Beyond the Frying Pan

I have long used the metaphor of the cartoonish “frying-pan-to-the-head” as my personal philosophy for navigating challenges, and it has served me well: that frying pan signifies, essentially, that we are wired to wake up to ever-deeper layers of truth and alignment, and that the more we resist or ignore that growth, the larger and heavier the frying pan must be. It took my 9/11 experience, for example, for me to realize that my career was moving in a meaningless direction and, deciding that education was the antidote to fear, to enroll in an international teacher education program. It took losing my election in 2018 and suddenly finding myself halfway across the country — after building an incredible network of beloved friends, colleagues, and supporters — to realize that I needed to stop attempting to be everything to everyone and, instead, forge a deeper and more thoughtful appreciation of my own boundaries and potential (this is a work in progress, to be sure.)

The poet David Whyte posed the notion that the next courageous question or courageous act is the heartfelt one we don’t want to ask or take; with so much both happening and weirdly not-happening right now, courage is, even more than usual, on powerful daily display (as is, by Whyte’s definition, the total absence of courage in the form of heartless, opportunistic, greed-driven action with tragic consequences.) We see and celebrate the profound and — from the outside — unimaginable bravery and dedication of our healthcare workers and first responders, and yet their extraordinary example almost makes it difficult to apply the term “courage” to anything less, well, heroic. The vast majority of us, sheltered at home, are just trying to get through the day, manage distance work and distance learning, plan within impossible circumstances, clean, cook, connect with friends and family, perhaps end the day with a glass of wine and tumble into bed. But if we look closer and apply David Whyte’s powerfully personal definition of courage, we might discover a new frontier to explore in our own lives and thus start to reshape the world into which we will emerge.

In her interview with Greta Thunberg, author Naomi Klein said, “Normal was a crisis. Normal was Australia on fire just a couple of months ago, the Amazon of fire just before that; normal was a third mass bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef…It’s why our bodies aren’t equipped to fight this crisis. It is hospitals being systematically squeezed by the politics of austerity. Normal is a crisis. It doesn’t allow us a safe future.”

It feels pretty clear to me that a planet-sized frying pan has been persistently attempting, with increasing urgency and severity, to bring the skills developed by humanity over the last ten thousand years to the project of redesigning “normal” for the next ten thousand. But I’m now wondering: instead of simply reacting (or not) to the next frying pan — which is a generally passive and unlovely way to go about approaching things and has been specifically catastrophic for the health of our world in particular — wouldn’t we be better served by responding to the gentle prompt to courage as David Whyte has framed it? Might this not only avoid untold suffering, but also lead to the creation of honest, beautiful things?

I recently had the chance to encounter the next heartfelt act I really didn’t want to take; although I still haven’t taken it, I’ve glimpsed where, for me, courage might be hiding. In a totally unplanned coincidence with the postponed Kentucky Derby weekend, Mark and I were watching Secretariat again, in forty-five minute chunks, while we exercised last week. In one installment, Penny Chennery — the owner whose against-all-odds belief in Secretariat brought the horse through a historic series of wins and ultimately won them the Triple Crown — was in the hospital with her father, who’d suffered a stroke. Just as Penny finished delivering the news that they had won Horse of the Year, a flat line registered on the screen behind them.

Mark looked over, touched me on the shoulder. “What?” I feigned. I knew what. I was radiating emotion, and I knew he knew, but I quickly papered over the whole thing, determined to soldier on into the next scene and the next exercise. That scene threatened to open floodgates — having very little to do with the movie, of course, and everything to do with everything else — that I urgently needed to keep closed so that I might continue functioning as my normal self. Expressing grief was, in fact, that “heartfelt action”, and, at that moment, I flatly refused.

Through a new lens and under extraordinary new circumstances, a movie I’ve seen many times revealed something concrete and real about my own character: that “doing something” is my natural response to catastrophe. Sandy Hook broke my heart, so I formed a group. The 2016 election broke my heart, so I formed a group, and ultimately ran for state representative. COVID-19 looked like it might break my heart, so I formed a group in anticipation of community hardship. There was an element of courage involved in all of these endeavors, for sure, but they also fit neatly into the wheelhouse of solution-based thinking that enabled me to personally move quickly beyond despair, or perhaps even jump over it entirely.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that we don’t desperately need clear, focused action, or that I will stop what I’m doing in order to sit on a cushion and focus on feeling more deeply. I simply suspect that the actions I take will be richer and more impactful if the more difficult feelings are given room to breathe. Watching that scene, seeing Penny’s father die with his daughter beside him, it was impossible not to think of the millions of others who, right now, don’t have the solace of loving companionship. It was impossible not to think of what might happen to my own family, and — once I started down that path — it would be impossible, I knew, to turn that question into an abstract principle. So I shut it all down and went back to exercising.

We all suddenly find ourselves in a crisis without script or precedent. In many ways, “shutting it down” feels not only healthy but also downright adaptive. In a very real way, we are each grappling with a life-changing, role-redefining, gamble; for many of us, it feels like this gamble is happening without our consent, in a Vegas casino we can neither see or influence, among people operating within a complex web of interests and intentions. We have no control over the production and distribution of virus test kits, for example, and very little control over those who are intentionally — hired or voluntarily — violating protocols and endangering countless others in the name of freedom. We are downwind and at the mercy of forces beyond our scope of influence, and it can feel frightening and disempowering.

Under such circumstances and in the absence of that script, it is tempting to romanticize the way it was, to feel nostalgia for “normal.” It might have been “not great”, or even bad, in many ways, but at least it was recognizable. But as we’ve seen lately, humanity is — for better and for worse — quick to recognize and accommodate new patterns. Even two months ago, the sight of grocery stores filled with people wearing masks would have been horrifying and surreal, a science-fiction nightmare. Now, it might still be noticeable and disturbing, but it’s already familiar.

In this moment, suspended between worlds, we have the chance to investigate that courageous question and listen for the answer. Those forces operating against our better interests might temporarily hold the reins of power, but their spineless straining to hold onto those reins is becoming increasingly evident even to those who were once enthralled by an artificial bravado masquerading as strength. Once enough of us learn to hear and act upon the courageous question, that giant existential frying pan will begin to recede, because a society built by people who are fully human will, finally, become a fully human society.

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Allison Gustavson

> teacher > mom > writer > activist organizer > candidate for state rep in coastal Massachusetts > TBD in Colorado foothills >