Reflections on 2020: Year of the Alchemical Orca

To document events of the year and draw the rough outlines of its themes has come to be a powerful force of habit. But as I get older and accumulate responsibilities, the years pass me by faster and faster, and there is more to occupy my time and less time to dedicate to this activity of reflection. But its importance to my life cannot be understated; to take the time and meditate on the events and decisions that reside within a constrained period of time to launch myself into my future with intention and self-knowledge – it is the examined life whose negation isn’t worth living. The year that has just passed has been, shall we say… unprecedented (I use this word because the number of times we heard someone use it this year was itself unprecedented). So let’s begin.

The year started out already foreshadowing the tumult that was to come. Events were already building towards a higher crescendo in the way that they seemed to accelerate and bring about new changes. In my journal entry from my birthday, I note that a feeling of “when it rains, it pours” was about me.

This was the time when I was contemplating my career future and agonizing endlessly about which path to pursue. I was in the midst of interviewing at one company while I the company I was already working at was undergoing shifts that made me feel like I was prematurely hitting a ceiling. I was on the cusp of deciding whether or not to leave, and the decision itself seemed to parallel an inflection point for the whole organization. I was effectively the last in the line of perception researchers to leave, signaling the end of our exodus and my transition away from perception science. Quite a few folks were shocked to hear of the decision when it finally came to be known and tried to persuade me otherwise, but in the end, my fate was sealed towards shifting my career towards quantitative user experience research. I remember the heaviness that was about me as I contemplated the closing of the door on my academic career and the sealing of the chapter that I had been cultivating with such vigor for about a decade. It still pains me to think of it. But an exit strategy is a thing  always prudent to have for precisely moments such as the one I found myself in, feeling that I was hitting a ceiling and that there was no further room for growth in the position and the niche that I had carved out for myself. I hear echoes of former mentors of mine who had advised me to find a niche and become the go-to person that has expertise and is known for that one thing. For me that came very close to being computational models of the perceptual feeling of own-body selfhood. But I had to also confront the reality that was becoming more and more apparent: there is not much of a market for that particular niche of expertise and the risk of pigeon-holing myself in that domain came to feel too high. If there was ever to be a moment for me to jump ship, it seemed like life was ringing the gong to alert me of its near-arrival. The position at Google seemed to come to me unbeckoned, and my preparedness for it almost coincidental. But in the end, all the pieces to the puzzle fell just where they did, and that was a place not too far from where they belonged. And I have to also mention that it felt like the fulfillment of a decade-long dream of mine, one that a hidden part of my mind, and perhaps life itself, had been secretly steering me towards all along.

It was also the time that a relationship in my life was transforming itself from one beautiful thing to an even much more beautiful thing. I remember feeling like the majestic tree of our romance had taken root in the middle of the lush and beautiful meadow of our friendship. The one true connection that I made at work sealed itself into a cocoon when she left and burst out of its shell on a fateful night in January having undergone the metamorphosis that completed its form. This is the first time that I’ve experienced a transition of this sort and have been skeptical of them in that past. I used to believe that once an interpersonal dynamic is established between two people, it calcifies and becomes quite hard to reshape, and especially so for relations between men and women. But in this case, I like to describe the situation as that we had always been “sub-threshold dating”. There was a spark from the first moment we met that grew into a large flame and sputtered out in fits and starts throughout the 1.5 years we worked together. But it wasn’t until we both moved on from that job that we had to decide that we wanted to still be in each others’ lives. And what an incredible conversation it was when we were both finally able to be honest with each other about the way we had each been feeling, but had been forced to keep quiet about due to being co-workers. When a romantic relationship is born out of a platonic one, it gives the mind time to catch up to the heart, and the heart time to deepen its feelings. In all the time that we worked together my respect and admiration for her only grew, and our connection strengthened as the days and weeks wore on. In the end, after the few months we were apart when she got a new job, the aching gap we left behind in each others’ lives kickstarted the next phase in the process, and thus I find myself in the position of feeling myself to be the luckiest man alive, to have met my soulmate and have the privilege to give and receive the love that rushes through the ether between us. This metamorphosis foreshadows the primary theme of this year, being a year filled with transformations. More on that later.

Little did I know at the time, that dramatic though those changes seemed, they were a mere taste of the Earth-shattering changes that the world was about to undergo. We had been hearing of this so-called novel coronavirus that was detected in China and reports of its danger from December in 2019. Stories like that always seem overly hyperbolic and exaggerated. If only we knew just how big of a danger this new virus actually presented at the time. It wasn’t until March that the realization began to dawn on us. The last trip by plane that I took was at the end of February when I travelled to attend my high school best friend Mark’s wedding in NYC, and at that time the reports were starting to sound serious but there was still only mild concern about it. Soon after I returned, and was preparing for my flight to the Bay Area for orientation and my first day on the new job, I learned that the trip had been cancelled, and that I would start the new job working from home. Still to this day as I write this, I have not set foot in a Google office as an employee. And while the work from home situation has become normal to us, those first few weeks and months were pretty difficult.

A brief detour to discuss what work from home has felt like before describing the pandemic in broader strokes. When work from office was the norm, everyone considered the option to work from home to be a perk and a desirable thing due to its convenience and the avoidance of potentially soul-sucking commutes. The irony of this year is that when everyone (those lucky enough to have the option) went into indefinite work from home in order to quarantine from the virus, it caused so much stress on so many and dramatically changed so much about the way we work in totally unexpected ways. These changes brought with them positives and negatives, and this gives me an opportunity to draw the first theme that I perceive from this most pivotal of years of our lives: there are always multiple angles to situations, and no matter how extreme an evil you find yourself in, it is likely that you can find just as extreme a good associated with it. For example, working from home for the whole year had the disadvantage that it dissolved the boundary between work and life that would normally be provided by a commute and the change of surroundings, which caused work to blend into all aspects of our lives and cause burnout. But simultaneously, this was counterbalanced by the advantage of the time gained by not having to commute. Similarly, it was hard to combat the feeling of working in isolation and having a hard time feeling connected to coworkers and collaborating with them, all the more alienating for me as I was ramping up to the new role and the new company. But, at the same time, the other side of that is the boost to productivity due to minimization of distractions from spontaneous conversations. In this and in so many other ways, the year 2020 was the year that forced us to learn to trace every heavy cloud’s silver lining. As I write this, I am awaiting the inauguration of Joe Biden, and the second impeachment of Donald Trump, two facts that I draw great solace from, in a year that brought so much hurt to so many, and in that way brings balance to the scales.

Returning to the primary topic of discussion, let’s continue to retrace the unfolding of the events related to the global Covid-19 pandemic that has taken us all hostage for nearly a year now. Washington state was the original US epicenter of the pandemic due to the virus managing to get into a few nursing homes and wreaking havoc on them. I remember in those early days monitoring the numbers very closely and tracking the spread of the virus. Several states issued shelter-at-home orders in March. It was a very stressful time due to the uncertainty of just how draconian those orders might be. At the time I likened the feeling to being suspended above an abyss, having come to the end of a long but easy road, to reach the spot where the road gives way to a chasm, obscured by clouds and fog, neither the depth nor the contents of which can be discerned, but being pushed forth into it no less by history’s momentum. Our quarantine gang quickly formed as my sister, new girlfriend and I sheltered together at my place for a few weeks trying to figure out how to stay safe. We had to acclimate to the new normal of wearing masks in public, which at first was such a discomfort and annoyance. We attempted to stock up, but found that the panicked residents of this state (and indeed the whole country) had emptied shelves at every store, with shortages of staples and even toilet paper. I remember fearing that strict curfews might be enacted and that I would not want to be stuck alone if that were to be the case. What was most scary was the dearth of information about the virus and the real possibility that it was a super killer that could wipe out huge chunks of the population. I remember fearing for my parents, stuck in a Lebanon beset by so many other problems each at least as difficult to deal with as the global pandemic. And I remember also just how embarrassing it was to live in this country whose head was rotten and couldn’t manage to mobilize its vast resources to better deal with it.

One of the consequences of the aforementioned chain of events was the acceleratory effect they had on the new relationship. While it did feel like we were off to a head start anyway due to our having  established such a good friendship for quite some time already, it was still a bit early for the kind of constant cohabitation that quarantining together entailed, the relationship being just a month and half old at the time. Needless to say, pandemic-aside, we would surely have ramped up much more slowly. But at the same time, there was definitely a feeling of “making up for lost time”; the circumstance of working together had prevented the relationship from being born when it likely otherwise would have. I remember so distinctly the feeling of destiny that lit up my chest when she first walked into the office and found her seat, coincidently the one right next to mine. I remember the tingles I felt when I shook her hand in the formal gesture of “nice to meet you”, and the smile that we shared before we had learned how to read each others’ signs and body gestures that almost seemed to communicate something more than meets the eye.

During the first 2 months of the pandemic, time began to feel very weird. It was partially due to not having much change in our surroundings, being locked between the same four walls for the most part. But it was also the way in which weekdays and weekends blended into each other, and the weekdays themselves were no longer punctuated by the phase change symbols of the daily commute and other normal signs of the passage of time. Consequently, the days and nights began to blur into one another and the passage of time became quite amorphous. I remember describing this feeling as “the sludge of time”, vaguely referring to Dali’s “the persistence of memory” in the way in which time itself seemed to grow elastic and to stretch out indecipherably as it failed to be contained by our usual time-keeping heuristics.

One of the unfortunate consequences of the pandemic has been the social isolation and the distancing of people from each other and the further dissolution of the social fabric and infrastructure. It’s funny because in the beginning of the shelter-from-home the messaging from health officials stated the need for “social distancing”. There was an effort later on to rebrand this as “physical distancing”. As the more harmful effects of losing social support networks began to manifest, the looming mental health crisis resultant from this isolation as evidenced by the frightening spike in suicides and depression and anxiety, coupled with the sinking realization that this pandemic was here to stay and will be with us at least through 2021, and the economic consequences of shutting everything down – all of this prompted a more nuanced and balanced approach to public policy that attempted to tread the razor’s edge between the multiple abysses that lay on each of the many sides of this difficult moment. In the chaos of an absentee federal approach to dealing with the fallout, the responsibility fell on the states and counties. In this country we saw a huge variance in the approaches taken, largely aligning with party lines.

Some of the most dumbfounding moments of this year of dumbfounding moments related to Trump’s approach of downplaying the dangers and recklessly flapping lips about it in extremely dangerous ways, from casting doubt on the seriousness of the disease, to advocating for the use of dangerous medications to even suggesting that folks inject bleach as a way to deal with it. I suppose we shouldn’t be so surprised that a man who proclaimed that climate change is a hoax to a party base that was already predisposed to be skeptical of it should stoop this far in the decline away from knowledge and scientific understanding. But it was absolutely stupefying to observe nonetheless. There has to be a step too far in the plank-walk away from reason and sense-making. The proliferation of weaponized conspiracy theories is a very dangerous novel mind virus that terrifies me much more than the novel coronavirus, fearsome as that was nevertheless.

As a consequences of this disruption of normal social life, it seemed that a lot of people’s emotionality was very high, even in my own personal life. Tensions flared from the slightest things and people were constantly on edge from not having much social outlet and being forced to be alone and indoors for long and extended periods of time.  We heard reports that domestic violence was spiking and we observed that substance abuse was as well. On a larger scale, the movement towards anti-racism might just be the societal reflection of its individuals’ emotional hysteria. All of this is to be expected since the world had just suffered a dramatic phase change that forced everyone into the coop, whether that be a lonely place, or a place made suffocating from the presence of others with whom friction can likely arise.

The economic fallout as a result of so many businesses being forced to close was another of the more dramatic events of the year. The S&P500 and other indicies saw declines of over 30% in March. A historic record number of people were laid off in a terrifyingly short period of time and lots of economic distress was unfurled upon the population. At the same time, I was able to leverage that negative into a positive as well. I had been learning how to use put options on stocks as a way to hedge against sudden declines in share price and this proved to be highly beneficial to me during this year of declines. It feels paradoxical but as the market around me was freefalling, I was having more success in the stock market than I ever had before thanks to these put options that I was trading. One should never glorify success had at the expense of others’ suffering, but I mention it only by way of adding to the theme that positives and negatives go hand in hand. You often don’t need to look very far when negativity surrounds you to find the positives that likely coexist with it.

Another of the great benefits among damages brought about by the pandemic is the way in which the pandemic pushed many of us to refocus on our core priorities. Being forced to live mostly solitary lives, and all the attendant pain that brings with it, offered the time and opportunity to rethink habits and move in a direction of overall self-improvement. This is the blessing disguised as the calamity of social isolation. When we live our lives purely in the displays we make to our fellow humans we avoid thinking about and confronting the issues that occupy our own interior lives. In contrast, when people are alone for extended periods of time, they are forced to learn how to be comfortable in their skin, in the isolation of anonymity, or else to begin to lose their minds completely. For many this meant getting more serious about meditation, or developing healthy habits and rediscovering  joys in the simple the things in life.

For me this was most definitely the case as I made huge progress on many of the decades-long pursuits of my life, such as the avoidance of intoxications, the maintenance of the meditation habit, maintaining a regular exercise schedule, and getting more serious about gardening. It also prompted me to start living the more outdoorsy life I have been seeking since moving to the northwest. With establishments shuttered and summer upon us, going camping and hiking was a no-brainer. The Olympic Peninsula was destination number 1 for these adventures and over the course of the year, we had camped and hiked all around it and had some of the best experiences in recent memory there. Highlights include Deer Park and climbing most of the way up the Blue Mountain, but also our romantic getaway in Kalaloch Lodge on the western shores. But let’s also not forget the weekend on San Juan Island and the ebike rental that we rode all around the island. We had a ton of fun adventuring for this day and also happened upon a rather serendipitous event. We had reached Lime Kiln lighthouse on the western shore, parked our bikes and walked the short distance to the lighthouse to eat our lunch. As soon as we sat down on the bench to eat we noticed a big commotion in the water, and bunch of people with professional camera equipment photographing it. As we looked closer we noticed that it was Orca whales, probably engaged in a feeding frenzy. It was such a fortuitous occurrence, and we felt blessed by coming upon them, because as soon as we finished eating the Orcas also left due to a whale-watching boat that came close and scared them off. For a brief moment there, our paths and theirs crossed and we shared those special moments in awe and then went about our business.

And this brings me to the image that I’ve chosen to be the symbol of 2020 as lived and experienced by me. I am referring to it as the year of the alchemical Orca, because of the significance of that synchronicitous meeting, but also the symbolic significance of the beautiful creature itself. The black and white coloring on the orca can be seen as a representation of the first theme of the year – the interplay between the positives and negatives. But on a deeper level, the fact that they are mammals that took the challenge of ocean living and turned it into an opportunity to thrive represents its more potent version. The alchemists believed they could transform lead into gold, and mystics interpret this in the spiritual sense that reveals the way in which souls turn suffering into liberation. And in this way we discover a resonance with the deeper theme of the year: the transformations that we were forced to undergo in the moments that so challenged us. Personally, I had a career change and romantic change, but also altered the course of my life for the better in the numerous ways I have described above, and all of these were born of a wise meeting of the moment that the universe and I found ourselves confronting. The Orca is like this too, having risen to become the dominant life form of the ocean, as an animal that must breath air and still carries the vestigial foot bones that its ancestors needed for terrestrial locomotion. When we are placed outside of our comfort zone, we can either recoil in terror and rail against our misfortune, or else we can see the positives and seize the opportunity presented by the chaos in order to rise above the challenge and emerge all the stronger from it.

My journey through 2020 echoed the story of our transformative Orca in another way too. In addition to camping and hiking, I took up paddle-boarding as a new activity which suddenly opened up the landscape to me in an entirely new way. I would now look at a map and wherever I see a body of water, there too I see a potential new adventure to be had. The feeling of being out in the middle of a lake on a beautiful day, with no one around for miles around and my little satchel with snacks and supplies on my board is truly unparalleled. And not to mention ideal for physical distancing. But it mirrors the ontogenic story of the cetaceans, in that they might have initially wandered into the waters as a way to seek refuge, and then came to thrive in the new environment and conquered it, earning them the nickname of “Killer Whales”.

To tie the story of this year to a close, let’s recount one final pair of positives and negatives. The final positive result of the pandemic that I want to discuss has been the huge rush towards digital transformation by many enterprises and companies, in yet another nod to the transformative quality that the year possessed. This particular transformation is one I believe will have far reaching ramifications that will improve our future lives. The world has collectively undergone a forced experiment in this new way of working. Where there is a possibility for things to be done remotely, the current moment and public health crisis has brought it about with pressing urgency. We see this from curbside pickups and online ordering at service providers and retailers, and also in the massive and global shift to working from home. This has been a boon to cloud computing providers that power the video conferencing and online collaborative tools that enable this. And it has also expedited their technological offerings, and capacity/bandwidth to support this massive uptick in worldwide need. Companies across entire swathes of industrial sectors were seen taking their entire operations to the cloud, modernizing their infrastructure, enabling them to continue providing their goods and services in the quarantined world. I believe that in the post-Covid world, we will globally benefit greatly from this increased ability to operate from anywhere with an internet connection.

The final sad note I want to discuss is the slow-motion collapse of Lebanon, whose symbolic climax arrived with the port explosion the images from which shook the world. I was very afraid for my parents when we first started to see what resembled a mushroom cloud emanating from the blast, knowing that their house was not too far from the port. The country was already reeling from its worst economic crisis since the civil war, with the currency devaluing by up to 80%. This with the attendant political crisis that had in fact started in 2019 but froze into a state of suspended animation with deadlock between the people and the political elites. Add to this mix the covid pandemic and you have a country that is unfortunately sinking faster than lead. It was finally time for my parents to get out of there and the explosion only certified that knowledge. They got out thankfully unscathed and are now figuring out how and whether to move their entire lives over here to the US. In my mind, that is a good thing, though it is not without its own set of difficulties. It is not easy to have to reconfigure one’s life for the umpteenth time, and especially at their stage of life. But it is also not easy to languish in the hell that is the current state of Lebanon. So we pick the lesser of two evils, and life moves on.

Finally, on the topic of my spiritual journey, it will now be quite some time since my last full 10 day retreat – 2 years, in fact. This has proven to be quite a challenge and the longest such gap since I started meditating 13 years ago. But in line with the overriding theme of the year, it is an opportunity as well. We grow most when placed into situations that stretch us and challenge us, and in this it is no different. I had come to rely on these retreats as crutches for my spiritual journey and as a result would be more forgiving of my constant failure to maintain a meditation habit and a life of Sila. I would know that the next retreat was coming up and I’d have the chance to re-establish my practice. But with a global pandemic that has lasted for over a year now, my over a decade-long pattern has been shattered and I have been forced to adapt. And this has done me much greater good than harm for precisely that reason. As a result, I am able to maintain the practice with more discipline now, realizing the need to do so with no upcoming retreat in the near future to hold out hope for. And this mental discipline has manifested in other areas of my life as well, in subtle yet palpable undercurrents of maturity and wisdom begotten from the traversal through the treacherous terrain of life experience. It has taught me to be self-sufficient and self-motivated in the matters of the spirit, and to live my values, but also to ground them in my living. No need for mystical statements that cannot be observed anymore; I shall follow the guidance of what I directly observe and only that.

It has taken me quite a bit longer than usual to pen this sprawling discussion of a life-changing year of unprecedented change. Many times during the year I found myself thinking that “this is the new normal”, and the temptation was definitely there to sever ties with the past, to ride the new wave to greener pastures, and re-invent myself as I saw fit. But all the same, this exercise has and will continue to pay dividends, all the more so the longer I keep at it. As a force of habit, it has developed quite a great deal of momentum. And as with all forces that gather, it becomes harder and harder to suspend its activities. It has become so engrained now that as the year’s end nears, I find my mind automatically craning to review the events that stretch back around the ellipse of Earth’s orbit. And in doing so, it stitches the narratives together largely on its own and serves up the themes and patterns to me as though a message to be delivered. It is futile to resist, little though I have the time to keep at it. And so, here ends my message of reflection for this most fateful of all the years in recent memory. May the coming years prove also transformative, though possibly in less excruciating ways, and may all beings and Orcas be happy.

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