In our lives, we will inevitably encounter rare, unexpected experiences that have profound impact and leave a lasting mark. Nassim Taleb wrote about to these unforeseen phenomenon, “Black Swans” in his thought-provoking book bearing the namesake of these birds. His work was first published in 2007 prior to the financial crisis that rocked Wall Street the following year. Swans rose in popularity far before Taleb was talking about them or Natalie Portman put them on the silver screen. Russian composer, Tchaikovsky, composed the ballet “Swan Lake” in 1875. The story, the dance, the music has lived on.
Tchaikovsky gave us Swan Lake. Taleb gave us Black Swan. Life gives us Black Swan Lake. The COVID-19 pandemic is precisely this kind of never-before-seen production.
Perhaps dancing is the new thing you can learn during quarantine. You can add it to your skills on LinkedIn next to “homeschool teacher.” Given that you must take a tactical pause on being a traditional patron of the arts, I will provide a brief synopsis of the story if your socially-distanced self is unfamiliar with the famous ballet, Swan Lake is a fusion of tragedy, magic, and love in four acts. Predictably, the Prince experiences a magnetic pull toward Odette—an object of his affection he ultimately struggles to secure a relationship with during the course of the story. When dusk turns to dark, the sought-after Odette, full of allure, is a stunning female in human form. When dark becomes dawn, she slips into a lake of tears and spends the day swimming as a swan.
As is often true in matters involving strong emotion, the Prince in this story falls hard and fast. He participates in his own undoing by quickly pursuing another woman, Odile, a bewitching seductress masquerading as Odette. On the surface, we sometimes spot something similar to what we want to see, and suddenly (or slowly) we become blind to truth and reality. Odette tries to warn the Prince, but her cries were, sadly, too little, too late; the Prince was unable to hear her pleas. This tale reminds us that things are not easy and solutions are seldom straightforward.
In life, we can’t escape the inevitability of dancing on the stage of Black Swan Lake. Stage fright or no, two left feet or a Fred Astaire pair – you will find your self in the spotlight. The globe is now scrambling to put on pointe shoes and synchronize footsteps as the Black Swan Lake of COVID-19 has gone live in the theaters across the world. Everyone has found himself or herself with a role in a show that no one auditioned or could have rehearsed for in advance. You haven’t listened to this exact musical score before, and you aren’t entirely sure what you will hear next. But the music isn’t stopping any time soon, and you don’t get to hide behind the curtain.
There are many things that can help determine whether someone falls flat on their face or dances this Black Swan Lake with dignity and grace. Everyone will wobble, but we can learn to step with humility. Self-compassion will smooth out learning as we go. Overconfidence is not our friend, but we must step forth with courage. We must act boldly but not brashly.
Don’t pretend to have superpowers that you do not possess. There were no crystal balls next to the Purel that were cleared off of the shelves. Putting on pointe shoes does not give you prophetic power. Right now, we can plan but we cannot accurately and precisely predict. We tend to favor an inaccurate forecast over no weather prediction at all. Right now, with so much outside of our control, we may be grasping for something, anything to make sense and bring order to our feelings and the new facts of our life.
History is written every day. Our brain does peculiar things with how it catalogues the past and what information it accesses to inform certain decisions. It is human nature to respond to the present with what worked in the past, but this can be costly and dangerous. It does not serve us to following a map for climbing Kilimajaro when we are swimming in a piranha-filled river in the Amazon. Conversely, there are times when we forget what has happened before, when we really could use a reminder of the compilation of evidence in the life we have lived and existence we have survived. If you are reading this, you have already beat odds that you don’t even consciously account for, or register on a regular basis.
Practice grace with others, grace with self. It is easy to Monday morning quarterback old actions or decisions made by yourself and others. If we operate under the principle that people by and large are trying to do the best that they can with the information available to them at that time, it will color how we are able to come together at a time when this is crucial. Apply the same principle to yourself when you are second guessing choices you’ve made in the past. (I remember hearing somewhere that ballet is beneficial for football players. As it turns out players are now being given an off-season opportunity to develop agility that may change the game they bring to the field in the future.)
Eliminate should. “I should have. . . “ is not going to serve anyone. It seldom does. It most certainly does not in times of crisis. It is only going to be a precursor to shame. Shame is an affective state that can paralyze and hijack your sense of agency in destructive ways. You need all available mental and physical faculties right now. Instead, lean on an understudy for “should” and give “I learned _____ and will do my best to be intentional about _______ in the future” a chance to shine.
Monitor your internal emotional thermometer. Mind the intensity of your feelings as closely as you are paying attention to whether you are starting to spike a fever on your forehead. If you are finding yourself in conversations, environments, or contexts that are serving to trigger and ratchet up anxiety, fear, and panic find an exit ramp. Limit to the extent possible or eliminate entirely exposure to the people and things that are intensifying your distress. This may mean limiting time you are spending in the affective petri dish of certain social media platforms, cutting yourself off from inhaling news coverage after a certain number of minutes, or having your partner reset the password on your investment portfolio. Plan and decide what to do in advance. Monitor in the moment. Make change.
Ask who and what is helping you be your best, most regulated self. It is time to clear the things not serving you out of the cupboard to make space for survival, state-of-emergency psychological essentials. Put them on the shelf next to the beige nonperishables that having a moment and suddenly making a nutritional comeback. (It turns out that in 2020 carbs are a ballerina’s best friend). These mental tools include the ability to refocus by adjusting the zoom of our current lens. Sometimes we need to focus on the best next step. Other times, we need to dial it way back to take in the whole gestalt. Who and what helps you to adjust your perspective? A podcast, a conversation with a friend, sunlight on your skin, and exercise may sound simple but can have a powerful impact on your mental state.
Beware of emotional short cuts. If you jump to conclusions too hastily, or let intense feelings drive impulsive actions, you are likely to break an ankle. An injury like this could be a showstopper for a prima ballerina trying to make it through all four acts of this particular ballet. And, remember: we need to be taking steps to reduce stress on our medical infrastructure.
Find a different angle. This can be a time to look for opportunity (please note: this is not the same is being opportunistic or preying on the vulnerability of others). A mental filter of hopelessness, helplessness, frustration, and fear is not going to make this any easier. Pairing mental shifts with action can help you become emotionally unstuck.
As it turns out, Swan Lake has actually been written with many endings, spanning from the romantic to the tragic.
How will we write this ending?
We need to take authorship and develop the choreography to match. You are being forced to improvise. A dress rehearsal sure would have been helpful, but the reality is that we are live. The lights are on. The music is playing. The curtain is pulled back. We are center stage. It is our chance. This is our Black Swan Lake. Choose how you are going to dance.