This is a test

It’s 4 am and I find myself, for the first time in a long while, unable to sleep. Too much going through my mind. There is, as I posted a few hours ago, suddenly so much death in my life. It’s not entirely new, and none of it is directly related to COVID-19.

I’m thinking of my friends, near and far, and looking within myself, too. One is sick with C19. Another is in the hospital for an entirely unrelated thing. But most are healthy, at least physically. But I’m seeing a remarkable range of responses to the pandemic and the reactions of the government(s), of the media, and mostly, of individuals I know.

Or I thought I knew. This pandemic, this emergency, is bringing out hidden aspects of people we know, as well as out of ourselves, things that have lain dormant for years, decades, lifetimes, things that we perhaps suspected were there, but are now bursting out like flowers – or rashes.

This is a test: How we are responding is telling us about who we are, as a country, and as individuals, and everything in between. The government’s response has ranged from incompetent to impressive, from denialist and paranoid to responsible and giving; individual’s responses have ranged from…denialist and paranoid to responsible and giving. And, I’m happy to say, creative.

I’m more interested in the individual’s responses. Because that’s close to me, that’s something I can experience directly. As with the government, it is not something I have a great deal of influence over, but at least I can see what I see, say what I feel, and offer my perspectives on it. That’s why I write this, that’s what this pandemic is bringing out in me: I want to say what I can say to help, to heal, or maybe just to divert and amuse. I do it for myself, but I do it for others, or I wouldn’t be putting it out there. If I can communicate that inspiration in a way that inspires others, if I can be vulnerable enough to allow others to be vulnerable, that is my highest aspiration.

I know my limitations. But I will keep trying to overcome them. I’ve let them stop me for too long. I want this pandemic to bring out the best in me, and I want to be the best I can be – but honest and vulnerable, too – in order to give some sort of permission to others to be vulnerable and creative and express themselves however they need to.

Sometimes, that’s going to be really ugly. I’m getting some of that. I’m seeing some really ugly stuff that has surprised me. Not in myself, per se – I’ve long been aware of my darkness, of my weakness, of my self-absorption, of my neediness, of my fears, and right now I’m feeling creative and alive – but now I’m seeing a darkness in others I didn’t really know. Just glimpses, usually, but sometimes full-throttle.

They say that at times like this, you find out who your friends are. I’ve always taken that to mean that you find out what your connection to them is really about, how strong it is, how deep it is, how dependable it is. But now I’m seeing a deeper layer below that: You see who your friends are. You see them react to stress, and to you – or to loss of income, or to loss of a sense of safety or to their spouses, or to their own existential vulnerability – and you see them more completely.

In general, I’m seeing my friends step up, expand, become more generous, more creative, more loving, more strong. But there are others who I’m seeing contract, retreat, see the worst in other people – people they know, people they don’t know – and go dark in every sense. It’s really sad. For them. But it’s really solid information. For me. For us.

I say this because I think this pandemic is going to last longer, go deeper, and hurt more people than most of us have yet realized or are able to imagine. I think we are in for some very, very dark days, the darkest and most widespread pain of our privileged lifetimes. I think we need to be ready for that.

Even if it isn’t so bad, each of us lives in a sort of pandemic every day; Each of us will eventually sicken and die, in a way and time not of our choosing. Until then, each of us will face ugly realities, and all we can control is how we respond. In that way, facing this pandemic is just another test of our individual vision of life, of our ways of getting through it.

As always, the choice is fear or love.

I don’t dwell on sickness or death. Instead, I think about how I live my days, about how to do it best, about how to enjoy it most. I’m a long term pessimist (death, eventually)  and a short term optimist (life, now); I spend as much time as I can being consciously grateful, and I continue to find (and receive) things to be grateful for. I’ve seen how life is for people who can’t do that; it is a special kind of hell.

I’m happier living in the short term, because in the long term, we’re all dead, so there’s no interest there. In the short term, the sun is shining, I’ve got a roof over my head, I’m not hungry, there is a lot of love in my life and my body mostly hurts from exertion.

But I know people for whom the longer, or bigger view is what’s real. The news is what’s really happening; their good life is overlooked, taken for granted, and ultimately, not really enjoyed. The people I know who are the happiest are those who understand that life is hard, that the news is always bad – that’s the nature of the news – and something, or someone, is going to hurt, somewhere. Always. All the time. It’s not hard to see.

Not focusing on the bad news doesn’t mean you don’t know it’s there (triple negative!); it doesn’t mean you’re Polyanna-ish or in denial or stupid or uninformed. It means you understand that you are in charge of your life, not the world; you are subject to the laws of physics and nature, but your thoughts are your own. The story you tell yourself is yours alone. Most of us have the ability to direct our thoughts to some degree; only some of us do it well. But it makes a difference.

I have a friend who has retreated into her own little home, her own little world, but spends her days worrying about the outside world and her health, even though she’s really got very little physically wrong and literally nothing to complain about; by contrast, I have a friend who has a slew of health issues, and who won’t live as long as he might have, who spends his days thinking about what he can do to help others in this mess; and I have a third friend who’s in the hospital right now, undergoing chemotherapy, but whose first question when I call him is, “How you don’, you ok?”

And then there’s me: I’m happy. I’m thriving in my new circumstance. I have a new resolve to make the best of every day; I’m doing what I can to help, in the ways that I know how, and I’m learning new ways to do so; I’m also focusing on myself, my projects, doing things I’ve long put off, because I don’t know how long I’ll be able to do them, which when you think about it, isn’t a new circumstance at all; and I’m working to stay in shape and encouraging others to do the same. By “in shape,” I mean physically, but also mentally and emotionally. And that means focusing on what I can control, on what I can do, not on what I can worry about.

I want all of us to to focus on what we can control, which is both very little in the big picture, and almost everything in the small one.

This historic event is a test: It is a test of how we’ve been living our lives, of what we say to ourselves every day, of how we treat others, of what’s important in what we do, and of how we treat our bodies and souls.

People will perish, that’s for sure; people each of us know, or know of, through other people, will straight-up die; more of us will get sick, and suffer; these are the facts. Acting as though that’s not going to happen is being willfully blind. Businesses will die; careers will morph; marriages will break apart; friendships will disintegrate under the pressure. No denial will change that.

But it’s also a denial of reality to focus too much on all the bad things that are happening. The news is bad, so keep the news in check. It’s not ignorance, it’s self-care. Allowing oneself to be pummeled with bad news is self-abuse. It is, in fact, its own brand of ignorance, of denial. It is mostly a lack of imagination. Dream bigger. Think outside the box of your quarantine. Think about others, give what you can, joyfully.

It’s a worse kind of denial to ignore the fact that this is also an amazing time, full of opportunities for those who are willing to grasp them, for those who are willing to embrace reality. I’m not talking about money, though that will be made by the creative; I’m talking about friendships, seeing them in their complexity, and necessity, in our new social reality. I’m talking about how one interacts with one’s kids; I’m talking about our bodies, which are, after all, the ground zero of this disaster. Take good care of yours and knock wood, it may take good care of you.

Do what makes you feel good. Do creative work with a passion and joy that was always tinged by effort in the past. Find pleasure in solitude; find ways to help others in a way that helps you, too. Enjoy trees and grass and rivers as well as, or more than, television. Move.

This is a test. I hope not to get sick, I’m working not to get sick; if I do get sick, I am pretty sure I’ll survive. But I know I might not, as I’ve always known. So I’m grateful, every day, for every day; I take it all as it comes and I do as much as I can with it. I keep my focus on what’s good and creative and positive and healthy and aspiring and inspiring; I know what’s going on, but I’m not dwelling on it. I’m doing the best with what I have, which is more than I could ever acknowledge – and I’m appreciating all of it.

This is a test. And in that respect, it’s just another day.

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Thank you for checking out my blog - it’s just the tip of the iceberg.  I am working on projects regarding music history, Japanese culture and my songwriting.

- A week-by-week music history website, music1967.com
- An upcoming book on Japanese culture, Japan from Anime to Zen
- A YouTube channel, featuring random songs and thoughts for the pandemic
- Original music on Spotify, with links to Patreon and Amazon 

David Watts Barton

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