of this event.