Arnold Toynbee famously defined history as “one damned thing after another.” So far, 2020 has taken this to a whole new level—and it’s not over yet. More and more of my friends and clients are asking me the same questions: How do I keep dealing with this, month after month, when it just won’t let up? How will I ever get back to normal?
If you’re wondering the same thing, here’s my answer: You won’t. The normal you remember, the normal you were, is gone forever. And that’s okay. In fact, if you know how to allow “one damned thing after another” to shape and change you, 2020 could be the year that transforms you into a wiser, calmer, stronger version of yourself.
Try this: Scroll back through your photos and find some pictures of yourself from last year. Just look at that innocent, unsuspecting person, the one who was so excited to go on a cruise, attend live concerts, try out new restaurants. You’re not that person anymore. You live in a different world. Feel how much you’ve changed, and how quickly.
This little exercise puts stark attention on how much we’ve all lost. So many of our illusions are gone. So many happy events didn’t happen—and may never happen. Our lives seem to contain so much less now: less security, less activity, less company, less money, less of almost everything we value.
When we realize how much “one damned thing after another” has taken from us, we can have trouble focusing on anything but loss. Science journalist Tara Haelle writes that encountering any kind of crisis activates our “surge capacity,” an assortment of adaptive responses that help us cope physically and mentally. But when the crisis goes on and on, we may burn out. Haelle calls this “surge depletion,” and describes it as a sort of emotional flatness, an “anxiety-tainted depression mixed with ennui.”
When we’re suffering from a surge depletion, it’s hard to muster any emotional energy to go on. We start to forget the patterns of thought and action that once formed the core of our identity. Eventually, we reach a crossroads. Depending on how we react to our depletion, we can sink into a kind of meaningless despair, or allow ourselves to be transformed into something that transcends our former selves.
The direction we take depends on where we put our attention. As you look at pictures of your former self, you may cling to the hope of returning to your old life. Grasping for what’s irrevocably gone, you’ll feel it slip away all over again. It’s a recipe for hopelessness. The way to avoid this is to take your attention away from what you’ve lost and focus on what you are becoming. You may not have noticed this, but during this calamitous year you’re paradoxically becoming both less than you once were, and much, much more.
Here’s an analogy to explain what I mean: For centuries, the most sophisticated technology on earth was the Japanese samurai sword. To make these swords, artisans would melt tons of sand, extracting a bit of metal so rare and pure it was called “jewel steel.” They’d take a block of this extraordinary substance and heat it, cool it, fold it, beat it with hammers, and repeat—for months on end.
The blade created by this process had over a million individual layers of steel and virtually no impurities. It was light enough to feel like an extension of the samurai’s arm, sharp enough to cut a hair floating on water, flexible enough to bend almost double and spring back straight, strong enough to slice through a bale of hay in a single stroke. Many such swords are such exquisite works of craftsmanship they’re revered as national treasures.
The moral of this story is that when the universe wants to create something exceptionally beautiful and useful, it takes the finest material available and then beats the ever-loving crap out of it for a long, long time.
One damned thing after another.
So if you feel beaten down by life—by the events of the past few months, other patches of bad luck, everything you’ve ever experienced—you’re not wrong. This world is a forge, and right now it’s hard at work. It’s melting you down to jewel steel, the purest most precious essence of your being. It’s scalding, freezing, and beating you. When it’s done, nothing may remain of you but light, sharp, flexible, pure perfection.
You can see this happening already, even if you’re still in the middle of the process. Compare the person you are today with the one in those year-old photographs. Along with the grief, depletion, and the disappointment you’ll find characteristics that show you turning from a lump of sand into a samurai sword.
First of all, notice how much lighter you’ve become. Many people tell me that since 2020 began, they’ve realized that they need far less stuff than they once thought: less clothing, less space, less face time with colleagues, less fuel for commuting. One woman told me that after a few months in lockdown, she gave away about ninety percent of her possessions. “At first I just cleared out what felt excessive,” she said. “But it made me feel so free I just kept going until I only have what I actually want. It’s like a huge burden has been lifted.” Much of what we’ve lost wasn’t necessary. Notice where you can enjoy the lightness of having and doing less.
Next, consider the ways in which you are sharper than you used to be—more discerning, more able to see what’s important. Remember meeting friends at a coffee shop, hugging family members from out of town, or passing around a new baby to be kissed and cuddled? We used to take such things for granted. While they were happening, we might have been thinking about things like what we were wearing, the impression we were making, or where we needed to go next. Now we’re much more keenly aware of what was important about those occasions: the physical presence of loved ones, the feel of a kind touch, the deliciousness of simply occupying space together. During 2020, our perception of what’s important has been honed so sharp we’ll never forget the true value of our experiences.
You may also realize that you’re more flexible than you were prior to 2020. You’ve had to solve difficult problems, work in more restrictive circumstances, find your way around more obstacles. This exercises your creativity and makes you more resilient. I recently attended a party that included people on three continents. The decorations had been emailed as patterns that were printed, cut out, and arranged by each person in their individual locations. Accessing the flexibility to make familiar things happen in new ways felt wonderfully bonding and communal, though we were thousands of miles apart.
Finally, notice that like a samurai sword, you’re far stronger now than you used to be. You may not feel it yet, because there’s less of you, in the same way there’s less steel in a sword than in a ton of sand. But each small thing you do now requires more strength, and you’re rising to it. Comforting a friend, finishing a project, finding the optimism to enjoy a day—all these small acts, taken in such difficult circumstances, build more strength than you may have noticed.
Now, put away the photos of the person you were last year. Let go of that image, that person, that person’s expectations. Relax into the forger’s fire, the hammer’s impact. Allow yourself to be melted and re-formed, over and over. If you focus on what you are becoming, instead of what you’ve lost, you’ll begin to see that one damned thing after another can be exactly what you need to become pure treasure.
This essay was featured in Maria Shriver’s The Sunday Paper. The Sunday Paper inspires hearts and minds to rise above the noise.