On the 14th of June in 1978, NASA’s Viking 2 Lander captured a photograph of the Sun rising on the Eastern horizon of Mars. Orbiting at a farther distance from the Sun, the Sun appears to be only about two-thirds of what we observe from Earth. The blue halo scattering off the fine dust in the Martian atmosphere could make one homesick for our typical flood of morning gold. Oxygen makes up an average of about only 0.13% of the already dangerously thin air, making it impossible for one-day hopeful explorers to enjoy the sight without a spacesuit or the confines of sealed glass. Despite these conditions, our species hopes to not only visit but to someday achieve the seemingly impossible: make the foreign planet breathable.
I’ve been thinking a lot about breathing this past year. Perhaps, along with a plethora of now-mainstream psychiatric terminology (like, “narcissism”, “gaslighting”, “cPTSD”, and “setting healthy boundaries”), it feels like the main theme of the year has been about breathing. Or rather, not breathing. We were thrust into a year that, to many, seemed extraterrestrial. Confusion, fear, confinement, and most of all uncertainty. These conditions were so incredibly foreign to so many people that we failed to remember that an obscenely large number of the global population has been living in those conditions for most if not all their lives. People who have been unable to make plans 6 months in advance because they don’t know if they will still have a job or even how they will feel emotionally next Friday. People who don’t know where their next meal will come from or if they will still have a home next month. People who have been confined to their addictions to escape the confinement of a painful life. People who don’t have funds to go out or enough time to do so because they work three jobs.
It’s a type of suffocation and muted existence that is so unfamiliar to many people because they don’t live in that landscape. While some people were complaining to their coworkers on Zoom about concerts being canceled or restaurants being closed for dine-in, others were working in grocery stores, worried about bringing home a virus that could end up ravaging the lungs of their family. 9 multi-generational family members in a 2 bedroom/1 bath home. People who simply wouldn’t have the luxury of quarantining in their basement with adjustable recessed lighting, comfy recliners, a laptop to work from, a TV, and a private bathroom away from the rest of the family. Knowing people from all economic classes through the past year showed me a disparity that has always been present but never nearly as loud as it has been through this pandemic.
We heard and saw some of the worst of humanity in 2020. From moderate negligence to flat out murder in broad daylight. In a year that will be dissected for its innumerous nuances, it is sure to become the topic of more than a few future theses. However, with all of its nuances, it’s hard not to fall into the age-old myth of “humanity’s true colors when all goes wrong.” The myth we see played out in not only every Hollywood disaster movie but also on every news network we watch to stay informed. It’s the myth that tells us that humans are inherently bad. Whether we be talking about the arrogance of someone at a conference or the looting in the streets during civil unrest. The narrative is that the majority of society is bad, everyone is out for themselves, and that good people are rare. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
― Fred Rogers
In stellar astronomy and astrophysics, there is an effect that is called the “Malmquist Bias”. It’s the observation that main sequence stars are silenced by intrinsically brighter ones, thus leading us to believe that stars like our Sun are in fact, quite rare. This, in a sense, is what we observe with people. Bad behavior commands so much of our attention that it fully drowns out the goodness that is in such great abundance in times like these. And perhaps it does so because bad behavior is in fact, mostly an alarm. A sign that something is not quite right. In reality, the vast majority of people are merely reacting to a breathless fear. For some, it’s a fear of not being accepted. For others it’s scarcity. Losing one’s position in life is another’s. Whatever the roots of fear may be, whether they be from trauma or uncertainty, it’s the frantic fear itself that propagates the majority of the ugliness we see in the face of crises.
It takes bravery to be a kind person. But even the bravest souls fall into fear when they feel they’ve run out of air. Strangely, I started this year by signing up for a meditation retreat. What drew me to it was that it was silent. I desperately needed silence. And I got exactly that. You couldn’t speak to a single soul. Just silently observe your breath. No entertainment. No reading. No thinking. Just breathing, eating, breathing, eating, and the occasional silent nature walk in the forest by yourself. “Annica,” the Pali saying goes. “Nothing is permanent.” When the long retreat was done in March and the halls were so full of laughter and joy, we were warned not just of the new state of the pandemic, but we were also warned of our fragile state. We were coming out of a place where for so long, we had built so much faith in others. We were told to be wary of anyone trying to take advantage of us. Someone asked one of the guides if reminding us so quickly that it’s a crappy world out would diminish all of the positive feelings we’ve built up and the kindness we wanted to share by hardening us with fear. She said, “simply be brave.” I thought about that for a few weeks. How you can’t have bravery without fear. But it wasn’t until later in the year when I found myself being suffocated by fear that I realized how unkind it can make you if you let it.
As we move into the new year and most people begin the countdown to terraforming this last year into a shiny, new, more hospitable one, please don’t forget to be brave. It’s ok to feel fear. Fear itself is not bad. Fear can keep you safe. We’re all just trying to stay safe in one form or another. However, it’s so easy to ignore others and be unkind, forgetting that for so many people right now, this new world isn’t extraterrestrial. You simply don’t know the fears others face every day and it’s important not to let your own fears decide the character of others. Let’s work on making it a place where we all can breathe. It starts with kindness. It will take time, but like terraforming Mars, the dream is not impossible.