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Presence During a Pandemic

Updated: Sep 6, 2020

“You must go on. I can't go on. I'll go on.”

As Covid-19 yawns into its eighth month in the U.S., this Samuel Beckett quote from “The Unnamable” so simply captures our current contradiction--this collective state of anxiety, coupled with the necessity of stepping forward anyway. We are truly “all in this together,” but these days it doesn’t always feel like it. As events unfold, as we try to connect with loved ones, to act responsibly in this new reality, and to go on about our lives, as we face another day of near isolation, it sometimes feels as if we are navigating through a practical and virtual wilderness.

“You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” But how? How do we step forward? How do we go on when life is so uncertain?

Uncertainty breeds fear; fear breeds anxiety; anxiety breeds anger, reactivity, meanness at home and in the world. Add to this more opportunity to think and consume information, and we begin to experience reckonings with deep-seated beliefs and issues. There's time to gnaw at the bones of worry, to let things fester and boil. Time to doom-scroll and shout in person or at the television, time to post and re-post righteous condemnations of what we see, only to look up angry and depressed, realizing the day is half over and we haven't moved forward at all.

“You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” (Beckett loved repetition.)

Soon my sons will start virtual school, one a high school senior, one a freshman. Soon I will go back (carefully) to teaching in person again. For fifteen years, I’ve taught without a thought to how often I touch students' necks, how often I run two fingers between their shoulders to help them align and relax, how often we all handle the same props or equipment. How will I teach now? How will we navigate this new terrain? When will all of this change, and if it doesn’t, how will I go on in the studio and in my home? How will I keep myself healthy and compassionate, both as a mother and a teacher? I know I’m not alone in these questions, but some days this pandemic wilderness feels thick and inescapable.

So I turn to what I know. The first lesson I teach in acting is to focus on what is in your control. Actors are often at the mercy of producers, directors, writers, even their own ages and physicality. With so much they can't control, the first lesson isolates what they can affect—their preparation, their ability to analyze a script, their self-care, and their confidence.

Right now, there’s a lot we can’t control in the world, but there are a few things we can:

We can control what we consume: the food and supplements we put in our bodies, our hygiene, the words we read or hear and the images we see or don’t see. In our hyper-subscribed and connected world, how do we fill our brains? What texts, scriptures, literature, drama, poetry, images, podcasts, television shows, activities bring us comfort?

We can control our physical life: We can control the breaths we take, how long and how many. We can control when and how much we move, and the kinds of activities that make us feel relaxed and alert. We can control how we sit at our computers or desks, how conscious we are of the length of our spines and the softness of our shoulders. We can notice areas where we're holding tension and remind ourselves to let go.

We can control whom we choose to reach out to: We can reach out to those who comfort us, online or in-person. We can extend ourselves to those we can comfort or assist. We can even reach out to the people leading us through this unprecedented time, to offer help, to ask for what we need, or simply to let them know what we're experiencing.

Once we name the areas we can affect, we can discover what brings us the most peace. We can find the sustenance, rituals and connections that enable us to go on, even when we feel we can’t. We may consider only how to go on for this day, or this week, or maybe for the next few months. We can mindfully seek to sustain peaceful energy and awareness in every moment, whatever our circumstance.

And in the end, isn't this really what presence is all about?

A mentor used to say, “Do the play in front of you.” Stop wishing for a bigger budget or a new script or a different venue or better casting. Work with what’s in front of you, whether it’s a job search, homeschooling, going back to work, or other new responsibilities. Know what you can control and be present to how you go about doing it.

May you find your way through this wilderness with grace and equanimity. And as your path is revealed, may you recognize what comforts and sustains you. May you go on, even when you feel you can’t.

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