I was fastened in my cerulean comforter with swollen eyes when I read this:
“‘If you could give one piece of advice to a large group of people, what would it be?’
‘When a wave comes, go deep.’
‘I think I’m going to need an explanation for that one.’
‘There are three things you can do when life sends a wave at you. You can run from it, but then it’s going to catch up and knock you down. You can also fall back on your ego and try to stand your ground, but then it’s still going to clobber you. Or you can use it as an opportunity to go deep and transform yourself to match the circumstances. And that’s how you get through the wave.'” ~ Humans of New York, 2013
It took my breath away. I was in the throes of the most difficult year of my life—disenfranchised, depressed, and downtrodden. It shook me to my core.
I was faced with circumstances that were life-altering and completely out of my control. I was staring them down alone. I was a diminutive human with my toes clenching the coarse sand, watching the tide conjure up a tsunami about to swallow me whole, and I could barely doggy paddle. I was a goner.
But the defiant hope in this woman’s words empowered me in a way I couldn’t prepare for. Go deep. She reminded me that we actually do possess the ability to choose our response in these situations where we feel powerless, futile, and fearful.
When 2020 began, we were all met with a wave, and I immediately sought strength from this sage advice I’d read seven years ago. This year, we found ourselves casually walking away from the line where the water kisses the sand when we looked up to see mouths agape and heard, oh my gods resounding from the rainbow spectrum of beach chairs. We didn’t even need to turn to see the water rising and catching up to our heels before we knew there was no chance to run.
It’s not a coincidence that the identifying word for a surge in the COVID-19 case numbers has been “wave.” This was completely out of our control. It was vast and unpredictable, and the damage was insurmountable. Our tiny human hands couldn’t grasp this invisible, insidious genetic mutation stripping us of our safety.
The fear has been crippling. Our chests tightened as we watched the wave form gradually, and then, in an instant, we were at its mercy. The longer we tried to deny that it could take us down, the more painful and aggressive our fall became. Our next move needed to be decided faster than logic or reason could allow, but a decision was made nonetheless.
With forces of nature as our foe, our choices narrowed, and we couldn’t get out or away. We could only go in. We needed to take inventory of what makes us, us—the good, the broken, the bad, and everything in between. We tapped into our skills and talents—whether it was baking, painting, writing, or learning to play a new instrument. Sometimes it invigorated us. Other times it felt like we were the quartet on the Titanic playing “Nearer My God to Thee.”
When we dove in, we met a racial reckoning. If we hadn’t recognized it before, we were becoming acquainted now. It was intermixed with the sand on the ocean floor that we’ve stepped in and kicked aside and cried inconvenience when it clung to our bodies. If we railed against this reality, we were knocked down. Hard. (We deserved it.)
We dove into our fears: What haven’t we let go of? What are the constructs of safety that we’ve wrapped around us like an inner tube?
They weren’t going to keep us afloat now. Our need to please, for external validation, for recognition, for attachment, were all submerged this year. There was no opportunity to put on a facade to earn validation. We couldn’t fly to a resort and hide behind our OOO (out of office) email responses. We were here. We were listening. Escapism would be sure to clobber us.
We innovated. We were crafty. We found tools under the surface to macgyver our way through murky waters. Restaurants reinvented their spaces to keep their doors open, and their extended community families fed. Teachers discovered ways to impact the lives and learning styles of their beloved students from afar. Parents juggled work with distant learning and childcare. Healthcare heroes converted garbage bags into PPE (personal protective equipment) when the government’s supply ran dry. None of them relied on the wave subsiding, or running to safety, or standing idly by in denial.
None of this is to say we didn’t involuntarily gulp salty water or that we didn’t frantically scan the ocean floor for the legs of our companions to cling to. We were swirled and swallowed and saturated to the point of nearly drowning.
No one wants to be hit with a wave, especially when we’ve just found our footing. We won’t know its impact until we claw our way to the sand. Its bewildering presence calls us to release the idea of landing safely on the shore once it passes. We may come out battered and bruised and with shells lodged in our skin. But when we dive deep into ourselves, we discover the best of our essence. We shed the parts of us that weigh us down and emerge lighter.
Once we sift through the surface and let go of the need to rest on our laurels, we unearth the core of our being and our higher purpose. The power within will always conquer the powers that be. If we allow ourselves to transform, we’ll get through the wave.