On Monday, March 9, 2020, I was out walking my dog when I saw a stunning, tangerine full moon hung low in the sky. Maybe you saw it. Its beauty seemed even more poignant than usual perhaps because it was the first day that I started to consider COVID-19, and I felt a strong sense of impermanence.
Until then, my head had been ostrichlike in the sand. I had heard about the virus but hadn’t paid much attention. I thought it unlikely that it would reach my family or me. And if it did reach us, it was like getting the flu, right?
That night, however, I started to get the feeling that things weren’t going to be all right, that the virus was more severe than I had previously believed. As I walked in the moonlight, I became melancholy. I couldn’t help but think, “Is this how it is all going to go down?” Would a “novel” virus not only wreak havoc on our daily lives and businesses but also claim lives? “Why would this happen to us?” I silently wondered. But I quickly heard the answer, “Why wouldn’t this happen to us?” This virus, or any crisis really, is a reminder that as much as we would like to believe that we are in control, we’re not. The planet has its own agenda.
I recently learned about the Gaia hypothesis. Chemist James Lovelock and microbiologist Lynn Margulis developed this theory. It hypothesizes that living organisms interact with their inorganic surroundings on earth to self-regulate and rebalance, creating the conditions that enable life on this planet. Though this hypothesis has a lot of critics, it seems to make sense.
This hypothesis is aligned with eastern and Native American traditions that believe we are not discrete individuals, but part of a larger whole. We thrive when we work in harmony with other humans, animals, and our environment. It’s just like how our liver is not independent of our heart or even the food and substances we put into our bodies. Our organs, nutrients, and our behavior together determine our health and sustain our living, functioning body. Similarly, the earth’s inhabitants, systems, and structures come together to make a living, breathing, planet — let’s call her Gaia.
At first, I was pleased to hear about this principle because I thought (rather egotistically), that meant the universe wanted us to all succeed (hooray us!). However, Gaia is less concerned about our individual success and more concerned about the health of the planet. Of course, these two can coexist (and even thrive), but according to this principle, there is a more significant, more creative energy at play. This force has much more lofty goals than we have as mere individuals.
The Gaia principle and COVID-19
This pandemic has shown that we can make drastic lifestyle changes when needed.
The Guardian recently published an article, “Coronavirus Could Cause a Fall in Global C0₂ Emissions.” It states that as a result of China’s drastic measures to contain the virus, there has been less traffic, less pollution, and cleaner air. Now, the United States is currently taking similar steps to “flatten the curve.” COVID-19 may cause a CO₂ slowdown by shutting down schools and businesses, canceling events, and limiting flights. There will be fewer conferences, and more people will need to telecommute.
This pandemic has shown that we can make drastic lifestyle changes when needed. Though we weren’t compelled to sacrifice our lifestyle for the sake of the environment, we feel more urgency when it’s our own or our loved one’s lives at stake. Though these changes may seem harmful to our usual way of living, they are likely to have a positive effect on the environment.
At first, it was hard for me to see the benefits of social distancing. It seems like humans need more connection with one another, not less. However, I’m noticing that while the pandemic is decreasing the number of my interactions, the quality is increasing. I have more patience with my parents. I fear that the virus would be tough on my mom, who has survived lung cancer. Time with my boyfriend seems precious. We don’t live together so each night I’m with him, I wonder if it will be the last — for a little while anyway. I’m happy to spend more time with my kids. Though it’s a bit tough managing the days now that school has closed, we’re making this into an adventure. Even the connections I’ve made online have been thoughtful and helpful as I reach out to moms who homeschool for advice on how to fill our days. New, more meaningful connections are being made.
We come to understand that our actions, even our thoughts, are the energy behind this force that is more powerful than we are on our own.
This semi-quarantine also affords us the time to consider whether our own lives need rebalancing. Without a daily commute to work or frequent trips to studios, gyms, and Trader Joe’s, we can find the time to contemplate if we’re on course by asking ourselves:
- Am I pursuing a career that lights me up?
- Am I spending time with people who contribute to my growth?
- Am I contributing to society in a meaningful way?
These are essential questions. Often, we’re so busy running from one activity to the next we don’t have time to pause. Our life can fly by without much intent. Now we have the time to stop and make conscious decisions on how we would like to live.
It gives me some sense of calm in these unprecedented times to believe that the universe is recalibrating and so are we. Through this virus, Gaia is forcing us to change our habits for the benefit of the environment and to consider our interactions, so we make more meaningful connections. We also have a moment to check in to see if we’re on track in our own life. Of course, if you buy into this theory, it can be a little disconcerting—even humbling—to realize that we are not steering the ship. But maybe we weren’t doing such a great job. Gaia may be changing course and returning us to alignment.
In his book, The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell explains that myths act as guidelines for how to live in society. Most myths are centered around a particular tradition or geographic location. Campbell talks about the need for new myths to evolve to unify people across the globe. He states: “And the only myth that is going to be worth thinking about in the immediate future is one that is talking about the planet, not the city, not these people, but the planet, and everybody on it.” Unlike older myths that have kept us separated through our ancestry, he hoped a new myth would bring us together globally as the “society of the planet.” COVID-19 is a global threat that we can only eradicate if we work together. Our response to this pandemic could be the start of a new, planetary myth.
This virus could afford us an opportunity to move from an individual hero’s journey to a more inclusive planet’s journey.
I appreciate that if you are older or own a small business, this theory may bring little peace. Joseph Campbell has often talked about the hero’s journey. This concept describes a narrative where an individual must overcome a challenging set of events to evolve into a hero. It’s a quest for self-actualization. This virus could afford us an opportunity to move from an individual hero’s journey to a more inclusive planet’s journey. I pray that we can come together as a global community to support and sustain our elderly and our businesses.
So, what should we as individuals do? We should surrender. That doesn’t mean we let the virus take over — not at all. We’ll do what is needed to contain it, eradicate it, and minimize the amount of damage it inflicts. Through these efforts, we rebalance. We remember that there is a force that is more intelligent and more powerful than we are on our own. Let’s pay reverence to this force as we come to understand that our actions, even our thoughts, are the energy behind it.
Everything we do not only affect us but the world at large. For example, even if you think the COVID-19 won’t bring you down, you realize that you might pass it on to someone less healthy where it proves to be fatal. By surrendering our agenda to Gaia’s, we remember to be responsible citizens of the world. And of course, you should go outdoors, meditate, check-in with family and friends, and yes — you should definitely wash your hands.