This is what's happening
Updated: Sep 10, 2020
In-the-moment living amid a global health crisis
Photo by Barrie Kreinik: London, UK.
The first time I heard it, I’d just spent a whole night sitting by my father’s bed in the ICU. He was gravely ill and we didn’t know why. The doctors said he might not make it. Shock and horror and grief and anxiety were all tangled into one stomach-sized knot. When I spoke to my therapist on the phone, one of the things she said was:
“This is what’s happening.”
Well, I know that, I thought. How is that helpful? What did she even mean?
It took me almost two years to figure it out.
It’s natural, in the face of crisis or tragedy, to resist what’s happening. Most of us have at least some resistant responses to upsetting events: This shouldn’t be happening, I didn’t want this to happen, why is this happening to me, what if this hadn’t happened, etc. But resistance, in most cases, truly is futile. It doesn’t change the situation and it doesn’t help us cope. I’d read about this in the writings of scholars and teachers, mostly from the Buddhist tradition, but I never truly understood it until recently: the key to dealing with tragedy, with loss and difficulty, with anything horrifying or heartbreaking that happens to us in our lives…is acceptance.
Accepting what’s happening doesn’t mean being resigned to it. It doesn’t mean pretending that a bad situation isn’t all that bad, or that a problem doesn’t require attention. It’s simply a way for us to start where we actually are and go from there, rather than starting from where we wish we were but aren’t. Acceptance isn’t giving up, or giving in. It’s giving over. It’s saying yes when all we want to say is no, no, no.
Acceptance goes hand-in-hand with another concept we hear a lot about but seldom master: being in the moment. Staying present and being mindful are ideas that have been much written about, presumably because they’re so challenging for most people. Actors talk about these concepts a lot because they’re part of our job description: night after night, we have to make highly rehearsed moments seem like they’re happening for the first time. It’s our job to create the illusion of newness—and it’s a doubly difficult job if we already have trouble being present in our everyday lives.
Two years ago, I got a crash course in being present. My father’s illness and death, and the subsequent illness and death of a close friend, taught me that life can change drastically, unexpectedly, and instantly. But it goes on. I drowned for months in an ocean of grief, but over time that ocean became a sea, and then a lake, and then a pond, and finally a well. I still fall into that well on occasion, and it will never disappear, but it no longer defines my emotional landscape. And what I learned from going through something I thought would never end is that everything ends. Nothing lasts forever. This too, as the sages have always said, shall pass. You just have to figure out how to survive until it does.
The key to that survival, in my experience, is acceptance.
This is what’s happening.
I’ve been reflecting on that phrase ever since I fled New York at the pandemic’s height to stay with my mother in my childhood home—a stay that was supposed to last two weeks and is now nearing five months. When it became clear that things were not going back to normal anytime soon, I was surprised to find that I reached a place of acceptance almost immediately. The shutdown of the known world was jarring and upsetting, but I found myself organically developing ways to cope.
The main way was an approach that I’ve begun calling radical presence. It means focusing only on the very next step, no farther. In 2018, the only way I was able to endure my father’s illness, my grief after his death, my friend’s illness, my grief after her death, and the shock and grief I felt upon the sudden death of another friend soon after—yes, it was quite a year—was to focus all my attention on right now. Life became about literally putting one foot in front of another. Getting out of bed. Getting myself to work. Holding a hand or navigating a hospital or feeding an animal or cooking food or planning a memorial or allowing myself to lie on the floor and cry until I choked—all of it had to be done fully, presently, alive.
How are you? people asked.
I don’t know, I’d reply. I’m just here.
Or as my mother once put it: Right now, there is no future. The ‘future’ is tomorrow.
So in April of this year, when the pandemic spilled out of control, I decided to take that day-to-day approach and make it month-to-month. In April, I thought only about April. May arrived, and I did the same. Right now, I can roughly conceive of the end of August, and I have some hopes for September. But I don’t allow my thoughts to venture much farther than that.
I also avoid speculative news articles. In fact, I try not to engage with anything written in a future tense. I want to know what’s actually happening, not what might happen. What will the world be like in the future? We don’t know. We can imagine; we can innovate; we can invent. But we don’t need to spend too much time speculating.
As an actor, I’m uniquely adapted to this kind of thinking. Actors can rarely predict our schedules more than a few weeks in advance, and when it comes to auditions, our job is basically to show up thoroughly prepared on impossibly short notice. I’m accustomed to not thinking about what might happen six months from now, because I generally have no idea. But I now know the true meaning of disruption, of a life being turned upside-down. I also know that eventually, eventually, it rights itself.
I’m also aware that I have three privileges that allow for this approach: I’m healthy, I’m safe, and I’m employed. The same cannot be said for millions of others. But whatever our position, we’re all adjusting to the drastically altered world in which we now live. And if we’re going to fight for our rights, rally the government to action, or just get through another uncertainty-filled day, we have to be present in the moment. To do so, we have to find a way to accept what the moment contains.
So here we are, in this chaotic, messy, terrifying, uncertain, anxiety-ridden moment. Nobody knows what’s going to happen next. Predictions and speculations and estimates are as ephemeral as mist. All we can do is deal with what’s going on now.
This is what’s happening.
The world fell down around our ears, but spring came, and the flowers burst with color. Suffering and death are on the doorstep, but summer continues its relentless shine. Beaches close and reopen and close again, but the ocean keeps making waves.
Nothing will ever be the same, people say mournfully.
Nothing ever is.