Attack of the Orange Monster, Book 2
How do we thrive when we know the world is about to be devoured
I woke up in the middle of the night yesterday with a start. Maybe I heard a noise in the house? I looked over at the clock. It was about 2 AM. I was sort of wide awake, though whenever that happens, I can’t really tell how awake I really am. I was definitely surprised at the time because it felt like I’d slept longer. Then my mind started churning.
I was thinking about the election, the news reports, the hand-wringing conversations with friends about what it means for our future. I read the paper for a while, which surprisingly quieted me down.
I relate to the political upheaval as part of the background noise creating collective existential anxiety. Political realignment, pandemics, globalization, global warming, colony collapse syndrome, automation, the misinformation highway, crypto, plastic bags, dry scooping, cat breading. The list goes on. Oh, and remember nuclear war? That’s still a thing, too.
It all affects me personally, but even more so in my job. I’m a systemic therapist, which means that I think about people within their environments, not as individual entities. I liken it to the way a color occurs next to another color, which is different from the way it occurs by itself. People talk about their confusions and conflicts and I ask about their circumstances and their responses. Then we put it together to understand why it’s not working out for them.
The background noise of global upheaval is part of that exploration, and we are in a period of pretty tremendous upheaval. The early 21st century doesn’t feel at all like the late 20th.
When people first come in to see me, I feel like they’re wandering around, lost in the forest. I get to work helping them find their way out of that forest, and then onto a raft floating on a warm river with people they love playing music and fishing and having plenty of water to drink. The background noise of global upheaval is like everyone on the raft starting to get freaked out because they hear a deadly waterfall down the river.
I expect myself to be genuine with people, so when I hear people yell “there’s a waterfall, there’s a waterfall,” I listen seriously. And emotionally, I’m influenced by that warning as well. If we all start to agree that we’re basically doomed, then why bother having conversations about becoming our best selves? And why work for it?
That’s Confusion, and it can move in two directions. The first and more common path is Judgment. Often popularized by the media, it’s some version of “we’re all gonna die!” It’s easy for our minds to go that way. And anyway, we are all actually (probably) going to die at some point, so it’s basically true. Just maybe not all of us together in some mass extinction event. We’re all prone to think that way in the presence of the unknown, and the future is full of unknown.
The second path is more powerful: Curiosity. Curiosity looks around and gathers more information about the river, the raft, the people, the instruments, the riverbanks and the waterfall. Because life goes sideways all the time, and history is replete with those sideways stories.
Curiosity asks two questions: “what is this” and “what can I do with this?” The second question, a common coaching and self-help focus, is valuable. What can I do with this? But spending more time with “what is this” can actually lead to greater and longer-lasting well-being. Why? Because we expand our belief about ourselves and the world around us, and that accumulated belief compounds itself over time. The more we know, the more possibilities there are for the future.
On some days, curiosity turns into genuine wonder and deep optimism, and those days are awesome and uplifting. I love those days. Other days, it feels wooden and hard to swallow. Those days suck. But it’s still the same curiosity, and even at its weakest, it helps get us from one day to the next. There are days when that’s all we can have, all we can hope for. Curiosity is always there, built into our DNA, to guide us into a better world.
Thinking about this now, I realize that’s what happened to me last night. I started reading the paper and got to the opinion pieces. I got more agitated and hopeless. And then I read some more and I read some more, and the information started to give me hope and clarity. I finally fell back asleep, and in the morning when my kid woke me and asked why the tooth fairy hadn’t left him any money the night before, I realized I had a whole new catastrophe to deal with. I just smiled and gave him a hug and started to think, “what can I do with this?” And I had a great day.