In 2008, I was a bright, doe-eyed, overconfident-in-his-abilities 22-year-old college graduate moving to Washington D.C. just five days after receiving his diploma to start an internship at an Office of the White House.
Everything, you could say, was looking up.
Ever since being a kid on the playground whom teachers described as “a leader among his peers,” Washington D.C. seemed the place for which I was destined. What luck on top of it all that I had landed an internship at the White House to begin my career.
Then, just three months later, my internship was over — at the precise moment when society had ground to a halt.
(At least, at that time, it certainly felt like it had!)
The subprime mortgage and global financial crises were in full effect, and the Great Recession had begun. Big banks were failing. Stocks were plummeting. Countless homes were being foreclosed. They even turned off the lights inside the Capitol Building to save the U.S. Government on energy costs.
Everything, you could say, was looking down.
The palpable level of anxiety reached far and wide — Just how deep was bottom, and would we ever hit it? — and had brought about shortfalls of cash, widespread budgetary cuts, historic job losses, and hiring freezes across industries and entire swaths of society.
Then there was me, trying his best to navigate it all.
As I became increasingly desperate to find a job, I even tried and failed to get hired as an apprentice dog groomer.
And that’s a job that I really tried to get.
From White House intern to “We’re really looking for someone with more grooming experience.”
…in just three months.
At the time when the Great Recession sent my career path sideways, the entitled 22-year-old in me believed that the only requisite for greatness was showing up. After all, “showing up” was all I had ever done, and look how great my life had been turning out.
Growing up as privileged as I did as a kid, you begin to believe that you deserve because you exist.
You risk maturing into a young adult who believes that the whole world owes you something.
At least, if you were me.
You believe a White House internship falls into your lap not because of privilege or chance but as an affirmation of your destiny.
But life, as I have learned, has a determined way of breaking ignorance. Of shaking complacency. Of waking those who can afford to sleep.
For me, the Great Recession was my first, first-hand experience of a global-reaching crisis that had an (admittedly marginal) impact upon my life as an adult in the real world. It stilted my career path and pointed me back to my home state of Rhode Island, where I moved into my old childhood bedroom, and took a job that I was uncertain was the right fit for me, with my tail between my legs, and barely a cent left to my name.
And yet, today, looking back, I can tell you that my first first-hand experience of a global-reaching crisis gifted me with far more than I understood, or could bear to realize, at the time.
My personal experience of crisis shook my worldview.
It disrupted what I thought I was entitled to.
It provided me with a medicinal dose of perspective that I had never tasted before.
It broke the mold of my hardened expectations.
It erased the rules that I thought I knew to be true and unmoving.
It dared me to think, feel, and see life and people more broadly, and in different ways.
The crisis coaxed me to take my first long, hard look at myself in the mirror.
The challenges that I not only felt but witnessed unfolding all around me challenged me to examine my inner world and who I really was for the first time.
I began to sit down with myself and ask questions that I never had before, like:
- “Who am I, really?”
- “What do I want? Why do I want it?”
- “What is it that I’m doing all of this for?”
- “Is the story I’ve been telling myself the story that I actually want to be living?”
- “If nothing is guaranteed in the end, what do I want to do today?”
- “What is the most loving and good way I can show up in the world — even if it all falls apart, tomorrow?”
When society stopped, I found a silver lining in the madness to examine who I was, what I wanted, what I believed, and why, for the first time in my adult life.
That is one of the unintended benefits of crisis — when, of course, you are privileged enough to afford to sit, genuflect, self-study, unpack, and contemplate:
My first, first-hand experience of crisis gifted me the seeds of soul-work.
When we fast-forward twelve years to today, the idea of what it looks and feels like for “all of society to stop” has taken on a whole new meaning.
The ongoing Coronavirus outbreak — and the resulting and necessary draconian measures put in place almost everywhere, worldwide, to help freeze infection rates before the global healthcare system collapses at the risk of potentially millions dying — has set a standard for “society stopping” that was once reserved for SciFi novels and horror movies.
But back in 2008, when all of society had stopped — or, at least, when all of society had seemed to — I discovered one of the under-appreciated, tough-to-swallow truths about the “upsides” to crisis: discovering, in the mayhem and turmoil, a newfound and freeing and “What have I got to lose?” incentive to rethink, reimagine, and recreate what we once thought to be true.
For me those twelve or so years ago, I fell into my first experience of self-inquiry — long before I had the language or understanding of it.
I was lonesome, confused, disheartened, and feeling what I thought were my dreams falling by the wayside. Instinctively, I sat down with paper and pen — I didn’t own a journal yet — and endeavored into an urgent examination of what I now might call my subtle self, or inner world, despite having no understanding that I was doing so at the time.
I didn’t learn to journal my self-inquiries because I read it in a best-selling book. I didn’t feel obligated to try because a guru claimed it was his secret to success. There was no reason that I sought paper and pen instead of typing.
Thanks to the disruptive forces of crisis, I didn’t consider if there was a “right way” to do it.
Our expert-obsessed, Just-Google-It culture wasn’t nearly as pronounced in 2008 as it is today, or else I might have referenced a YouTube video or a How-To article and, just maybe, perhaps lost the instinctive urge to try for myself and find my own reasons for doing so, myself.
The how was inconsequential. Even the why didn’t matter.
I didn’t have a story around it.
I began to write because the crisis was the crisis and I needed an outlet. The nearest outlet was paper and pen, and the reason was me trying to deal with myself.
In crisis, I felt permitted — beyond second-guessing or self-doubting or How-To’ing — to delve into the contents of my heart, mind, and inner world.
I began to poke, prod, and pull at the ideas and expectations that were invisible but indelible in how they shaped my behaviors, actions, worldview, and the words I used every day in “the real world.”
I began to discover the invisible connection between our inner world and how we show up, live in, and respond to the outer world all around us.
If it wasn’t for my first first-hand experience of the Great Recession, who knows if, or how, my life would have panned out in the years since.
What I can say with certainty today is that crisis gifted me opportunities that I could not fathom as being “gifts” at that time.
Crisis opened my soul to self-awareness, and from that awareness, to inner growth, personal betterment, and infinite gain.
I haven’t stopped writing since.
Whenever a new crisis rolls around — whether small like a ruined loaf of bread, or an agonizing heartbreak, or an outright pandemic — I can’t help but try to find the soul-work in it.
Not out of ignorance for all the pain and suffering.
Not to discard the experiences of those who simply cannot avoid or escape the impact of what’s still ongoing.
Not to disrespect the obvious privilege that it is for me, still, to experience a crisis so lightly that I can treat it as an opportunity to look within, contemplate, and expand my outlook.
But rather, because I hope — I pray — no matter how pronounced or painful the crisis is for me someday that I will be able to remind myself to find the soul-work in it.
That’s my wish.
That’s my intention.
Of course, I cannot promise that I will.
But, in writing these words and in sharing my wish with you, I hope that I can.
I hope that I can be even a fraction better at handling the disruption, uncertainty, anxiety, hardship, and pain when it befalls me. And I hope, so I say now, to try to do some soul-work with the suffering and circumstance.
If I disappear for a while, don’t think that I’ve forgotten you.
It may be just that I’ve gone into my inner world again.
And, when I come out, I hope that I will be just slightly better for having done so.
Even when society stops, soul-work doesn’t.
When the whole world seems to pause or change all around us, the journey of knowing yourself — and holding yourself, and healing yourself — does not end.
We keep on living with ourselves.
This is our gift, our privilege, our calling: to live with ourselves, and with one another, to the very best of our abilities.
Yours in crisis, and beyond them,