“One day everything will be well, that is our hope. Everything’s fine today, that is our illusion”
I lifted my pen and started counting the number of paper towels, bathroom tissues, napkins, and facial tissue packages that we stored downstairs in our basement. I marked down the numbers on my pad.
Paper towels – 15
Bathroom tissues – firm – 7
Bathroom tissues – soft – 10
Napkins – 7
Facial tissues – 5
I turned around and showed my mother the numbers. She squinted at my pad of paper, and ordered, “Buy more.”
I rolled my eyes. “Buy more? Mom, we have enough – we have enough for the next 6 months. How many more do we need? If we run out, then we can just go to the store and buy it.”
My mother shook her head and pursed her lips. “No, take those Black Friday coupons and buy more from BJs. Bathroom tissue does not spoil. None of these things don’t spoil, and you always need plenty of everything. You never know.”
My brother and I looked at each other and shrugged our shoulders helplessly. “But mom, this is America. Why would we run out of these things? We should be saving money instead of spending it on this stuff …”
My mother waved her hands and started walking away. “Bah. Just do as I say. You never know what will happen. After the Korean War, there was nothing. We need to be prepared.”
“Prepared for what?” my brother asked incredulously, but she kept on walking, waving her hands. She had stated an order, not a suggestion.
And then COVID19 hit – and our entire nation experienced scarcity for the first time in generations. We didn’t have enough of anything – ICU beds, personal protection equipment for medical professionals, masks, paper towels, toilet papers, digestive aids, meat, rubbing alcohol, hand sanitizer, and any other “basic” consumer and medical essentials.
But wait a minute, the United States of America is the land of the plenty – what happened?
Once upon a time, our manufacturers kept warehouses filled with supplies of raw materials and parts that would keep us steady for months. But all this inventory and its storage required money and financing. And, Wall Street rewarded inventory discipline that manifested itself in emptied warehouses and closed factories.
For example, to minimize warehouse use, Walmart penalized its suppliers for delivering goods either too early or too late. These types of practices not only reduced inventory and warehouse space use but capital as well. The Wall Street Journal reported that, in 2006, once Walmart decided to think out its inventory, $6.5 billion had been freed up for Walmart to invest.
Despite this very lean supply chain that resulted in minimal waste, retailers still marketed that we could buy anything at any time and that supplies were always plentiful. Remember, thanks to the Internet, we could fulfill all our material wishes by clicking a button and swiping that handy credit card. But then, COVID19 hit, and illusions crumbled as essential supplies ran barren, and people died, waiting for supplies that would never materialize..
Like the tribbles from Star Trek – we kept on consuming the illusion of plenty but failed to realize that we had been slowly starving ourselves. In the Star Trek Original Series episode, “The Trouble With Tribbles,” the tribbles consumed the entire grain shipment, which had been poisoned with a virus that prevents its victims from absorbing nutrients. So medically speaking, the tribbles “starved” to death.
But, did the tribbles’ death serve as the end? Or, did it harken to other opportunities that had not been identified before?
Dan Greenwald reminded us that we should view COVID19 as an opportunity to make shifts and to act on our values, rather than as the end of everything. Similar to a raging forest fire that “cleanses,” COVID19 burns away what we have known and valued. While that can be painful, the aftermath of a forest fire also leaves behind “nutrient-rich soil, often now flooded with sun and ripe for regrowth.”
Other than being home long enough to listen to my mother’s commands about keeping count of all the paper products in our household, what are my opportunities for regrowth?
I sat down and started to draw out the pre-COVID19, the immediate COVID19, and the evolving COVID19 routines.
My pre-COVID19 routine – Linear but overscheduled
My pre-COVID19 routine was linear – it was focused on scheduling every hour of the day and fulfilling obligations to others, but ignoring my obligation to myself. It also required substantial business travel and an endless waltz of meetings, conference calls, emails, and evening events. Sleep was an afterthought.
The March 16, 2020 Immediate COVID19 Routine – Unstructured and temporary
But on March 16, 2020, this linear routine evolved into a bunch of random boxes that had no specific order. The office shut down and we were required to work from home. We were all searching for temporary band-aid routines. We believed that we would be back to the office after the Memorial Day weekend.
Evolving COVID19 Routine – Unstructured but Focused on Learning and Failing Productively
The major holidays floated by – Memorial Day, Fourth of July, and Labor Day. We still cannot return to the office.
Meanwhile, life and work need to continue regardless of whether we are back in the office. In a moment of self-reflection, I asked myself: What opportunities am I missing?
Taking a Sharpie and a blank sheet of paper, I drew out what I had NOT been doing in my linear and intense pre-COVID19 schedule (highlighted in red below):
Conversing with my family, and actually spending time with them, as opposed to a “drive-by” meeting
Spending time with my dog, Athena
I love learning, but I have completely failed to make time for learning new things. The evolving COVID19 routine is an opportunity to integrate learning back into my routine and to burn away what had not been as important as I originally believed.
Like substantial quantities of business travel.
To examine yourself and your values can be nerve-wracking, and we often avoid “inventorying” ourselves. Instead, we fill our days with mindless activities that feel productive but actually fail to feed our souls, our brains, and our hearts.
So, in addition to binging on Netflix and Disney+, take this opportunity to understand yourself better and figure out where your holes/opportunities are, and what you will do about them.
Take that sheet of paper and pen, and draw out your routines:
And, then ask yourself:
What is important to you?
What brings you joy?
Have you been doing activities that bring you joy?
What is missing from your life?
What does your online stream binging tell you about yourself that you did not realize?
How can you seize this opportunity?
COVID19 and rewatching “The Trouble With Tribbles” forced me to realize that I do not want my mind, body, and soul to die of plenty. I seemed productive, because I could be active on emails, meetings, and calls for over 12 hours per day. Meanwhile, I had stopped taking care of myself, my relationships, and feeding my soul, my heart, and my brain with learning, reflection, and solitude.
So as my brother and I inventory the paper and food products in our household yet again – thanks, mom – we view this time as not chores dictated by our mother, but rather:
More exercise (because the paper products are stored in the basement)
Learning to achieve more by breathing in and out, and moving slowly
Becoming invigorated by the robust conversations that we have during this quality time of assessing household inventories.