Podcast transcript 0030: The mountain, the muddle, and the morning after the earthquake

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Welcome to Improve Something Today. I’m Brian. Each episode I bring you an idea from the world of lean and continuous improvement.

I’ve enjoyed the conversations I’ve been able to share in the last few episodes, and I’ll be bringing you more soon. But today, I wanted to reflect on what a year of working and living in this crisis has been like. Three ideas: the mountain, the muddle, and the morning after the earthquake.

First off, I should say that I’ve been lucky. I have a wonderful family to have spent the year with, and infinite amounts of support from my sweetie as she put a bunch of stuff on hold, both personal and professional, in order to provide us and our children some stability throughout the pandemic. Thank you for that, Liana. I have a great job at a company filled with whip-smart people all muddling through this situation together, as we help one another and help our clients together.

But I’ve also missed out on some things I won’t be able to get over very quickly. The final year of life of a grandparent who was an outsize influence on my own life and what I appear to be doing with it. I’ve missed out on being there for family, friends, colleagues as we each dealt with our own things, good things, tragic things, and all the rest.

I’ve lost my love of the crowd this year – the sense of being alone together with a huge number of people, be that in an airport, or a university library or a large public library, with the occasional encounter with a new or old friend. Even after this experience is available again, I doubt I’ll enjoy it. We’re all transmission vectors and it’s hard to see how it’ll be worth the risk or worth enjoying.

So from a continuous improvement perspective, we have to treat this as the practice pandemic. It’s clear that there will be more like this, likely much worse, likely sooner rather than later. On the one hand, this particular pandemic – at least in the United States, in my country – went unchecked for its first year specifically because of our psychopathic Republican party and its white evangelical death cult, so there is a chance that they’ll collectively die off and fuck off in short order. One could hope. But for now at least, they’re the undemocratic, cowardly, idiotic minority that is holding us all back. I don’t know. And on the other hand, events in the US under our new administration – as well as events in other countries which brought the pandemic large under control, and quickly – show a range of possibilities for a more effective response. It’s been a hell of a year, hasn’t it?

Idea 1: the mountain. Up until a few months ago, I clung to a favorite quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson, from his greatest essay, called “Experience”. He wrote:

“From the mountain you see the mountain. We animate what we can, and we see only what we animate. Nature and books belong to the eyes that see them.”

Wow. “We animate what we can. We see only what we animate.” These words have been there for me for a decade or two. And from this directly emanates my fixation on noticing – on helping people see how the systems they are interdependent on operate, and where they fit in, and the huge opportunities all around them, and all around us, for improvement. I worked super hard to generate a collective sensation that my friend Dan Klyn calls the “now that I see it” moment. I’ll have him join us here soon to talk about that. “Nature and books belong to the eyes that see them.” That’s really how I felt, for a long time.

Now, setting that mountain aside, there has always been another itch.

It’s something I call — and this is idea 2 — something I call “the muddle”. It’s hard for me to explain. Let me try. It’s a sense of non-set-apartness. A notion of being with things, or within them, rather than being alongside them. In terms of my personal experience, it came straight out of one activity and one recognition. The activity was the process by which I left a religious tradition I was brought up in, began to see it thoroughly and comprehensive for the dangerous horseshit it is. And the recognition was that of what I guess we call the illusion of free will – that there is no space in the world or in us for freedom of choice, but that somehow our choices still matter. That we as individuals are not culpable for our actions any more than we are the causes of our own thoughts – and that the only way we know to organize ourselves and our societies is, apparently, to pretty much ignore that 99% of the time. This bundle of questions or apparent contradictions, of distances that are either very large or incredibly small, is what I came to think of as “the muddle”.

Now in an old interview, Leonard Cohen said:

We are living a world, in a daily life, of such ambiguity, ambiguity about ourselves, about our wives, our husbands, our loves, our families, our loyalties, our work. The ambiguities have become intolerable. We are no longer outside the problem. There no longer is a distance. There is no hill to see this from, you share one body, now, with the serpent you forbid and with the dove that you allow. We’re in it.”

That was Leonard Cohen. And Leonard Cohen, for me, has been emblematic of seeing this muddle, of embracing it. Loving it, if you can. “Forget your perfect offering,” he sang. “There is a crack in everything—that’s how the light gets in.”

This muddle is something I understood theoretically, and grappled with as a sort of mental construct or abstraction for many years. Once I started a meditation practice – first intermittently, then regularly, then with others, and now again alone (because of this pandemic) – it became more subjectively available. It was real, and ultimately a huge source of comfort and calm and, somehow, peace.

So, on one side, we have Ralph Waldo Emerson proclaiming that nature and books belong to the eyes that see them. And on the other, the muddle.

And in between the two, we find ourselves, or at least I found myself, sitting as still as possible, as still as we could, for the first year of what is hopefully a two year pandemic.

So what? Now what? Well, it’s time for idea 3.

I return to Ralph Waldo Emerson, again. And I give you a little section from a minor essay, late in life, largely inconsequential essay of his. He wrote:

Bad times have a scientific value. These are occasions a good learner would not miss. As we go gladly to Faneuil Hall, to be played upon by the stormy winds and strong fingers of enraged patriotism, so is a fanatical persecution, civil war, national bankruptcy, or revolution, more rich in the central tones than languid years of prosperity. What had been, ever since our memory, solid continent, yawns apart, and discloses its composition and genesis. We learn geology the morning after the earthquake, on ghastly diagrams of cloven mountains, upheaved plains, and the dry bed of the sea.

In our life and culture, everything is worked up, and comes in use,—passion, war, revolt, bankruptcy, and not less, folly and blunders, insult, ennui, and bad company. Nature is a rag-merchant, who works up every shred and ort and end into new creations; like a good chemist, whom I found, the other day, in his laboratory, converting his old shirts into pure white sugar. Life is a boundless privilege, and when you pay for your ticket, and get into the car, you have no guess what good company you shall find there. You buy much that is not rendered in the bill.

OK, that was Emerson. We are learning geology every morning of this year-length earthquake, scrabbling and messaging one another diagrams and charts of the cloven mountains. We text a friend infrequently, and only to say, hey buddy, the plains are upheaved. We share with one another the dry bed of the sea.

Now I want to claw back from this place, when we can, when it’s safe, hopefully soon. I want to return to the muddle and enjoy every minute of its tangles and contradictions. But that mountain? That certainly of looking across from one place, to another, of drawing conclusions and resting in observation? That’s gone.

Well, take care of yourself. Be well. And I’ll be back with you soon.