We Are Never Going Back

How we can emerge from this crucible into a better, fairer, more compassionate world.

PATSTOCK / Getty Images
PATSTOCK / Getty Images

Transformative change rarely happens without a catalyst and a crisis. A crucible. A time of profound trial at the end of which something new and much better emerges. The term comes from the vessel used by medieval alchemists that withstood extreme heat to turn base metals into gold. 

In modern times, “crucible” has taken on a metaphorical meaning: an event, moment or experience that transforms us. The alchemy that takes place is a journey toward a psychological and spiritual — as opposed to physical — transformation. 

We find ourselves in a crucible now. The severe trials of the pandemic have revealed fundamental weaknesses in our society — many of which we knew about but were content to ignore. In a world where real change is hard to come by, the pandemic has, in effect, forced our hand: we have an opportunity to change because we have to, to emerge into a world that is not merely new, but better, fairer and more compassionate than the one we leave behind. 

Because there is no going back. The pandemic has made it all too clear that we cannot continue to live and work the way we have — breathlessly and always on. The casualties of this way of living have been proliferating for years: the skyrocketing increase in chronic diseases like diabetes and hypertension; the increase in mental health problems like depression and anxiety, the increase in stress and burnout, which the World Health Organization identified as a workplace crisis last spring. 

And now a time of profound loss — lost lives of loved ones, spouses or co-workers being laid off and the ongoing uncertainty about the future — has exacerbated the mental health crisis we are already facing. Two thirds of Americans say they’ve felt anxious, depressed, lonely or helpless in the last week, and more than half say coronavirus-related stress is negatively affecting their sleep, the foods they eat, their alcohol use or their chronic conditions. And even losses that may seem trivial on the surface compared to matters of life and death — weddings, graduations, travel and vacations — mean, as Kim Hart writes in Axios, “huge parts of our lives will stay shuttered well through August and possibly beyond.”

But this crucible is also a time to reimagine a world better than the one we’re leaving behind. As Kim Stanley Robinson writes in The New Yorker, “the virus is rewriting our imaginations. What felt impossible has become thinkable.” And what can help us imagine and build the future is looking to the past and drawing on its wisdom — from the Stoics to the Bhagavad Gita to Lao Tzu and the Zen traditions of Japan, we are powerfully reminded of what modern culture has forgotten: we all have within us a centered place of wisdom, harmony and strength. And since life is shaped from the inside out, if we lose our connection with it, in small ways and large, our life unravels.

The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, one of Stoicism’s most famous practitioners, lived through a plague during the last 14 years of his life. But as he wrote in his book Meditations, we can always return to that “inner citadel” of peace and imperturbability — from which he could much more effectively fight all the challenges he had to face, including the plague, invasions and betrayals. 

The Bhagavad Gita is another source of wisdom in this crucible time. The 5th-century-B.C. section of the Hindu epic Mahabharata chronicles three different kinds of life: a life of inertia and dullness with no goals and achievement; a frenetic life full of busyness and desire; and a life of goodness, which is not just about ourselves but about others. It’s that second life that much of our modern lives seems to be based on, but the pandemic has shown us the emptiness of this approach to living. To thrive, we need to combine it with the third kind of life. Similarly, in China, the Taoist tradition of yin-yang sums up exactly what we’ve lost in modern life: yang is going out into the world, achieving, conquering; yin is coming back to ourselves to refuel. As Lao Tzu put it, “thirty spokes share the wheel’s hub; it is the center hole that makes it useful.” (Here is the series on Chinese wisdom we recorded for Thrive.)

We’ve lost touch with the center. We’ve crowded our lives so much that we’ve lost what the Japanese call Ma — loosely translated as the essential space, or interval, or gap between things, and the importance of creating and fully experiencing such spaces full of possibilities.

These traditions can help us make the changes we have been talking about needing to make for a while now. Long before the pandemic, there was no shortage of science-backed advice on the need to change the way we work and live so that we can live healthier lives with more happiness and meaning. Now, the crisis has made brutally clear the consequences of ignoring this and has underlined the urgency of building a future where our physical health and mental resilience are at the forefront.

We are still in the crucible. Building the habits we need to carry us into a better world is not easy. But this is a historic opportunity for alchemy, and one we can’t afford to miss. 

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