By Karen Olson
Remember when the jigsaw puzzles were sold out?
I miss the good old days of the COVID-19 pandemic, back in optimistic April, when we were just locking down and our collective attention was focused on flattening that darn curve. Like a ragged lineup of teenage wizards in the last scenes of the Harry Potter books, we united all our efforts and energy to defeat an insidious enemy. What we could not hope to do individually, we could perhaps accomplish together, against all odds. It was heroic and inspiring.
Now, however, fending off the invisible forces of death and suffering through universal self-sacrifice has lost its appeal. We’re facing financial pressure to earn and spend money and perhaps make up for lost income and lost time. We’re facing social pressure to act as though everything is back to “normal”, so no one has to feel one more disappointment or have one more awkward or hostile encounter over mask-wearing.
We’re also facing internal pressure to make the discomfort we feel over such prolonged and painful disruption go away. We’ve run out of options to numb and avoid our distress, and there’s no time to stop and feel our difficult feelings because the kids need dinner and we have to work in the morning. We’re much too busy for grief.
We’ve watched everything on Netflix and we’ve found the end of the Internet. We’re exhausted by doom-scrolling, burnt out on chaos and uncertainty. We’re tired of getting our hopes up and then cancelling longed-for events after all. Even the pessimists are tired of having their worst-case scenario predictions come true.
A wise friend reminded me this week of the words of the children’s rhyme, Going on a Bear Hunt: “Can’t go over it, can’t go under it, can’t go around it, got to go through it.” It had become her family’s shorthand, she said, for the way through this endlessly frustrating and discouraging season. There is no shortcut, unfortunately, from the old normal to the new normal, and we are ill-prepared to find guides for the difficult and unprecedented journey through this wilderness.
Whose voices should we be listening to as we try to find our way through? Where are the leaders who will show us the way to navigate in the dark? Who are the companions who will allow us to feel our messy and disturbing feelings without inflicting them on those around us? Which gentle pacesetters will help us slow down our frantic, grasping scramble and take a deep breath, take in our desert surroundings?
We need to cultivate discernment as we consider who we allow to lead us. Are they offering empty reassurances based on false promises, or are they frank and forthright about the challenges we face? Are they motivated by their own comfort and gain, or by the well-being of the most vulnerable? Are they willing to listen to the experiences of others, or are they convinced their version of reality is the only one that counts? Are they willing to have their minds and hearts changed by empathy and compassion, and submit to the wisdom of those who have navigated the wilderness before?
As much as I wish that the engine of our world could slow down and stop cranking for just a moment, we’re not likely to go back to the placid and uncertain days of jigsaw puzzle marathons. We’re too hellbent on achieving a shadow of normalcy, too desperate to survive the forces marshalled against us, to commit to that glacial, sacrificial pace again. But we can be mindful of who we let guide us, of who counsels us and leads us, as we make the slow trek through the dark to the light waiting on the other side.
CALL TO ACTION: Individually, we all have some choice about where we look for wisdom, guidance, and leadership. Collectively, electing our leaders shapes who we want to be and how we want to be guided as a community. If you aren’t yet registered to vote, or if you want to check or update your registration, visit https://sos.oregon.gov/voting to do so now.