The Daunting Wall – Lessons from a pandemic

I think we woke up with almost two hours grace. I could sense my friend was restless. Our sleep was repeatedly interrupted with micro-anticipatory-awakenings. I am sure he would have woken up another 35 minutes earlier. Knowing him, he would have accounted for those 5 min too. And in retrospect, I would have liked the additional time as well. He even had the hotel pack our breakfast for us to go. We both adopt unique “planning” strategies. And often, I am happy to relinquish some responsibilities when someone else is better equipped to handle them. I think that realization is important in our field. We often work in teams, and communication and delegation emerge as important elements of success. Most people when asked, grossly overestimate their competence at a task. So I personally welcome the seasonal reminders. Division of labor makes things easier and strengthens bonds profoundly. Everything starts with trust. That morning, I was entrusted with getting us there.

We were both chomping at the bit. Even if neither of us physically perceived it. It was still pitch black. The embrace of the wilderness was palpable. Our windows were down and we were serenely absentminded. The radio was off. It was just the sounds of the world returning to life. It was as if the scene unfolding in front of us knew our disoriented brains were still waking up. We couldn’t remember the last time we smelled air so fresh and it was as if our noses were up against the tree bark in the distance. The only perturbation to that serenity were a few cars rushing from behind whose motives, I conjecture, were similar to ours, but whose impetuousness prevented them from enjoying the journey there. We couldn’t be bothered. After all, just a day before, our guide gave us exact directions to the best spot to watch it with all its glory. Complete with a pit stop where you can kneel down and drink nature-distilled, stone-cold spring water. We filled our bottles and anxiously looked for the landmark, at the not so secret spot. A big tree in the middle of a road pullout. We found it. Just in time for the big event at around 6:50 am.

I share that story as I sit nearly two months into my pseudo-quarantine during the “unprecedented” COVID-19 pandemic, scrutinizing my own social distancing record. My generation has been relatively lucky to thrive during the most peaceful, technologically prolific, and socially woven period in human existence. Still, I am cognizant that, someone elsewhere on earth, may completely disagree with that assessment. Human achievement and its precursors should not be a privilege, rather a right. If you read my post early this year, you would have felt my self-assured optimism I had espoused for the year 2020. As it turns out, 2020 brought about what might be the greatest collective test for the human race. But it is a survival of the fittest scenario, except this time barriers are brought to the forefront. We defeated viral and bacterial pandemics many times in our history through innovations and science. But never has a virus – a tiny piece of nucleic code encased in protein – brought the world to a collective grinding halt where it was so tangibly felt across the planet. This innate code that unites us homo sapiens, is being unraveled, as if to epitomize the epigenetic unraveling of our own chromatin to adapt to a new norm. I have never witnessed such transcontinental collaboration and pan-societal discipline in the fight against something imperceptible and biologically dead (until it annexes a cell). That right there might be the epitome of human resilience. Greed and resilience cannot co-exist.

This concept of resilience made me think of an incredible documentary I had watched – ironically during this pandemic. It is about a free climber named Tommy Caldwell who, with a stranger-turned-friend, named Kevin Jorgeson, scaled the nearly 1 kilometre, impossibly slick rock over the course of 19 days. Conveniently, I got to see what that rock looked like as the sun rose over its Dawn Wall. Free climbers use equipment only to protect against falling but not to advance their climbing. It is not uncommon for them to camp and sleep while suspended in portaledges. Can you imagine? Sleeping while suspended against cold granite and flailing in the wind. It was remarkable to watch. What was more extraordinary is that Tommy had lost an index finger due to an injury prior to attempting the Dawn Wall. In the eyes of many, his career was over. But Tommy possessed a quality few people are able to achieve. Tommy was resilient. His disability amplified his determination. He studied the rock. He faced his challenge with a sober view of the reality of the situation. He purposefully thought to himself: “This is going to be the hardest thing I ever did” and “I am going to lose a few nails doing this”. He was being realistic about the amount of time, pain and sweat he needs to expend. He envisioned himself at the summit and before getting there, he envisioned what he would do immediately after every milestone in order to compound those mini-successes. He searched for meaning in that incipient success but also wherever he failed along the way.

In 1998, one year prior to my arrival in Canada, Google was a dorky search engine that you connected to using analog ways. The search mechanism has evolved a lot since. Now, you can take a photo of a passage and let Google detect the text, then click on words within the text to discover their meanings. This was only escapist fantasy when I was an adolescent. We have the technical knowledge to defeat this pandemic. We need the collective will, the kind of will that extends past this challenge to reassess a lot of disparities, barriers, and imminent crises that can threaten our existence. We need to step back, embrace simplicity, elevate human welfare, generously share knowledge and wealth, we need to prepare with capitalism and care with socialism. We need to traverse with resilience, planting anchors along the way in order the reach that plateau, but this time stay there. This pandemic is no difference. It will be a precursor to many societal, institutional, political and humanitarian reexaminations and innovations. I am a glass full kind of guy. And I am certainly for #caremongering.

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