Corona! I Say “Calm!”

By Balaji Prasad

“To accustom the infant to get out of its own difficulties or to calm it by rocking, it may be to lay the foundations of a good or of a bad disposition." ~ Jean Piaget

The title of this article is a deliberate play on words across languages. These syllables spoken to a Hindi-speaker's ear would be heard as an exhortation to not do something. To everyone else, this will sound like a call to calmness during these anxiety-ridden times. The two ideas may not be unrelated.

When the world turns upside down, it is hard to act in a calm and measured manner. Even more importantly, it is hard to not act in some way, even if such action could be detrimental. Somehow, action has come to have a strongly positive connotation while inaction is seen as lethargic, even recklessly uncaring. But is this always the case? Are our errors of omission always worse than our errors of commission? Is there anything that we have ever said or done that, in retrospect, we wish we hadn't? And have we not ever seen anyone who has shown self-restraint under difficult circumstances, watching calmly and patiently, waiting for unexpected stormy waters to subside on their own?

The calm before the storm

We are sense-driven creatures: When things impinge upon our senses, we react in some way. Our system is always ready to receive signal. Some things that come in are considered signal, and some are quickly discarded as noise. But what is signal and what is noise depends on the state of the system.

If the system is in a calm and dispassionate state, it processes events as they stream in, picking this one out as signal, tossing that one quickly out as noise, and so on. Things that are classified as signal are examined more closely to determine if some action is required. This works pretty well. Until it doesn't.

The storm

There are times, such as the present time, when something large and ominous suddenly manifests itself, and sends a signal unlike anything else that we may have experienced up until that point. You find yourself starting to get drawn into what feels like a swirling vortex that you don't have any control over. The system that is “you" transitions into a very different state from what existed just yesterday.

You are fixated on every event that ripples through to you, and on every bit of information that comes hurtling toward you. You are no longer methodically and thoughtfully culling signal from noise and putting them into neat prioritized piles. As it comes fast and mercilessly at you, you are now dealing with a world that seems an order of magnitude larger and more complex than it used to be. The juggler who was smiling at an indulgent audience and juggling two apples and an orange is now sweating profusely, trying to catch as many as possible, of the wild things that are rushing at him. No time to juggle anymore, as things fall down left, right and center. No time for smiling, and no time to be entertaining audiences. It is a grim business, for one of these hurtling objects could be the end of it all.

And then, just as suddenly as it all started, there is a lull. You find yourself in the eye of the storm, and have a few moments to think.

The I of the storm

Beaten down by the power of the thing, you are compelled to accept its dominance in its current incarnation. You are forced to look elsewhere. But where? What else is there? Who else is there? “Of course!" you say to yourself, slapping yourself on the forehead. “I am there. Maybe I can do something with this thing that I call 'me'"?"

You realize that you cannot play this game at the scale that is demanded by the magnitude of the thing. You have to change the rules of the game, and you realize that you can do this – that it is your game. In your moment of clarity, you see that in this game, you are small and the thing is big. You cannot scale up; so you have to scale the thing down. Fortunately, not everything is equal. There are some aspects of the thing that are more important than other aspects. So you decide to prioritize – radically prioritize. You see that there are three hundred parts to the thing, but you are a mere three-object juggler. So you decide to apply your limited capacity not to dealing with all three hundred parts, but to the three most important ones of those. You are calm again, and have pulled yourself to familiar ground once again. You can juggle three things at a time! You wait, for the eye of the storm to go through, and are ready to face the brunt of it again. This time, you'll be ready. You have decided to deal with what you are capable of dealing with, leaving all else to Mother Nature's whims. At least they will be her whims, not yours!

Corona is just a metaphor here. There are many coronas in our lives, some of which come closer to us than this one. “Do I find the right balance of action and inaction, passion and calm, in heroism versus self-restraint?" That is the question. Even more importantly, “Do I cultivate calmness as a core habit?"

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Balaji Prasad is an IIT/IIM graduate, a published author, SAT/ACT Online and Offline Coach, interview, resume, and career coach at NewCranium. Contact: 704.746.9779 or balaji.prasad@newcranium.com