At times, I find myself doubting a thought or perspective that pops up like a weed in the midst of what I consider the inner garden of my mind. Usually, though, if I am patient enough, multiple occurrences arise that help me unify my thoughts.
Early last week, I had begun to sense a difference in the “feel” of the current situation. At one point, I dismissed it as the heat. Everyone gets impatient in the heat. Life just becomes more prickly at 90 degrees, and that’s a fact!
But maybe it was something more.
I sensed an impatience. An urgent cry of “Enough!”
Exhaustion. That might be it. I knew I was tired of being tired. But now it felt like the rest of the world was tired. Without a doubt, plenty of reasons exist to explain the exhaustion in the continual search to find the narrow slice of solid ground in what Hamlet called “a sea of troubles.”
But there also were tinges of doubt and fear that vibrated the intricate web of family, friends, and acquaintances. What could possibly help quiet the minds and hearts of those in that community?
What could I do that would “make it all better,” as we say to our children when they scrape a knee?
Later the same day, I engaged in a Zoom discussion with a small group of artists. We all voiced the effects of our missing the physical presence of being in the group. It became clear that even the introverts in the group were missed the power of a community.
One group member, an artist who had immigrated from China to the U.S., reminded us that in her birthplace, community was the understood strength. on the other hand, in many famous U.S. paintings, like those of artist Edward Hopper (for example “Nighthawks”), the overwhelming feeling that sweeps the viewer is the aloneness of the solitary individual.
She explained that when the Chinese look to the U.S., they don’t see loneliness, but instead, the strength and individuality of the Western cowboy, that mythical figure in the American consciousness who rises and single-handedly beats evil, winning against all odds.
Could that explain the feelings of helplessness, of “Why can’t I do more to make it all better?”
Then, the same evening, a third spring of wisdom showed itself, this time from close to home when I received from my son an email that he had written to encourage his compatriots at work. For those who don’t know, when my son studied for his doctorate in history at Oxford University, he rowed in an 8-person crew for his college, Hertford. In the eight rowers, he sat in the middle four, the “diesel engine” for the boat’s power.
Excerpted, he wrote this about the diesel engine’s dreaded exercise, “The Middle Four Push”:
“In normal rowing, all 8 rowers row. But our coach instituted a call to allow some rowers a bit of rest. This was necessary because of the nature of the river, the inexperience of other crews, and the competitions that we rowed in.
When all 8 row, the front two rowers…deal with the wakes from the other boats ahead and tire easily. The back two… spend a ton of time keeping a metronome tempo for the rest of the boat. The diesel engine is the middle four…. Rowing 4, I was part of this group. During a Middle Four Push, the front and back two [rowers] reduce their pressure to almost nothing. They would go through the motions of rowing. The Middle Four need to keep the speed of the boat the same – even though they lack half the rowers.
Being an American, I saw the Middle Four Push as a chance to show what I could do. So naturally, I pushed against my foot plate hard; I pulled against the oar hard. I really muscled it! Then about two weeks before the big regatta, I was pissed with life. It was cold; I was having problems with my research, and I was wet. So, I said to myself, ‘I’m going to phone this in’. I pulled solidly, but not as my normal muscly self. The effect was immediate, and the opposite of what I thought.
The coach called from her bike on the tow path, ‘Best Middle Four push yet! You guys were faster than ever’.
The Cox said, ‘4 and 6 – nice work, felt solid.’
WHAT? By being more gentle and less individually brilliant, we went faster?
The truth of us Americans is that we love being individuals. We can solve any problem by personally doing things. But sometimes the real power comes in working with the power of the group. An individual failure can be a group success….
When Americans get scared, our natural impulse is to ‘deal with the situation’. This is great in so many cases. But it closes us off from the opportunities that exist around us. We miss that our community is willing to help us….
Sometimes we go faster when we use less effort individually.”
For me, thanks to those three unrelated sources of wisdom — the intensifying community vibrations in troubled times, the words of a new U.S. resident, and the experience of an American youth abroad — in leading me to a clearer view of how to “make it all better.”
Perhaps I do more by offering up what seems incredibly small to me, because it feels and seems so obvious and so natural. Maybe hidden in the small act lies something that others feel is needed to fulfill their potential in their work.
Perhaps that is the lesson for our creative spirits.