My daughter, Sophie, and I have been working on this 2000 piece puzzle of the world for several weeks. It nearly feels like divine providence now to be putting the world together at the same moment the world itself is coming together in its need to wake up, understand and heal from both a deadly virus and the deeper plagues of greed, hatred and indifference that brought us here in the first place.
Today we found the puzzle piece with Wuhan on it and it felt electric in my hands. As Sophie snapped the piece in place and we looked at each other for an eerie moment, I realized the voltage came from the sudden appreciation that nothing felt far away in this world she and I were creating. Looking at the puzzle I saw that Wuhan, China, where the outbreak started, was only a few inches away from Varanasi, India, where I joined a Buddhist pilgrimage in December. Varanasi, India was only a few inches away from Northern Italy, where my father's father was born and where we visited friends four years ago. And Northern Italy was only a few more inches away from Englewood, New Jersey, where we live now. I wondered if everyone was suddenly thinking this, how interconnected we all are, as they hunker down in relative isolation for at least the next few months, putting together their own puzzles. Maybe it will take a scary virus and worldwide quarantine to reawaken the realization of our oneness. Maybe it will take not being able to be with you to appreciate what you mean to me.
According to Ubuntu philosophy, which originated in ancient Africa, a newborn baby is not yet a person. We aren't born with selfhood but rather acquire it through our interactions with others. It's a lovely idea that puts the ego in its place and makes interconnectedness and gratitude the star. A person only becomes a person through other persons. In other words, we are so I am. Without you, there is no me. That is essentially the concept of non-being in Buddhism. Without you, I cease to be because, quite the opposite of nothing, I am everything that ever was and will be. Ironically, in Chinese, the term for not existing alone is wu.
A client, now friend, wrote me yesterday and asked me what do I make of all this. All I could think is what I've been thinking for years now, and have been trying to understand myself and ask my clients and students to also ponder: When did we grow so far apart? When did our interests become so separate from one another? When did we become so desperate to further our lives that we forgot we are part of something larger than ourselves? When did we abandon our earth, our communities, each other? When did we abandon a higher calling?
Several years ago, at a pre-school orientation at my daughter's school, the teacher asked all the parents what they most wanted for their children. Keep in mind these children were not yet four years old. I was flabbergasted when well over 50% of the parents said success and the rest, the clear minority, said happiness or purpose.
As I look around this space I will be confined to for many, many weeks, the puzzle of the world in the corner of my eye, I think too many of us had the wrong answer too often. It's like the universe is the parent and we are the children who made a mess of something, and we've just been sent us to our rooms and to told to stay put until we think long and hard about what we've done.
Hopefully we'll make good use of this time we've been given.