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Living in "Not A"

Updated: Sep 11, 2020

Oh, how I long for times that are simply “precedented.” Well, and maybe I don’t.

All my life, I have felt most alive when things were going “less-than-well” or at least when there was obvious, palpable challenge. I feel most at home when what’s next is not clear. I remember September 11th, when I was living less than 2 miles from the Pentagon and we walked down to the Salvation Army, where we heard they were sending trucks of people down to the crash site to help. I loved it. It was real. It was alive. It was not routine.

Recently, while preparing for a course, I stumbled across a TED talk by Beau Lotto, professor of neuroscience, about the experience of awe and why it matters. In the talk, he made this point that was so obvious and yet needed to be expressly stated. “When we’re trying to go from point A to point B, the first step isn’t B. It’s ‘not A’.”

When we move from one place, one state, one experience to another, there is always and inevitably this place of not one and not the other. Often, we have the illusion the we know what B will look like and so we skip over the awe, the weightlessness, the wonder of “what is this place between?” because we’re so focused on how much closer we’re getting to what we think we know is the logical conclusion of gravity, of our effort, of the contractual way we relate to our lives.

In the middle of the talk, two performers from Cirque du Soleil offered a first-hand experience of awe. They took turns, as they swung and flew and rolled and fell through the air, being in “not A.” I was holding my breath and covering my eyes and then, as my brain worked on how to prevent this experience, my rational mind decided that this is a recorded talk and that it was highly unlikely that either of the performers was harmed.

Once I"knew" I was able to relax.

The problem is that awe and relaxation are not compatible. That’s what’s awesome about awe, if you’ll forgive me. It’s about holding your breath. It’s about being surprised and about being weightless and then not. I suspect that aerialists and other acrobats would be unlikely to tell you that their favorite part about what they do is when they get to stand on the platform and wait.

They do what they do because they feel alive when they are not here and not there.

They can’t fall asleep.

They can’t be bored.

They can’t forget what they’re doing.

They feel and see and sense every second.

Of course, there’s a reason people don’t actually take an intricate system of trapeze bars to work or skip the elevator for a free fall onto a giant trampoline to get a coffee at lunch. Our nervous systems don’t do well with that kind of constant alertness and intense not-knowing.

Even so, I wonder. What if we could think about our own lives and even this time of COVID-19 as swinging from platform to platform? What if we could feel the awe and the breathless wonder of “I could fall” and answer with “and then what?” letting this last question just hang there like the trapeze artist right before a partner’s hands appear for the catch?

We don’t know what will happen. Ever. Why should now be any different? I, for one, don't want to miss the wonder in my rush through the “not A”-ness of this time.


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