There is a part of me that wants to turn my head and avert my eyes from hockey stick graphs to alleviate the anxiety and fear from the sense of foreboding, vulnerability, uncertainty and death. My “American” culture is already predisposed to encourage habituation of feeling anxiety and fear, and I am all too familiar with the impact of this habituation on the body. The part of me that knows this harm says, “Don’t add to it…don’t perpetuate this fear…turn people’s attention elsewhere!” but I know all too well that ignoring the reality of “what is” can lead to bigger problems. A more knowing part of me invites us to look at truth, together, even if we need to keep the information a certain distance away, a social distance, in order to avoid the harm of anxiety and fear.
Come. Sit with me a moment. Let’s look at truth together.
Perhaps, together, we can come to see this graph as an uprising of collaborative problem-solving that will help use mitigate the harm and prevent overwhelm of a system, medical or other. Perhaps we are on the brink of coming together, as a society, to face circumstances that require behavioral and structural changes in order to support a future good. Our ability to come together and problem solve the circumstance imposed on us will determine the degree to which we can help mitigate the impact of this pandemic as it extends over the coming months and years; but the only way we can come together in this way is if we are willing to let go of our impulse to point fingers and to blame.
Unfortunately, this COVID-19 pandemic is spreading in a divisive time in which we seem compelled to take every opportunity to level accusation and blame. One of ways in which I have recently (pre-pandemic) heard this opportunity taken has been from Zoomers whose anger points fingers towards Baby Boomers with accusations of being bequeathed a world in peril from another hockey stick graph pointing to change via increasing CO2 in the atmosphere and the natural consequences of global warming that come with this increase. How long will it take, I have wondered, for Zoomers to understand that the challenges we need to overcome to address this problem and ones that are born from within each of us, including them?
A Zoomer-friend who kindly read through and commented on this piece (and who would likely gag with me at the way that I’m applying this label…with intention…wait for it…), let me know that I need to clarify what I mean by “the challenges we need to overcome to address this problem and ones that are born from within each of us.” I just don’t yet know how to clarify this sentence without exposing a very painful and valuable part of my life. Valuable because it was a confluence of experiences that cracked open a profound awareness of how we are both completely out of control and completely in control, at any given moment, with no contradiction. My experiences of people have informed me that it takes the removal of privilege to truly see this truth and to gain compassion for our shared humanity. Perhaps this pandemic is teaching us the same lesson, on mass scale? The lesson that life is a tapestry of choices and consequences, some of which we are responsible for, others that we are simply left with the responsibility of coping with and the combination of which can be devastating to experience. If this opportunity is at hand then we need to seize it to help protect us from unnecessary harm. I will do my part by helping to build mutual understanding of what I mean when I say that “the challenges we need to overcome to address this problem and ones that are born from within each of us.”
“You have obviously chosen motherhood over your Ph.D.,” I was told. It wasn’t true. I hadn’t chosen motherhood over my Ph.D. I had chosen motherhood with my Ph.D. The comment was given by a well-intended mentor and friend as a compliment that my priorities and values were respectable; but it lacked an understanding and awareness of my circumstances and, instead, effectively described the test that had been imposed on me and that I had failed. Months before this conversation, when it had become clear that others were trying to fit me in a box in which I simply didn’t fit and that my path was simply not sustainable, I chose a third option that wasn’t being offered by others but was the most true to me. I chose to advance my science together with my integrated self as mother, wife and human being. I choose to make science meaningful by embodying the practice of advancing our society (in my case, the scientific society) while also caring for and protecting the next generation from harm. I chose to focus on doing the work that I needed to do in order to show up as my best self in all these areas of my life, and I sought teachers and coaches who could help me develop the behaviors and habits that I would need accomplish this goal. I chose to live my values to the best of my ability and to give other people permission to say “no” to me while giving myself permission to say “yes” to being true to myself.
This was a very challenging chapter in my life.
In the end, three main pillars of my identity collapsed and it is strange, familiar and heartbreaking to see these identities collapsing on a mass scale. Although there is nothing to celebrate about a pandemic that is affecting lives in irreparable ways, we can at least be grateful that it’s a visible harm that isn’t socially or societally accepted. There is a lot of harm in this world that is simply accepted and that goes unnoticed. In these less-visible circumstances, intrinsic resourcing is critical. I will get to the skills that I have found most helpful in my own personal journey in intrinsic resourcing in later posts, but I first need to land this bird from the flight that I’ve taken to draw parallels between human-induced climate change and this Covid-19 pandemic through the lens of being a mother in science.
The challenge that is born within each of us is that of taking personal responsibility for implementing the changes that we wish to see in this world in place of pointing fingers at others and labeling them as “the problem”. This personal responsibility is challenging because it is hard to take a stand for protecting a future generation when your bottom line is threatened, whether that bottom line is your income, your lifestyle, your reputation, your career, your family or your relationships to dear friends. It is far easier to ask others to make changes in their lives and to believe that you would do different if in their shoes then it is to make changes in our own lives when these changes include letting go of lifestyles, expectations, habits or people that we’ve grown very attached to and fond of. Creating an adaptive culture requires real work, born from within each of us. Every time we stand in accusation or blame of another takes precious time and thought resources away from the changes that we could be implementing in our own lives so that we may serve as sentinels. The accusations by Zoomers that the Boomers have bequeathed a harm from global warming may be a righteous accusation but it seems to me to lack an awareness of what can be at stake, personally, to stand as a sentinel for doing things differently. I have never imagined that Zoomers would have an opportunity so soon to become sentinels for walking the walk of doing things differently for the sole purpose of protecting someone else’s life.
According to the data out of South Korea, ~30% of those infected with COVID-19 are 20-30-year-olds while ~30% of those who die are over 70 despite being ~10% of the infected population (See data here). I choose numbers from S. Korea because they have been aggressive in testing a large group of their population so their numbers are less biased then those in the U.S., where large-scale testing has yet to happen. In this hockey stick scenario the baby boomers are being disproportionately affected by a pathogen carried by the 20-somethings. It appears that the tides in our global scenario of hockey stick graphs have turned from global warming toward COVID-19, with a shift in who is asking who to modify behaviors in order to support their wellbeing and future potential.
Of course, this data and this post isn’t really about who is a vector for harm, it’s about how we are all being asked to make changes to support a common good, for all of us, within our hockey-stick world. We are being forced to lose privileges that we once took for granted and, in so doing, to see the world through a different perspective. We are being asked to find a different way to play, to connect and to work in order to prevent an overwhelm of our medical system and unnecessary death. We are also being called to ask for help if we need and to offer help in the ways that we are resourced to offer. The unfortunate reality is that some of us don’t have safe homes and are being forced to experience physically and psychologically harmful circumstances while also lacking the resources to overcome the harm from these circumstances. They too will need our help. Unfortunately, when it comes to hockey stick graphs, there are no black-and-white or right-and-wrong decisions, only choices and consequences.
There was a time, of course, when COVID-19 could have been contained in a region; but that time as passed. We are now in a pandemic and we may experience COVID-19 as an endemic illness, much like the flu. This is where facing and moving toward the truth, toward the hockey stick, is very important. Moving toward this truth opens the possibility of blocking it at the base and disarming the aggression before it becomes harmful. It’s a classic martial arts move for blocking hockey sticks, bats or swords. Move to the base and disarm. The alternative, blocking the strike at the tip, will lead to far greater injury simply because there is more momentum behind the blow. We are experiencing with this pandemic a version of what it can feel like if we delay action in addressing a hockey stick such that we can no longer disarm at the base and are instead forced to experience the impact of a blow at the tip. It’s an appetizer to what the main course of the CO2 hockey stick graph can deliver.
To reclaim our power from a hockey stick graph, we need to first be able to manage our anxieties and fears to the degree necessary to square up to the reality of what is coming down on us. We need accept that we are responsible, that our bodies are mostly made up of non-human cells (many of which form the foundation of our immune system—if fed appropriately—and some of which can kill us), that our success at overcoming circumstances beyond our control rests in our ability to stay open to and curiosity about possibilities both in our own lives and in others and to use this curiosity to cultivate an ability to come together and collectively problem-solve difficult circumstances, that we are in this together in a way that dissolves the boundaries of “us” vs “them” (on micro- and macroscopic scales), that our modern day hero isn’t a person who is going to rescue us from our choices but, rather, a choice made within us all to be humbled by the reality of circumstances beyond our control and use this humility to strengthen our commitment to do our own personal best in creating a future good through the circumstances and choices that are in our control.
 This is a philosophical statement based on a thought-experiment; it’s not a statement that reflects any mathematical model or research-based evidence.
 I am grateful for Tereza Jarnikova for her willingness to read this work, to ask important questions and to challenge me to take it a step beyond.
Copyright (2020) by Rachael D. Mueller according Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International