“The unexpected will certainly happen, while the anticipated may never come.”  Nisargadatta Maharaj

Does that sound like an appropriate saying for 2020?

Does that sound like an appropriate saying for life in general?

It seems that as time go on, I’m nodding my head in agreement more vehemently than I did a few years ago or even just one year ago.

This past year, most of us probably didn’t think too, too much about how things would transpire shortly after we first heard about the novel coronavirus. I didn’t. I remember seeing a news item in February about the coronavirus hospitals being built in China, and not much later there was a lot of news coverage about the outbreak on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, but I certainly didn’t imagine that a pandemic would develop soon after that. I remember people talking a bit about the virus when I was at a performance by the Okanagan Symphony Orchestra in Vernon on March 8 and when I had a haircut on March 14, but life was going on as normal, for the most part. By St. Patrick’s Day on March 17, everything was very different.

On a more personal, non-pandemic level, I recall being blindsided a few times in my life. Shortly after 9am on March 14, 2019, I was waiting at the #97 bus stop at Parkinson when my mom called to tell me that my dad was on the way to the Vernon hospital in an ambulance; half an hour later, I received a phone call from a social worker at the hospital, and I was almost certain, without being told directly, that my dad had passed away. I never imagined that he would pass away so soon and so suddenly. Further back, while having an emotional conversation on the phone with a close friend one January evening, I got a cold, empty, bewildered feeling that that 11-year friendship had been completely upended. After eight months of trying to fix the relationship and then several years of no contact, we did eventually re-connect, but only on a very superficial level. It took me a long time to accept that that friendship as I had known it for my entire 20s was over. A January day two years before that, the faith that I’d grown up with was suddenly shaken to the core. That evening, for many long minutes I stood at my bathroom sink, staring at myself in the mirror, crying, wondering how on Earth I could go on. I then went to my bedroom and sat on my bed for a long time, still not knowing what to think or do. I was motionless, cold, overwhelmed by the gut feeling that my world was about to change. (Long story short, it did change drastically, but, astonishingly to myself, I did survive.)

The second part of Maharaj’s saying states, “the anticipated may never come.” How true this is, too!  Sometimes this is a relief – the dreaded exam wasn’t so dreadful after all, or the results from the medical test ended up being no cause for concern. Sometimes it’s a disappointment when the anticipated thing doesn’t happen – surely that trip would’ve been fun, or the acceptance letter to that university would’ve led to an amazing career. And many, many times, we simply have no way of knowing how a situation would’ve evolved if everything went according to our plans. What would’ve it been like to have a child? Or to actually work in that field we wanted to study? What would my life be like if I were still a Christian? What would my parents’ lives have been like if my sister didn’t have severe cognitive disabilities? What would our lives be like if there’d been no COVID-19? There’s no way of knowing.

Recently, a co-worker of mine had big life plans that came crashing down around her. For a while, I would commiserate with her about the things that just aren’t going according to her agenda, her lists, her dreams. Her pain was – and sometimes still is – obvious. Her future will most likely not include many of the things she’d dreamed about for years. My future won’t either. And your future won’t either. And in many ways, I am sorry about that. I know it’s not easy. Maybe it’s an adoption that didn’t go through. Or the “given” that we’ll all live to be 90. The significant other who hasn’t shown up, or the relationship that is more of a struggle than anything else. The hopes for an adult child to be happy, even just a little happy, finally. I’m so sorry. These are often the first things we think about when we wake up in the morning and then a million times throughout the day, and it’s not so easy to brush them aside and just go on with the day.

My co-worker and I talk about such things like shattered dreams, and letting go, and making new plans, and acceptance. She talks about living in the moment and the Buddhist meditations she listens to; I ask her to send me some YouTube clips that she finds helpful, and I listen to them as I make breakfast and fold laundry.

Being blindsided happens to everyone at some point, unless you happen to be absolutely prepared for any random thing that could occur. Having plans put on hold and dreams extinguished are often part of life. That’s where such things as creativity come in. That’s where aliveness comes in. And alertness.

There’s a quote for that, by Eckhart Tolle: “If uncertainty is unacceptable to you, it turns into fear. If it is perfectly acceptable, it turns into increased aliveness, alertness, and creativity.”  When the unexpected happens and we just don’t know what’s going on, why not shift away from catastrophizing (“This situation and everything else is going to hell in a handbasket,” “I won’t be able to survive this,” and so on) and try to keep in mind that there are many possible outcomes for any given situation? We often do have some level of control, even if at first, or second, or 20th glance, it seems we don’t. Perhaps we can be open-minded about the other opportunities that could show up or that we can bring about. Why not be curious? I think we can — we should — be curious, so curious, about what the future holds, because, really, we have no idea. I think we can be hopeful, while realizing, of course, that sometimes we have to exchange our previous hopes for new ones.

After I began to move away from the religious faith that I’d grown up with, and also after the falling-out with my long-time friend, I often felt overwhelmed by the confusion, anger, and sadness that accompanied those losses. Slowly, eventually, I realized that those chapters of my life were over. Slowly, I stopped trying so hard to make them work. And, in time, I began to see more possibilites around me. I began to seek and find purpose, goodness, and beauty, even with a worldview that no longer included the supernatural. I began to think more critically, to be less judgmental, to add books and more books to my reading list. As well, slowly, eventually, messages began to show up in my inbox and in my voicemail from a new friend or two. I will probably remember with fondness (and a mixed bag of emotions) my old friend, but I’m so grateful that my heart could eventually welcome other people, too.

I’m sure the pandemic has caused many of us to rethink some things in our lives. Hopefully we’ve become a bit more alive, alert, creative. Maybe we are starting to see how fragile and precious life is. Maybe we’re dropping some of our pettiness. Maybe we’ve reorganized our priorities a bit. Maybe we see more clearly how blessed we are to be in Canada. Maybe we’ve taken up a new hobby, or put up the Christmas lights a bit early to brighten our homes, or realized the importance of injecting a bit more humour into our lives.

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus wrote, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” Exactly. The “river” my co-worker is standing in is flowing, as rivers do. The situation is changing a bit (not for the better), the other people involved are doing what they do, the clock keeps ticking and the Earth keeps spinning on its axis… and it’s not the same river it was back in January or in 2019 or before that. And, perhaps more importantly, my co-worker is changing, too. She is becoming more zen about it all. She’s at peace, knowing she tried her absolute best in the situation. She doesn’t need to listen to the meditations quite so often anymore, because she’s absorbed so many of the important lessons to the point that such things as “letting go of trying to control things” and “acceptance” and “we only have power in THIS moment” come much more naturally to her now.

The river around me isn’t the same one anymore either, and I’m not the same as I was even a year ago. And all over the world, the course of the pandemic has changed during the past year. And the people affected by it have changed, too, in so many ways.

“It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change,” wrote Charles Darwin. Life will most likely continue to blindside us and thwart our plans and knock us to the ground from time to time. But fortunately we don’t all have to have huge brains and muscles to make it out alive.

By Tania Kuehn