I must have been about ten. It was my first visit to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Led by my dad’s gentle hand, I craned my gaze skyward to behold the Wright brothers’ original 1903 flyer, then across the vast hall to the Apollo 11 Lunar Module. I was in awe. Collective human potential writ large. However, what captured my fascination most was an indistinct exhibit in the corner—a short film looping on a tiny display called Powers of Ten.
Imagined by futuristic design duo Charles and Ray Eames, the film opens with a couple picnicking in a Chicago park. From there the frame telescopes up one meter. Every ten seconds the distance between camera and subject is compounded by, you guessed it, a single power of ten. Add another zero. Before long I was lost in orbit, accelerating beyond the solar system to the outer reaches of the universe, until our galaxy faded into a mere speck of light. More than forty years later, the memory is indelible. That film forever expanded my perspective aperture. Those are nine minutes I make a point to regularly revisit on YouTube.
Back on the Earth’s surface, acrimony and political tribalism are currently poisoning our shared humanity, driving us further apart from our neighbors. A pandemic is threatening lives and the jobs that sustain us. Climate change presents an existential emergency. And journalism and social media have become weaponized, leaving us ill-equipped to differentiate between objective fact, partisan fiction, and outright conspiracy theory.
Indeed, the consequences are dire: a dismantling of trust in institutions and each other, and a complete breakdown in our ability to effectively communicate. Meanwhile, we struggle, some with valor, others in bilious, bad faith. Everywhere I turn, I see fear, anger, confusion, anxiety, disenfranchisement, division, depression, disillusionment, and sometimes even despair. It’s a condition we medicate by doubling down on outrage. Addictive, incessant scrolling. Netflix and chill. Shitty food. And, when that doesn’t do the trick, there’s always booze and pills. I know. I’ve been there.
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Only through perspective, by broadening our own aperture, can we put distance between ourselves and the incessant whine of matters beyond what a single individual can control. Perspective provides objectivity on the vast divide between perception and reality. It grounds us in humility. And it is through perspective that we return to what is most important: our shared humanity.
Add another zero.
Each and every one of us has domain over how we greet the coming weeks. May the thoughts that follow allow you to find some ballast in the quicksand.
Shrink the half-life.
As the Stoic philosopher and Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius once wisely said, “When force of circumstance upsets your equanimity, lose no time in recovering your self-control, and do not remain out of tune longer than you can help. Habitual recurrence to the harmony will increase your mastery of it.” Although it has become a trope to recommend daily meditation, I can think of no better practice to quiet the mind and equip oneself to confront challenge. Although it will not in all cases immunize you against all base emotional triggers, one thing is certain: It will significantly reduce the half-life of such episodes, rubber-banding you back to that preferred state of equanimity that Aurelius speaks so highly of—the ideal frame from which to manage whatever the world hurls in your direction. Put another way, the facility to choose rather than impulsively react is a superpower freely available to all.
Tell me more.
When confronted with disagreement or outright hostility, resist the temptation to dismiss or convince. Instead, practice contrary action. Talk less. Listen more. In good faith, seek to truly understand. When I abstain from argumentation and pivot to genuine curiosity, I’m reminded that every person is right from their point of view. This practice breeds trust. Over time, it often leads to broader mutual understanding. And it stakes a claim for effective communication, common ground, and compassion—critical factors in crafting the community required to move forward as neighbors and as a society.
Most of my professional life over the last eight years has been spent hosting a podcast, which has entailed thousands of hours spent in deep, long-form dialog with over 550 individuals. The lessons I’ve learned are innumerable, but the main takeaway is this: Meaningful conversation matters. A lost art supplanted by the sound-bite, it is truly the salve to what ails us. Not only do we desperately crave honesty, authenticity, and wisdom, finding the solution to our problems demands renewed respect for subtlety and nuance. It is in conversation that we have the antidote to toxic partisanship and the click-bait ecosystem that so thoroughly incite division. So, as these historic weeks unfurl, make time to commune around the campfire, be it by Zoom or flint.
Control the controllables. Let go of the rest.
Struggling to get sober in 1998, I was told I needed to surrender. “Giving up” didn’t sit well with me. It struck me as weakness. So I resisted. I also stayed drunk. It wasn’t until later that I understood. Suffering is a product of expectations unmet. Serenity, on the other hand, is calibrated in inverse proportion to one’s attachment to outcomes. And outcomes are annoying in that they typically reside outside our control. Put another way, harmony can be found when we limit focus to the very few things we can command, such as our thoughts and behavior. It also demands we let go of everything we cannot, including the results of our actions. This is not an excuse to do nothing; we should all be acting in alignment with our values. The key is emotional divorce from the results of those actions. It’s a difficult pill to swallow. But it’s a practice that I find comes easier with mindfulness. Limiting attention to the few things you can control ultimately buys peace of mind—an imperturbable sense of self-possession you will come to prize as an essential tool in not only navigating disappointment, but in living well.
Mood follows action.
We’re depleted. Our nerves are frayed. We’re up against it and ready to snap. If you’ve found yourself in such a funk, I predict your instinct is paralysis. We’re almost hardwired to sit around and do nothing but patiently await the cloud to lift. I’m just not up for it right now. I’ll go for that run tomorrow when I feel better. Ironically, the shift in mood we so desperately desire arrives not through inaction, but rather by dint of doing the very thing we so vigorously resist. So stop waiting until you “feel” like doing that fill in the blank thing, because chances are that day doesn’t come. Instead, take a small action. Build momentum with another. Then feel the mood enhancement that invariably, and often immediately, follows. Self-esteem is fashioned through the performance of esteemable acts. Taking care of yourself is always esteemable, perhaps more so in difficult times, because we need the best of what you’ve got to give. And you can’t give if your tank is empty. Put bluntly, I’ve never returned from a run I didn’t want to do and thought, I wish I’d waited.
To be honest, I’m a far cry from naturally grateful. Left to my own devices, I’m grumpy, irascible, petty, and generally distrustful of those who seem to exude a flair for the positive. That said, life is undoubtedly better when I can summon a brief flirtation with gratitude. And so, I made a routine some might find embarrassing. Every morning, I break out pen and paper to jot a list of things to appreciate, from the banal (a good night’s sleep) to the obvious (my children, my sobriety). It works. The daily reminder that life is fundamentally good anchors me in what’s truly important. It makes me a more loving partner. A more present parent. A more understanding neighbor. And a more selfless colleague. Start your day similarly.
You cast your vote. You participated in our democratic experiment and said your piece. Congratulations. So take a beat. How important is it that you now wed yourself to the incessant punditry certain to monopolize every news feed in the days and weeks to come? To once again quote Marcus Aurelius, “There is never any need to get worked up or to trouble your soul about things you can’t control. These things are not asking to be judged by you. Leave them alone.” Nothing mandates you clutch to matters beyond your sway—it’s not helping you. But your wellbeing does demand connection with nature, and getting outside will undoubtedly help. So unplug, even if for an hour. Slide into Airplane Mode and out the door. Bathe in fresh air. Be with your breath. Elevate your heart rate. Take inventory of time spent meaningfully. And value the positive shift certain to be visited upon you. The news can wait. But you, my friend, cannot.
Uncertainty is difficult. Our problems are hardly superficial. But I have faith in humanity. I’m sanguine that we will find a productive way forward. So let’s not lose our minds. Instead, let’s remind ourselves that love, compassion, and kindness are not antiquated sentiments but all powerful. Start with yourself. When you fumble (and you will), give yourself a break. And should all else fail, add another zero to your perspective.
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