The Power of Calm

An Open Letter to the Great Test Generation, Including the Class of 2020

Your have journeyed far to arrive at this point in your life. Further than you realize, perhaps. The elements that constitute your physical being traveled hundreds of lightyears across the millennia to arrive in their current form as your body. Folk singer Joni Mitchell put it best: “we are stardust.”

There are other parts of you beyond the merely physical. Those, too, have a long story. Indeed, your story isn’t just your story. Your life is the latest chapter in the story of your family. You are the descendant of survivors. Those who came before you, your ancestors, lived, loved, worked, and risked their lives, some of them more than others, so that you could be here today. Some crossed borders, even oceans, to give you a better life. All made sacrifices. All made mistakes, some moreso than others. But, in one way or another, all lived so that you could live. In innumerable ways, who they were has given shape to who you are. Never forget that.

But your life is part of something even bigger than that. Your story, my story, and the story of everyone else who lives and who has lived and will ever lived—all of our stories, for better and for worse, are all part of each other’s.

Your generation’s part of our shared human story is shaping up to be one of the most momentous chapters yet. Some like to call you all “Generation Z.” I prefer something that sounds less ominously final. My grandparents’ generation in the U.S. overcame the Great Depression, won World War II, and rebuilt the economy, leading Tom Brokaw to call them “the Greatest Generation.” It now seems quite likely that you all will face challenges that dwarf even those. Because of this, I choose to call you “the Great Test Generation.”

You’ve been taking tests all your lives. The trouble with standardized tests is that they ask questions with known answers. Others have answered them before. Yes, many of those tests were difficult. But the fate of our species did not depend on them. By contrast, the questions looming on our shared horizon have no easy answers. What are workable responses to climate change? How can we address growing socio-economic inequities? What kind of global economy is compatible with ecological sustainability—and what will it take for businesses, governments, and private citizens to support it? How can we promote peace while promoting justice? How can we respond effectively to toxic forces that seek to divide people? In a world of competition for dwindling resources, how can we act with compassion, even as conflict escalates? In spite of all of our differences, how can we humans move beyond merely co-existing to build authentic communities of mutual respect, appreciation, and cooperation? In short, how can we thrive together in a universe that is often seems hostile or at least fundamentally indifferent to human concerns?

You will be answering these and other questions not only for yourselves, but for my children, for your own children, should you so choose and should you be so blessed, and for those who come after. So, no pressure! These are some of the questions that keep me up at night. They don’t go away just because the semester ends. Your generation will not be alone in the quest for answers, but, due to the inaction of a critical mass of powerful people of older generations, you will not have the luxury of waiting. Our elders, my peers, and I who are already in the struggle won’t be around forever. Also, we may have some hypotheses, but we don’t have all the answers!

What I do know is that compassionate calm or what the Hindu God Krishna calls “holy indifference” (The Baghavad Gita) and what many observers of Buddhism call “serene detachment” is the most helpful attitude to have when seeking to live out answers to these questions. Such calm can be a state of mind, a state of being, even. It is wholly compatible with justifiable sorrow and with righteous anger, perhaps both at once, but in light of some enduring awareness of the Big Picture, rather than in a series of fleeting reactions to the latest outrage.

How should one go about cultivating the power of calm? The right lifestyle helps: adequate sleep, exercise, healthy nutrition, quality time with friends, outlets for creative self-expression, time spent standing in awe whatever is wonderful in your world, and, obviously (at least from the Buddha’s perspective) meditation. But lifestyle on its own isn’t enough. Any of us who have undergone cognitive-behavioral therapy can attest, such healthy, helpful patterns of behavior can be especially effective in transforming one’s psyche when combined with healthy, helpful patterns of thinking. With that in mind, here are some cognitive tactics for cultivating the power of calm.

The first: know when to look away. If humanity’s urgent questions already haunt your every waking moment and what you know you need right now is some brief escape, feel free to do something else right now. That is a totally valid measure for safeguarding your own mental health. Whenever you know you’re ready, this will be here.

Next, “Don’t Panic.” Some of you were perhaps panicking already when you began reading. Others of you may have found it panic-inducing so far. My apologies. If it is any consolation, I had an earlier draft of this message in which I opened with a meditation on the inevitability of death and the end of the world. Then 2020 really got going, so we can skip that part.

“Don’t panic.” Full-disclosure: that catchphrase is from science-fiction author Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). Panic is a useless emotion that can result in an even more useless state of inaction or, worse still, frantic-but-counterproductive action. As best you can, avoid it at all cost.

You will be afraid in life. A lot, perhaps, especially if and when you become a parent, if you are not one already. But you can say, “I will face my fear. Fear is the mind-killer,” as another saying from an imagined future goes (Frank Herbert, Dune). Fear in general and panic in particular have the toxic power of short-circuiting our ability to observe, analyze, and respond appropriately to crises. Your ability to exercise those skills depends on your possession of the power of calm.

You also need to be ready to forgive yourself. You will panic at various points, despite your best intentions. But if you can forgive yourself, you can at least avoid the futility of panicking about panicking. You will make mistakes. But if you can learn from them, accept their consequences, and show yourself compassion, you can avoid repeating them. “There’s no such thing as no regrets,” a not too, too old country song reminds us. “But baby, it’s alright” (Mary Chapin Carpenter, “Almost Home”). Please do not mistake this for an encouragement to be permissive with yourself, to be more committed to remaining the same than to growing as a person.

Radical self-acceptance and relative freedom from embarrassment are virtues of the highest order because they equip you to keep learning, no matter what. Learn from the people you love and from the people you would rather avoid, from your successes and from your failures, alike. You will fail at various points and in numerous ways. The sooner you can realize that and accept it, the less time you’ll waste panicking. But remember that the circumstances that might feel like your biggest failures might not be your fault at all.

Let me share the story of a time when I panicked, made a lot of mistakes, and learned, bit by bit, the power of calm, the story of my first six years after college, which represents a veritable catalog of circumstances that felt like failures at the time.

Back in 2001, I graduated college in the middle of a recession. My degree was in German and in religion, so not a lot of job opportunities there. I lined up a part-time internship, which provided housing but no pay. I knew how to cook two different meals, as long as you consider spaghetti different from macaroni and cheese. I possessed modest competence in doing my own laundry. That was the extent of my hands-on life skills. Passionate, optimistic, and idealistic, I was committed to making the world a better place.

Keep in mind that the world in May 2001 was relatively peaceful. The Cold War was over. No major geo-political conflicts lingered from the recent past, nor did any obvious potential new ones loom on the horizon. The internet still smelled new, hardly anyone had wifi, and my phone, when I finally got one, was like a small brick with rubbery buttons. I assumed that my biggest challenges would be a short-term job search, and a minor identity crisis, which would end once I entered some kind of grad school the following fall. I had been good at school but didn’t know who I was as a non-student.

Then September rolled around. I was in the hospital, visiting an immuno-compromised friend who was fighting to stay alive, when he and I watched live news footage. American Airlines Flight 11 had crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York, leaving a smoldering crater. Reporters were speculating that may have been a horrible accident, when we watched United Flight 175 crash into the South Tower. Those of us who witnessed the tragedy struggled to understand its meaning.

This brings me to the next tactic for cultivating calm: learn the limits of your judgment. In other words, don’t trust yourself and your perception of reality too much. Alcoholics Anonymous and many other support groups encourage members to pray, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Ironically, some fault Reinhold Niebuhr, the original author of the prayer, for not knowing the difference when it came to the Civil Rights Movement. As a prominent intellectual, he could have accomplished substantial advocacy for racial justice. Your conscious thoughts and emotions may one day betray you, if they have not already.

While many of my peers were sad, angry, or, more often, stunned by the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, I personally felt a deep sense of clarity, purpose, and urgency spurring me toward action. Over the next four days, I ate little and slept less, feeling little need for either.

I produced inspirational flyers (actually, they were incoherent), which I distributed on campus, where I delivered a rousing address to an auditorium of students (actually, it was profoundly confusing). I felt a restless, overwhelming energy, an otherworldly momentum spurring me onward. I assumed that this was a gift from God and a sign of my unique calling. Looking around, I saw people with questions and perceived within myself, with utter certainty, an overflow of answers. Selling my t-shirts to cover expenses along the way, I would drive to Washington, where I would become a prophetic advisor to the President, whom God would prepare to receive me. That was my plan.

As I was packing my car, a friend pulled up in the driveway and dared me to get a psych eval. Trusting the inexorable momentum of my destiny, I accepted the challenge—and lost. Feeling truly safe for the first time in days, once in the emergency room for the evaluation, I lost consciousness, the neuro-chemical equivalent of blowing a fuse. Delirious, I woke on the high-maintenance wing of a psych ward at a different hospital.

“To live is to change,” as Catholic saint John Henry Newman observed. The ancient Chinese religious and philosophical text the Tao Te Ching goes further: “All things change.” Or, if you prefer dystopian novelist Octavia Butler’s version: “The only lasting truth is Change” (The Parable of the Sower). There is a very real possibility that, in this life, the only constant is change. Those of us who would survive must learn to adapt and to keep adapting, to be flexible like water, to borrow one of the Tao Te Ching’s preferred metaphors. My life, my mind, my limitations had not been what I thought they were, and all of these changed radically and suddenly. Doctors and nurses informed me that I had bipolar disorder. I didn’t understand or believe them at first. It would only be a week later, once I had been released from the hospital and I moved back in with my parents three states distant that the reality of my situation began to sink in.

I experienced utter disillusionment, to put it mildly. You see, as a result of my chronic mood disorder—with which I must continue to contend on a daily basis—I swung from a high “high” or mania into the low “lows” of depression. I struggled to find words to speak, much less write. I could not focus enough to read or to pray. As someone who had previously found their primary joy and sense of worth in their ability to do those things, I now felt joyless and worthless. I barely had enough energy to get out of bed. Cognitively speaking, I had lost almost as much as I imagine it is possible for a person to lose. And I felt no hope of ever regaining those capacities back. A series of counselors actively discouraged me from pursuing my former dream of attending graduate school. That, too, was an illusion, but I had no way of knowing that just yet.

Eventually, I became stable enough to work a temporary, part-time job sorting mail orders in an arts and crafts warehouse. Was I happy? No. I was far from friends and had no long-term career prospects. I got laid off from my job right after the holidays. Unemployment made that midwestern winter all the bleaker. With the encouragement of a friend willing to be my roommate—I wasn’t up for living on my own—I moved back to my college town and looked for work. After a few weeks, I found a job as a server in a restaurant for $2.15 an hour plus tips. The customers did not tip well. To be fair, given my level of focus, speed, and social awkwardness, my quality of service probably wasn’t great. But I got by.

The single most important life skill, I’m convinced, that any of us can possess is the ability to be okay with being bad at things, but to be open to improving. At that point in my life, I was bad at basically everything. I learned to love myself in spite of that. I gradually regained my abilities of concentration, communication, and creativity.

Against the advice of my counselors, I enrolled in a master’s program. Working part-time, I needed longer to complete the program than many of my peers. During those four years, every winter I gave serious thought to dropping out. But I persisted.

Upon graduation, when I was rejected from the further graduate programs I had applied to, I found work as a barista. For the first time in my adult life, I had a full-time job, mental clarity, and intensive time with a wide spectrum of people, and none of this had anything to do with my studies. There on the drive-thru, amid a flurry of fury from under-caffeinated and over-caffeinated customers, I further honed the power of calm.

The rest of the story is less interesting, except to say that my successes of the last decade-and-a-half—marriage, parenting, earning a doctorate, publishing a book, becoming a professor—didn’t seem possible in those years immediately following my college graduation. I had to give up my dreams in order to find my identity and self-worth in something more fundamental: the joy of simply being. Then, building on that foundation, against all odds, I was able to pursue my original sense of calling after all.

Having overcome the ultimate internal crisis, I have been able to navigate the inevitable crises  of family life and academia with calm. One consolation to all of you who find yourselves in a state of crisis now should be the fact that, whether you know it or not, you are in the midst of a rich experiential learning opportunity. If it is anything like mine, it might hurt like hell. Some character-building experiences tear us down before we can build ourselves up. But, as Muslim mystic-poets encouraged struggling souls long ago, “This, too, shall pass.”

Looking back, I realize that I was one of the lucky ones. I had good doctors, good health insurance, working medication, supportive and well-informed parents, and fairly good timing as far as mental health crises go. None of this was my doing.

My success is due, in no small measure, to those fortunate accidents of birth. You shouldn’t have to be born into a family with the right kind of jobs with the right kind of health insurance to have a mental illness success story. Among the things that the current covid-19 crisis has likely revealed for you are the unjust ways in which our society is structured. Not everyone has access to the relational, financial, medical, educational, technological, informational, housing, and food resources that they need. Perhaps this applies to some of you all reading [listening to] this.

Those inequities were already there. But the crisis has revealed them with sharp clarity. “It isn’t nice, but it’s reality,” as Native-American activist-song writer Buffy Sainte-Marie proclaimed (“Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee”). Or, if you prefer Morpheus’s words to Neo, “Welcome to the desert of the real” (The Matrix). Originally, literally, “apocalypse” means “revelation” or “unveiling.” We are witnessing the revealing, the unveiling of how many things really are, of where things in society really stand.

After the crisis subsides, as it eventually will, many people will want to forget. They will return to business as usual as soon as possible once the dust settles. They find comfort in illusion. Please choose the harder but life-giving road instead. Reject the irresponsibility and futility of complacency, knowing that that approach lies at the heart of much the mess that you are inheriting from previous generations.Complacency of the masses empowers those who exploit, who oppress, and who destroy our shared future.

The present moment is a time of great danger, uncertainty, and upheaval, but this is almost certainly not the End of the world. After all, at numerous points in the past few millennia, in many cultures, there have been people who proclaimed, “The End is near!” Only it wasn’t. Life went on. If you study enough religious history, consume enough science-fiction, or listen to enough of the right kinds of rock music, you know that apocalyptic angst is far from new. However, my fear is that you all had been so busy studying other things, that you might have found yourself now thinking intensely apocalyptic thoughts for the first time and that you’re not sure what to do with them.

The world as you knew it is already over. Many of us must mourn. The world that we lost was not perfect. Parts of it were rotten. Yet much of it was good. Many of us have lost friends, family, and a sense of safety, normalcy, and perhaps even innocence in the crisis of the last few months.  If you count yourself among the sorrowful, even as you mourn, know that many people’s worlds have ended before, giving way to new worlds.

Be highly distrustful of anyone claiming the complete and imminent end of humanity. It is possible. We are closer than we’ve ever been. But it is also highly unlikely that it will happen completely and immediately. You’re also closer to dying today than you were yesterday. That has always been true. You shouldn’t ignore that fact, but neither should you recklessly embrace it. Don’t ignore your mortality, but try not to let it freak you out or drive you to drink. The same goes for the End of the World. The power of calm is the power to endure, even in the face of an apocalypse.

There may come a time in your life, when you fear that everything you have ever loved is gone. Perhaps you have been there before. Perhaps you are there now. Grieve if you must. But do not panic, for panic is a useless thing. Even in that moment, when perhaps even your thoughts and feelings are telling you that your life is over, you have the power to remember. Many of those who have gone before you, preparing your path, also felt this despair. But it was not the End.

Stories have the power to help us remember. If you read enough books, you know of those who return from death to testify, “Darkness took me. I strayed out of thought and time. I wandered far on roads that I will not tell. But it was not the end. I am back until my task is done” (Tolkein, The Two Towers). If you watch enough movies, you know that, even in the midst of utter defeat, the wise can proclaim, “We’re in the endgame now” (Avengers: Infinity War). And, if you watch enough t.v., you know, “What do we say to death? Not today” (Game of Thrones). Yes, someday. But not yet. You have too much loving, living, and giving left to do. When you despair, part of you, maybe a very small part of you, but part of you nonetheless, will be able to remember and hold on to that kind of hope.

In all the ways that you struggle today, know that you are not alone. In all the ways that you flourish today and tomorrow, may you labor tirelessly to foster the flourishing of others, especially by transforming the ways our society works.

So today, wherever you are, in whatever ways you can, celebrate, give thanks, and enjoy some well-earned rest. But then prepare yourself. Cultivate the power of calm, ever-learning, with courage, humility, and unwavering resolve, in spite of fear and constantly changing circumstances, because the people of tomorrow need you today. Your time is now.