Chris Anderson: Well, hello, Helen. Very nice to see you.
CA: You staying well? Helen Walters: How's it going?
CA: These are mad, mad, mad, mad, mad days. So many emotions. Not all bad, happily, but I'm just so aware that, among the people listening to this, some are in really tough times right now. I hope this is going to be a beautiful hour of therapy and help in its own way, because we have with us just an extraordinary author, an extraordinary mind, Elizabeth Gilbert, obviously known for her astonishing best-selling success with "Eat, Pray, Love," although her favorite book from my point of view is called "Big Magic," where the subtitle is, "Creative Living Beyond Fear." "Creative Living Beyond Fear." Now when you think about it, that is a pretty good agenda for today's conversation, I think. Liz describes the emotional landscape of our lives, I think like no one else I've read, and I'm not even her target audience. She's really extraordinary in doing that. She gave an amazing TED Talk 11 years ago now, "In pursuit of your creative genius." It really reframed how to think of creativity. It's been seen, like, 19 million times or something, and it's really changed how a lot of people — they're just open to the creative genius coming from the outside. So it's a delight to welcome to the TED Connects stage Elizabeth Gilbert.
Elizabeth Gilbert: Hey, Chris.
CA: Great to see you. How are you? Where are you? Who are you living with or staying with? What's up?
EG: I'm fine. I don't want to brag, but I'm in New Jersey, where anybody would want to be. I'm by myself. I've got a little house out in the country, and I think I'm on day 17 of no human contact other than virtually, and I'm well. I'm not anybody you need to be worrying about right now. So I'm good.
CA: Wow. Well, so in a way, you're having a related experience to what so many people are having. I mean, these are days of isolation for many people, and that brings with it lots of difficult emotions, in a way. And we're going to go through many of them, I hope, in the next hour. So I'm hoping to talk with you about — I wrote down a list here: about anxiety, loneliness, curiosity, creativity, procrastination, grief, connection and hope. How about that? That's our agenda. Are you up for that?
EG: I think that's the whole buffet.
Just a little light tasting menu of all the mass of human emotions. Let's do it. Absolutely.
CA: I think it's probably good to dive straight in with the anxiety that I know a lot of people are feeling right now. So many reasons to be anxious, both for yourself, your loved ones, and just for this time and for the world and how we all get through this. Have you been feeling anxiety, Liz? And how do you think of it? What can you say to us?
EG: I have been, and I think you would have to be either a sociopath or totally enlightened not to be feeling anxiety at a moment like this. So I would say that the first thing that I would want to encourage everybody to do is to give themselves a measure of mercy and compassion for the difficult emotions that you're feeling right now. They're extremely understandable. I think sometimes our emotions about our emotions become a bigger problem, so if you're feeling frightened and anxious, and then you're layering shame on top of that because you feel like you should be handling it better, or you should be doing your isolation better, or you should be creating more while you're alone, or you should be serving the world in some better way, now you've just multiplied the suffering, right? So I think that the antidote for that, first of all, is just a really warm, loving dose of compassion and mercy towards yourself, because if you're in anxiety, you're a person who is suffering right now, and that deserves a show of mercy.
The second thing that I would say about anxiety is this, that here's what I think is the central paradox of the human emotional landscape that I'm finding particularly fascinating right this moment, and it's really come to light for me. So there are these two aspects of humanity that don't match — hence the word paradox — but they really define us. And the first is that there is no species on earth more anxious than humans. It's a hallmark of our species, because we have the ability slash curse to imagine a future. And also, once you've lived on earth for a little while, you have the experience to recognize this terrifying piece of information, which is that literally anything can happen at literally any moment to literally any person. And because we have these vast, rich, colorful imaginations, we can see all sorts of terrifying movies in our heads about all of the possibilities and all of the scariest things that could occur. And actually, one of the scariest things that could occur is occurring. It's something that people have imagined in fiction and imagined in science, and it's actually happening right now, so that's quite terrifying. The paradox is that, in that level, we're very bad, emotionally, at fear and anxiety, because we stir ourselves up to a very heated degree because of our imaginations about how horrible it can get, and it get can get very horrible, but we can imagine it even worse.
The paradox is that we're also the most capable, resourceful and resilient species that has ever lived on earth. So history has shown that when change comes to humanity — either on the global level, like it's happening now, or on the personal level — we're really good at it. We're really good at adaptation. And I think that if we can remember that, it can help to actually mitigate the fear. And you can remember it in a historical perspective, by looking at what humanity has gone through, and what we have not only survived but figured out how to thrive through. And you can also look at it at a personal level, where you can make an inventory of what you yourself have survived, and notice, as I often notice, my panic and my anxiety about the imagined future is deadly on my nervous system, but I actually have discovered that when there's an actual emergency in the moment, I tend to be pretty good at it. And I think most of us are like that. You'll see that repeated in history in so many examples. I think about those heartbreaking and devastating phone messages that people were leaving for their loved ones from the towers on September 11th, and you can hear the calm, the calm in peoples' voices. The biggest emergency ever was happening, and in that moment, intuition told them what to do. The important thing to do now is to make this phone call. And I think if you can trust that when the point of emergency actually arrives, you'll be able to meet it, and then when the world changes, you'll be able to adapt to it — it certainly helps me calm down.
CA: I mean, I guess there's a reason why fear is there. It didn't just evolve by accident. It's supposed to direct our behavior and help us avoid danger, and it's just that sometimes, it gets out of control and actually gets in our way and damages us. I mean, any specific advice on how someone could turn their fear into something useful, at this moment?
EG: Can I tell you a story that I'm using as a touchstone for myself right now and drawing wonder and inspiration from? So, some of you may have heard of a young woman named Amanda Eller. She was in the news recently, because she got lost in Hawaii in the wilderness for 17 days, and there was a massive, massive hunt for her, because she had left her car, she'd gone for a simple hike, had left her phone in her car, went up into the woods, took a wrong turn, and then had this disastrous 17 days, fell off a cliff, broke her leg, walked for 40 miles on a broken knee, lost her shoes in a flash flood. She had to sleep packed in mud in order to protect herself from the cold and the mosquitoes. She was eating moths. I mean, just a harrowing story of survival. I met her recently, and she was so lit and radiant with this kind of serenity and this kind of wonder and joy, and I said, "How are you like this? You went through one of the most traumatizing things that a person could go through." She said, "First of all, I discovered that I can survive anything," going back to this idea of how resourceful and adaptive humans actually are. But the piece of her story that I am using like a life raft right now is that she said, on her second day in the jungle, when she realized that she was truly and very much in trouble — she'd already spent one night in the woods and she was completely lost and she was totally alone and no one knew where she was, and she was full of terror — she said she closed her eyes and she prayed or asked or requested, she made a wish to herself, to consciousness, to the universe, and she said, "Please take my fear away, and when I open my eyes, have it be gone, and have it be gone and have it not come back." And she opened her eyes, and it was gone, and it was replaced by intuition. And I think intuition is a little bit the opposite of fear, because fear is the terror that you feel about a frightening imagined future. Intuition can only happen when you're in the moment. And so, from that point forward, she did not experience fear for the rest of the time she was in the woods. She just was guided by some deep intuitive sense, located somewhere between her sternum and her navel, and in every moment, she would ask it, "Right or left?" "Up or down?" "Eat this? Don't eat this?" And just trust it. Complete, absolute surrender to the intuition of the moment. And she said it hasn't returned, the fear hasn't returned, and she still guides her life that way. So it's a return to some sense that there's a navigational system within you that will, if you stay present in this actual moment, tell you what to do one moment to the next. Now, if you want to suffer, pop out of the moment and imagine a future, and then you can suffer indefinitely. So it is almost like a spiritual or meditation practice, and anybody out there who's done any spiritual or meditation practices, this is what you were practicing for. You were practicing for this moment, and those of you who haven't tried that, this might be a really [inaudible] to be centered in the instant.
CA: Wow, that's a remarkable story, and I guess what I'm hearing is two things. It's one, just the reaching out to the universe there, but specifically, there was a decision to let go of the future and just to focus on the moment.
EG: That's it, yeah. Nothing will bring you more pain than the future, and what I'm seeing happening right now — I said this to you the other day, Chris — is there's a relatively small percentage of the population who will suffer physically from this disease, and there's a larger percentage who are going to suffer economically from it. But then there's this massive, uncountable number of people who will and are suffering from it emotionally, and right now, those people are my concern, because they're really in pain, and there's millions and millions of them.
CA: So you're living there by yourself, Liz, and many others are in that same circumstance right now. I suspect some are feeling, like, crushing loneliness. Talk about that. How do you handle loneliness in a situation like this, when it's so alien to everything that we as a social species are usually about? We crave other people. We crave touch. We crave hugs. We want to be there with people. How can we avoid this being a period of crushing loneliness?
EG: I don't think you can avoid it, but I think you can walk toward it. And I think that, for me, I've deliberately, many times in my life, gone off into isolation in order to face those things. I've gone on long meditation retreats. This year, I was in India, and I spent 17 days alone with no contact with anybody, which was a weird practice run for what's happening right now. And as I see people really losing it and feeling like they're crawling out of their skin, either from anxiety, fear, boredom, anger, blame, loneliness, depression, all of these things that come up when you are forced to just be in your own presence. I know all of those feelings because, as a meditator, I've experienced all of those, in stillness. The hardest person in the entire world to be with is yourself, and so the only way that I learned, as a meditator, to be able to survive and endure my own company was with universal human compassion toward me, and to recognize that this is a person who is suffering right now from loneliness, and this person needs kindness from self towards self. And it's a very high teaching, but I think that it's a very interesting moment to practice that. And so what I would suggest to people — and again, this takes a certain amount of resolve and it takes a certain amount of curiosity about learning more about the human experience — what I'm seeing people do is people are spinning away from that isolation because they're so terrified of it. What happened with the world right now is that basically all of our pacifiers were yanked out of our mouths. Everything that we ever can do and reach for that can get us out of having to be in the existential crisis of being alone with ourselves was taken away. And I see people rushing to fill it, I mean, constant Zoom meetings and constant parties online and constant interaction, and all of that is lovely, but from a spiritual and psychological standpoint, from a creative standpoint, I would say if you have any curiosity about this, don't be in such a hurry to rush away from an experience that could actually transform your life. I think sometimes the experiences that can transform us the most intimately are the ones that we want to run away from, and I think of a story that the Dalai Lama told about one of his teachers. When the Chinese invaded Tibet, and all the monks were running into India for safety, one of his teachers, who was one of the great masters, the last glimpse that the Dalai Lama had of him was that he was walking into China — very patiently and very slowly, toward it. Everybody else was running away from it — he was walking toward it, and I think there's a level at which first responders do that, and in the real world, in an intimate way, they go into the emergency, they go toward the emergency. All the people who are trying to solve this now in worldly ways are walking toward the emergency. But there's a way that you can do it emotionally as well and that is to walk with curiosity and with an open mind toward your most difficult and painful emotions without resistance, and say, "What is it like for a person to feel like they don't have something to do for an hour?"
And you can open up your compassion in that. There's so many lessons in compassion that can be found here. How about a general universal mercy that we can all feel toward people who are in solitary confinement. Let's have that be part of the conversation. Now you've experienced it for two days in your own house. Maybe it's time to change the prison system? You see how hard this is. Or you can have compassion toward people who have lost a loved one and they're alone. By feeling your own feelings, you can open up your feelings more universally toward the world. So I think there's a great opportunity here for growth on the personal level, but you have to have almost a whimsical curiosity to be the one walking into China rather than the one away from it. And that's how I'm doing it right now.
CA: So let's follow up on that word "curiosity" that you've used a few times there. I mean, a lot of wisdom that I've heard sort of thrown around online right now is, "This is a great time to follow your passion and dive deep into whatever it is you've most been wanting to do." I mean, in "Big Magic," you made an argument that following your passion isn't necessarily the wisest strategy. You argued, no, don't do that, follow curiosity. Does that apply now? Make that case.
EG: Yeah, you know, I've been on a personal crusade to rid the world of the world "passion" as an instruction for people on how as they should be living, because I know that in my case, it brings me nothing but anxiety. "Purpose" is another one that has become a cudgel that we use to bludgeon ourselves into thinking that we're not doing enough or that we're doing life right or that you're supposed to be more useful, more productive, you're supposed to be changing the world, or uncovering some particular talent that only you have and with it, you're supposed to transform everybody and monetize it, no pressure. I start to get hives even repeating that, but that's what we've been taught, that purpose and passion are everything. I would like to replace it with a far gentler word, and I think "curiosity" is very gentle, because the stakes are so much lower. The stakes of passion say you have to shave your head and move to India and get rid of all your possessions and start up, like — It's so intense. But curiosity is a very simple, universal experience that causes you to want to look at something just a tiny bit closer, and you don't have to change your life around it. You just look, and it might be taking a weekend to try something new for a little while. It's almost so easily missed, and I think so many times, we're looking way up at the sky for the sign from God of what our passion and what our purpose is supposed to be, and meanwhile, there's this lovely little trail of breadcrumbs of curiosity that if you can slow down — and again, this is about not rushing out of the experience of being silent, still and alone — if you can slow down, you might be able to see them. But if I could say one thing I'm noticing is an obstacle right now — because I think a lot of people thought, "Isolation, great, this is the perfect time for me to learn Italian and take that calligraphy class and start writing that novel," and they find that they're actually in a paralysis of anxiety and they're not creating anything or doing anything. First of all, again, like, a blanket of mercy on you. These are hard times, and it might take you a minute in your nervous system and your mind to adjust to the new reality. But the second thing I would say is that when people are saying they're having trouble with their creativity because they're in isolation, I might daringly suggest that perhaps you're not in enough isolation. And by that I mean, are you monitoring how much external stimulus you're bringing of this disaster into your home? So if you're sitting watching the news all day, what you're doing is you're bringing the disaster into your work space. You're bringing it into your soul. You're bringing it into your mind. And you're going to create the opposite of a creative environment, an environment of fear, panic and urgency. So I think if you're going to be a good steward of your creativity right now, you have to isolate a little bit from the news. And that doesn't mean disconnecting, it means I get up every morning and after I've meditated, I read the New York Times and I give myself 40 minutes with it, and then that's it for the day, because I know that if I bring in any more, I'm going to go into a traumatized state and then I won't be able to follow my intuition, I won't be able to help people, because I myself will be suffering, and I won't be able to be present for this very interesting moment in my life and in history, and I want to remain present for it as much as I can. So there's a discipline of being a good steward of your senses and deciding what you're going to put your senses in front of.
HW: Liz, there's an outpouring on Facebook of gratitude for you. People are so grateful, and grateful for the calm that you are instilling in us all, so thank you, from them and from me. We've also had a number of questions about grief. We're kind of dealing with grief at a different scale at the moment. One person has already lost five people to coronavirus. And so any thoughts of how to manage grief at this scale or how to process this in a way that honors both them and yourself?
EG: First of all, my condolences. And I think any words that I would say about somebody who just lost five family members could only be inadequate. Grief is bigger than us. It's bigger than your efforts to manage it, and if you want to hold yourself and your family members compassionately through grief, you have to allow that it cannot be managed. And I think that grief management is something that we've kind of created in our very Western idea that if we can figure out something, we can avoid suffering from it, so if we can figure out how to translate grief and if we can figure out how to walk through grief, then we won't have to experience the magnitude of it. Many of you know that I lost the love of my life two years ago from pancreatic and liver cancer, and I was with her when she died, and I've been walking through my own path of grief, so I know what it feels like to lose the person in the world who is the most important to you, which is of course the biggest fear that we all have. I know that you can survive it, but I know that you survive it by allowing yourself to feel it. And again, to go back to the metaphor of the monk walking directly into China, into conflict rather than away from it, do you have the courage to let it break over you like waves? I wish I could remember her name. There's this extraordinary woman who wrote a book called "Here If I Need You," and she's a chaplain for the police department in Maine, and she's in charge of knocking on people's doors and giving them the worst news they're ever going to hear in their life, when she goes with the police when something happens. And she told a story once that I found very moving and very helpful for me in my grief. She said what she'd witnessed through years and years of sitting with people through what is literally the worst moment of their life, the nightmare of that loss, is that when she knocks on that door and tells that person, your daughter, your family member, your husband, your mother has been killed, there's this universal collapse where the person will just be — it is the tidal wave that comes and just takes you down and you lose all civilization, you lose all your attainments, all your wisdom. Nothing can stand up to that. You literally go to the floor. And you sob and you grieve, and she holds them through that. And then she said that what she's learned is the most astonishing thing, that that never lasts more than a half an hour, that first wave. It can't. You actually physiologically can't sustain that, and if you let it break over you and you just allow it, then within a half an hour, usually sooner — and she said this has happened every single time she's been with somebody with a loved one's death — the very next thing that happens is that that person calms down, they catch a breath, and the next question they ask is a very reasonable question. "Where is the body? What do we do next? When can we have the funeral? Who else was in the car?" And with that question, she says, they start to rebuild their new life already with this new piece of information that even an hour ago would have seemed unsurvivable. And she uses that as an example of, once again, the tremendous psychological resilience of a human being. And it doesn't mean that they will never grieve again. It doesn't mean that their grieving journey is over. It just means that, somewhere in their mind, that it's landed, and now, already, they're making a plan about, "OK, who do we need to notify, what's the next thing we need to do."
And again, if you can remember this as you go through your panic, if you can remember that in the moment of emergency, there will be an intuitive, deep sense that will tell you there's going to be some next steps and it's time for us to take those next steps, and if you can also remember that resilience is our shared genetic and psychological inheritance — we are, each and every one of us, no matter how anxious you feel you are, no matter how ridden by fear you feel you are, every single one of us is the genetic survivor of hundreds of thousands of years of survivors. Each one of us came from a line of people who made the next correct intuitive move, survived incredibly difficult things, and were able to pass their genes on. So almost to the biological level, you can relax into a trust that when the moment comes where you will be faced with the biggest challenge, you will be able to draw on a deep reservoir of shared human consciousness that will say, "Now it's time to make the next move, and we can do this."
HW: So beautiful. So many more questions. I will be back.
EG: Thanks, Helen. CA: Thank you, Liz. I think the author's name was Kate Braestrup.
EG: That's it.
CA: I guess that's a book, if you need a book right now, "Here If You Need Me" by Kate Braestrup.
EG: Very good, yeah.
CA: Liz, you and I got to have a conversation a few months after Rayya passed away. It was actually the first-ever episode of the TED Interview podcast we did. And I found that it was probably my favorite episode ever of the TED Interview. And it was so moving how you spoke about your grief then. And I feel like that's a potential resource to people. I know we were both sitting there shedding tears, and I found that an extraordinary experience personally, to be sure. But somehow ... in this moment, if you follow this journey of curiosity, if you walk towards some of the harder moments, do you think that this actually can be a creative time for people if they're willing to do that?
EG: Absolutely, and I don't think creativity in this case has to necessarily mean that you write the Great American Novel or start that business you always intended to start. It doesn't need to be so literal. We're going to be creating new worlds and new lives on the other side of this, and we're going to be doing that individually and we're going to be doing that collectively. I think of the shoots of small trees that can only come up after massive forest fires, where seed pods have to explode under great heat. We're in a kind of crucible moment right now, and I wouldn't begin to have the hubris to predict what sort of creativity will come, but look, if history is any measure, what we'll probably see is people at their best and people at their worst. But I think we'll see more of people at their best, because that's typically how it works.
CA: I mean, your model of how creativity happens is that it doesn't all come from within. It's not like you have to sit there, saying, "OK, this is my moment to be creative. Come on. Be creative. Be creative." It involves, fundamentally, an openness to something coming to you, to be open, to be curious, listening, but then just to be open to that moment. Perhaps that could apply even more now than ever, just because we have this huge distraction of the news, some other distractions are taken away. Is there a chance that if people listened, they actually can receive more at this moment?
EG: I think so, and I think, again, if you stop thinking about your self-isolation and your social distancing as quarantine and you start thinking of it as a retreat, you'll find that you can't really tell the difference between quarantine and retreat. You know, a lot of you out there have dreamed, I've heard you, because I talked about going to India to an ashram for four months and God, I can't tell you how many people I've heard say, "I wish I could do that." I'm like, "Well, you got it." And by the way, this is what it felt like. This is what it felt like to learn how to be present with yourself. I think my screen needs to move a bit. To learn how to be present with yourself means sitting in a lot of terror, sitting in a lot of anxiety, sitting in a lot of fear, sitting in a lot of shame, and being able to allow that without having to resist it, without having to reach outside yourself for something to numb yourself with.
I also want to tell a story that a friend of mine, Martha Beck, told me about when she goes to South Africa and teaches animal-tracking courses. And she works with all these great African animal trackers, and these old men who have had these skills passed down for generations. And she was using it as an example of the difference between focus and openness. So I think sometimes the mistake people make when they want to be creative is they think they have to get really focused, and focus is an anxiety-producing energy as well. You've got to drill down and you feel your whole body tense. But what she described witnessing in these animal trackers is when they go out to hunt the lions, these old, old men, the very first thing they do is they sit down against a tree and they appear to go to sleep. They drop into a state that she calls and that the mystics call "wordless oneness." And wordless oneness, you can also call meditation. You can also call it the zone. But it's a stillness where you actually can drop your nervous system into such a quiet place that you have 360-degree awareness of your senses and of presence. And they'll sit like that, apparently doing nothing, for an extremely long time, just looking through half-lidded eyes at the world. And then, maybe an hour, two hours in, all of the sudden, they'll say, "The lion's over there." And so for me, I've learned to hold my creative wishes lightly in that same way. I'm between books right now and I don't have an idea for a book and in the past, that would have made me really anxious, but now I know — take a lot of naps, go for a lot of walks, do a lot of drawings. I'm doing weird little art projects as I'm sitting here, to distract my mind.
CA: Wait, wait. Bring that back. Hold that up.
EG: Owls. (Laughs)
CA: Aww. EG: Aren't they dear?
CA: They're beautiful. Goodness me.
EG: Well, I'm just playing with color and texture because it calms me, and I think if you can't think of what to do right now, I would suggest doing what you used to do when you were 10 years old that made you feel happy and relaxed, and that's often creativity and play. And for many of us who were anxious children — and I was an anxious child — we learned at an early age that we could sedate ourselves with our curiosity and with our play, and then, usually around adolescence, the world taught us that there were faster and more immediate ways to bump out of that anxiety through sex or substances or distraction or workaholism or whatever we did and not have to sit with ourselves. And I think right now is a really good opportunity — You actually were on the right track when you were 10, whatever it was. So, you know, get some LEGOs. Get some LEGOs, get some coloring books, just get your hands in the mud, do whatever it is that will actually ground you into this, again, to take you out of the futurizing and the future-tripping that's going to cause you nothing but anxiety and not going to make you be of service.
There's such a thing, too, that I just want to touch on if I can, for a minute, about empathetic overload and empathetic meltdown. We're taught that empathy is a good thing. I would suggest that in a case this traumatic, what you want to talk about replacing empathy with is compassion, and the difference is extremely important. So compassion means "I'm actually not suffering right now, you are, I see your suffering, and I want to help you." That's what compassion is. Empathy is "You're suffering, and now I'm suffering because you're suffering." So now we have two people suffering and nobody who can serve, and nobody who can be of help, and if you knew how your empathetic suffering actually makes you into another patient who needs assistance, you would be more willing to dip into compassion. And what underlies compassion is the virtual courage, the courage to be able to sit with and witness somebody else's pain without inhabiting it yourself so much that you become another person who is suffering and now, there are no helpers. And it takes an enormous amount of courage to be able to watch that without diving into it and joining it and becoming sick yourself.
CA: I mean, if empathy is just a feeling, does compassion, your use of compassion imply that it's turning that feeling into something potentially practical to actually do something, if you can, for that person?
EG: It's recognizing that if I feel your pain, I can't help you in your pain, because now my pain has taken over me, and sometimes, I think all you need to do is know that and it makes you turn the ship. Right? One of my favorite teachers, Byron Katie, says, "My favorite thing about my suffering is that it isn't yours." "My favorite thing about my suffering is that it isn't yours. My favorite thing about your suffering is that it isn't mine." So it will be, eventually, we all take a turn suffering. You cannot move through this earth without it. When it's your turn, you'll know. When it's not your turn, stay out of that field of somebody else's pain, because you can't help them when you're in pain yourself. And then see if you can find the inner resolve and courage. And I think some of that is just based on accepting the Buddhist First Noble Truth, which is that suffering is an unavoidable aspect of life on earth. We're all going to be in it at some point. We've all been in it at some point. And now, how can I help? I'm not saying this is easy. I'm just saying, also, if you're suffering from empathetic overload and empathetic meltdown, which means your adrenals are up, your stress is up, your endorphins are down, you're going into a parasympathetic collapse — this would be another time to discipline yourself to stay away from the news, because you actually will have a breakdown, and you won't be able to help the people around you who are the people who need help.
CA: But have you seen any signs that if someone takes that empathy and compassion, let's say, and decides to act in some way, big or small, on behalf of someone, that actually shifts how they feel, that there's a healthiness to that? Or is that the language of just inducing more guilt in people?
EG: No, I think there's a beautiful healthiness that can come from being of service, and that's also how I've been medicating my anxiety through this, by showing up in ways that I can with whatever resources I've got. Here's what you have to keep in mind, though, and this is what I keep reminding people. Right now, in my own personal sphere, there is more need than I have resources to fix. So I have to begin with that reality, and I have to have the courage to sit in that reality soberly and acknowledge that that's the case. The second thing I think emotional sobriety would require of me right now is to recognize that this is going to be a marathon, not a sprint. And so the first week of the crisis, I had this deluge of all my really energized, let's-save-the-world friends, all my creative friends, everybody was e-mailing, texting, Zooming, and they all had a response. "Let's do this! Let's do this! Let's fix it this way!" And I found myself joining with some of them and not joining with others, just, again, based on my intuition, but I also found myself cautioning them, "Guys, this is a marathon." We're in mile one of what's going to be a very long marathon. So pace yourselves, and pace your resources. Don't overgive to the point where you collapse, because we're still going to need helpers two months from now, and we're still going to need helpers six months from now. And so, find a steady pace and be willing to be in it for the entire long haul.
CA: Yeah. Helen.
HW: Such great advice, Liz, and so many questions pouring in. One of them is from a therapist who confesses that she, and many of her clients, are having trouble with the letting go of control in this moment, and wonders if you have any advice on how to let go of control in order to be willing to feel everything that we're enduring.
EG: Just this ... This sense that you had that you had control was a myth to begin with. And that may not be comforting, except that I find it very comforting. You know, control is an illusion, and there are times where we're able to fool ourselves because we're so good at technology, we're so good at creating safe worlds where we're able to trick ourselves into believing that we're in control of any of this. But we're not, and the paradox, for me, of surrender is how relaxing it is. Nobody ever wants to surrender, because nobody wants to lose control, but if you recognize that you never had control, all you ever had was anxiety, and then you let go of the myth of control, you'll find that, I find that if I even say that sentence, "I'm losing control," and then I remind myself, "You never had control, all you had was anxiety, and that's what you're having right now." So you're not letting go of anything. Surrender means letting go of something you never even had. So there's an awakening that's happening right now, where what's happening is not that you're losing control. What's happening is that, for the first time, you're noticing that you never had it. And the world is doing its job. The job of the world is to change, constantly, and sometimes radically, and sometimes immediately, and it's doing its job, and that is also the norm of things. And again, we are adaptive and we're resilient and we can handle it. But I don't kid myself for a minute to think that I'm in control of anything that's ever happening. My realm of control is extremely small. It's usually about, like, might be able to go get a glass of water right now. Like, there's not a lot that I'm in control of. And I'm actually (Inaudible) I've ever been.
HW: One more question from online, if I may, and then I will jump off again. You know, Chris, you and I, we're all in a pretty privileged position. TED has been able to go remote. We're able to work remotely. But many, many, many millions of people in the US and beyond are not able to do that, and people are really suffering. How can we help? What are your thoughts about people who are not able to socially distance, who are losing their jobs, the global catastrophe that is unveiling? How can we think about that in a humane and compassionate way?
EG: It's crushing, and again, as with the same case of the person who said they had lost five family members, I can't, sitting in this position of comfort and safety, say anything that I think is going to be accurate and appropriate to that, other than to say that I just think of this Indian proverb that I keep going back to, which is, "I store my grain in the belly of my neighbor." Western, capitalistic society has taught and trained us to hoard long before this, long before this happened and people were hoarding toilet paper and canned goods. Advertising and the whole capitalist model has taught us scarcity, it's taught us that you have to be surrounded by abundance in order to safe. The disconnect between those who have and those who have not has never been bigger, and never in my lifetime, and probably in any of our lifetimes, has there been an invitation, again, to release the stranglehold on your hoarding. This is not the time for hoarding. This is the time to store your grain in the belly of your neighbor, in a way that is emotionally sober and accurate to what you can give, and to look at that in a really honest way, to not put your own family in danger, to not put yourself in crisis, but to be able to say, "What can I offer in the immediacy?" And then, in the longer term, a conversation about redistribution of resources, and why do so few have so much and why do so many have so little? But that's not a conversation I can fix today. That's, again, outside of my realm of control. But what I can do is unleash the white-knuckled grip that I have on what's mine and make sure that I'm going into the world with an open hand — again, not a panicked open hand, where I'm going to destroy myself to save somebody else, because then there will be no helper left, but in a reasonable way. I cannot save everybody. I can save a few. And that's the tragic, but, I think, sobering reality that I can offer right now, and again, underlying all of that, undergirding all of that is a recognition that anything that I have to say about people who are in extraordinary suffering right now is not enough.
HW: I'll be back. Thank you.
CA: Liz, talk to me a minute about anger. Like, I think a lot of, just from the conversation we just had, or just listening to you there, there are so many reasons to feel angry right now about what's going on. And part of me feels we should be. That's what anger is for. It's to highlight things that are unjust and unfair and that we must pay attention to, and yet part of me is honestly scared of it. I think there could be an eruption of anger that's dangerous, both personally and for society. Have you felt anger? What are you doing with it?
EG: I feel anger at every White House press conference, and I think all thinking people do. I feel angry that this wasn't taken more seriously early on. I feel angry at myself that I didn't take it more seriously early on. As much as I feel contempt and disgust for government officials who I feel were slow to recognize how serious this is, I also have to be really candid that three weeks ago, I was one of the people walking around saying, "Why is everybody overreacting to this so much?" So I think we also have to own our own piece of that, and I think there are rolling waves of awakening that are happening in people, and so a lot of the anger I feel right now is for people who aren't taking this seriously enough, who aren't quarantining themselves, who are putting other people in danger. But a month ago, that was me. I was in the Hong Kong airport, sallying through the Hong Kong airport while everybody was scurrying around in masks and gloves, and I was like, "What's the big deal?" It takes people as long as it takes them to come to awakening, and some people, we have to also acknowledge, never will.
Anger has its place, and I think that righteous anger, which is the kind of anger that says a violation has occurred here, a humanitarian violation is occurring here, can be very stirring for transformation. Again, it's how comfortable can you be, sitting with these discomforting emotions, and what are you going to do with your anger?
EG: Are you going to lash out at the people you're quarantined with? Are you going to go on Twitter rants? Is that useful? Is that productive? And so I think — again, I keep using the words "emotional sobriety," but the emotional sobriety that would be required is to feel that anger, acknowledge it, to show yourself mercy for how uncomfortable it is, and then to steadily, recognizing, again, that this is a marathon not a sprint, do what you reasonably can do to change the situation.
CA: I mean, the part of me that's constantly looking for the better narrative hopes that the anger we feel now could almost displace some of — I mean, the world's been an angry place for the last couple years. There's been so much anger inflamed online. We've made each other angry, often, probably, unnecessarily — outrage sparking outrage, disgust, etc. I mean, is there any hope that this is a massive societal shaking up? It's like, don't be so silly. Look at what actually matters here. And we can at least focus more attention onto the things that, yes, some things that we really should be angry about, but other things that maybe ... you know, could lead people to say human connection really matters in this moment. People from all sides, we need each other. We just have to use this as a moment when we come together. How do you think about that? Like, how do we turn some of these negative emotions into a force for good that at least gives us some permission to hope that something special comes out of all this.
EG: Well, I think you have to give yourself permission to hope, and I don't think it's unreasonable to give yourself permission to hope, because, again, our resilience, our resourcefulness, and the way that history has shown how catastrophe can lead to transformation, gives us, actually, I think, reasonable cause to hope. One thing that I'm noticing that I'm, like, a little bit amused by is that when people start predicting what the post-pandemic world is going to be, I notice that their predictions seem to be, suspiciously, in exact alignment with their personal worldview. So my friends who are utopians are already living in this utopian future where this is going to be the big change. My friends who are dystopians are already predicting that this is the official beginning of the police state and the disastrous new world order. I think there's a lot of hubris in trying to imagine what that new world could be. A quote that I love that a friend of mine always says is "When people aren't busy being the worst, they're the best." And I think that gives me hope. And it's true the other way, too. When people aren't busy being the best, they're the worst.
I'm terrible at social engineering, Chris, and you know this, and you have great, better minds than mine who can come on and talk about this on the global scale. The only world that I have a really intimate, familiar engagement with is this one, and on the individual level, what I understand is that the only world that any of us are ever going to live in is this one. And so minding this, and learning how to calm this, how to open this, how to get on the other side of the emotions that are causing harm to you and others, that's my work, you know? Personally, whatever role I have in the public sphere.
CA: You're an extraordinary storyteller and you already told us one amazing story earlier on. Have you come across any other recent stories that have given you reason for hope, perhaps?
EG: Well, I'll give you one, and this one, I delight in. Years ago, 20 years ago in New York City — 30 years ago, I was in my 20s — I was friends with a woman named Winifred, who was in her 90s. She was this really cool West Village bohemian artist who had lived in Greenwich Village for her entire life, had had a very storied and checkered and wild life, surrounding herself with intellectuals and poets and artists and adventure, and she'd had a lot of loss and a lot of gain, and she was this extremely passionate person who had friends of all ages, which was something I admired about her. I was friends with her. I was 25, she was 95. But I would call her my very good friend, and she had a lot of friends. She was so open to everything. And at her 95th birthday party, I asked her, "What have you learned, more than anything else?" Because she was such a creature of learning. I wrote about her in "Big Magic." I said to her one time, "What's your favorite book that you've ever read?" And she said, "I can't say my favorite book because there's been so many, but I can tell you my favorite subject, the history of ancient Mesopotamia, which I started learning when I was 80 and it changed my life." And it did. She'd gone on these expeditions to Jordan and Iraq. She was just so full of living, you know? And I said to her, "What have you learned in all of your experiences? What is the most central thing that you've learned?" And she said, "Human beings can adapt to anything. Human beings can adapt to absolutely anything." And then she said this great line: "If Martians landed on Earth tomorrow, it would be off the front pages of the newspaper by next Tuesday. We would already be used to it." Right? And there's a level at which I'm seeing this adaptation happening. And that is both a good and a bad thing. Right? We can get used to totalitarianism, but we can also get used to — I've gotten used to a world without the love of my life in it. We can adapt. And I keep using that line as a touchstone for myself, because I don't know, nor do I presume to know, what the world is going to be after this. I know that it will be different from the one before. I also just have to point out that all y'all had a lot of complaints about the world we had before, and I do a lot of talking, I do a lot of going around the world, and [I don't remember] any one of you raising your hand in any of the seminars I've taught over the last years, and saying, "We are living in a golden age and I'm so grateful and appreciative for all that I have," now you want that world back, right? So let's actually remember that as we go forward, that this moment, for some of us, that we're in right now, might be one that we look back later and say, "Wow, actually, that was pretty good, and I didn't have any gratitude for it." So personally, I'm just hoping that at an intimate level — and again, this is not a socioeconomic, global political level, but it's an invitation to actually be grateful for the safety that you have and the people that you have, and maybe carry that forward a little bit. Maybe. We're really good at forgetting. Once a crisis is over, we're really good at forgetting our gratitude. It's one of our great gifts. But you might want to make a note to actually try to be grateful for what you have.
CA: Thank you, Liz. I think we have a last question from our online friends.
HW: Yeah, what crisis, right? So Liz, just a request for a concrete strategy to try and reduce the fear or the shame that is coming at this moment.
EG: I'll give you mine, and it may feel weird and out of reach and woo-woo, but I'm beyond that at this point, and it has been a game changer and a life changer for me. I have a 20-year-long practice of writing myself, every day, a letter from Love. Now this may not feel concrete. It may feel very airy. But what it does is that it helps me through my anxiety, and I need it every single day, because I'm anxious every single day. I wake up frightened every day. I wake up shamed every day. I wake up angry every day. All of the difficult emotions that run through the software of a human consciousness are running through my software all the time, and they cause me pain and they cause me fear, and they cause me distress, and they make me sick. So, 20 years ago, when I was going through a very bad divorce and a depression, I began this tactic, and the tactic is that I will sit down with a notebook and I will write to myself, from myself, a letter from Love. And what I mean by "Love" is not romantic love. It's the infinite, bottomlessly merciful source of all human compassion. And every single one of these letters begins the same way. It starts with me saying, "I need you." It's a dialogue. It starts with me saying, "I need you," and Love saying, "I'm right here." And then I say what I'm going through. "I'm really angry right now. I'm terrified. I'm spinning. I can't sleep. I'm anxious." And then I just allow to come through my hand whatever, if you could imagine the most loving, compassionate, merciful voice in the world, if they were in the room with you, what would you want them to say? And you say that to yourself. And so for me, that usually is a combination of these sorts of phrases: "I've got you. I'm right here. I see how distressed you are. It's all right. I don't need you to feel better." I think a lot of our anxiety is that we want to get out of that feeling as fast as we can, and what Love always says to me is, "It makes no difference to me whether you're anxious or afraid or angry or hurt. I'm with you, and I'll be with you through this entire thing for however long it takes. I'm not going anywhere. I've got nowhere better to be right now than sitting with you, loving you. I'll be with you at the moment of your death. I was here with you at the moment of your birth. There's nothing you can do to lose me. You can't fail. You can't do this wrong. You are infinitely, bottomlessly loved." And it's so interesting to me that the opposite of fear in my life, in my emotional landscape, on the color palette, the opposite of fear isn't courage, the opposite of fear is love. And that presence, a sense of, "I've got you," right? Which is the thing that we'd all want somebody to say. "I've got you, and it's going to be all right." I would love to know, neurologically, what actually happens in my mind when I do this, but what happens to me physiologically is that my mind, just hearing those words and seeing those words, settles, and then from there, I'm able to take the next intuitive right action the best that I can.
CA: Liz, you can say no to this, it may be a totally inappropriate thing to ask, but you don't happen to have a letter from the last day or two that you'd consider reading, all or in part of? I don't know how long they are.
EG: You're putting me on the spot. Let me see what we've got. Let's see.
OK, so here's one. So I was panicking because I want to offer my apartment in New York to a woman who is a COVID-19 nurse who's volunteered to come into New York City to help, and I'm afraid that I'll infect my neighbors if I let her come and stay there. So I was up in the middle of the night, thinking, ethically, is it appropriate for me to do this? So I wrote, "I need you." And Love said, "I'm right here." And then I said, "I want to offer that COVID-19 nurse my apartment, but I'm afraid that my neighbors will get infected, and I'm scared, and I don't know what the right move is. Help me." And Love said, "I don't actually know what the right answer to that is, but I'm with you." And I said, "But what do you think I should do?" And Love said, "Why don't you just sit with me right here for a minute and be with me and know that you're held no matter what, that you cannot make the wrong choice, that it doesn't matter in the grand scheme of things. You're my beloved, I've got you. I can see how much you're spinning, I can see how tired you are, and it doesn't matter to me whether you make this decision in the next minute, in the next day, or not at all. I'm with you, and I'll sit with you through this entire thing, and I'll love you no matter what you decide to do at the end of this. I will be just as much with you at the end of this decision as am I with you now." And then, I said, "So what do you think I should do?" And Love says, "I think you should go get a glass of water, and I think you should lie down and get some rest, and we'll talk about it some more in the morning." What I have found over the years of writing myself these letters from Love is that Love never gives advice. This is actually really good for all of you who love to give unsolicited advice to people. Love never gives advice beyond, "Why don't you get a glass of water? Why don't you rest? We'll try this again tomorrow. You're doing your best, this is a hard time, and I've got you." So I've got 20 years of those journals, and I'm assuming that I'm going to need it for the rest of my life.
CA: Wow. I don't know, Helen, I think we might be done. I think I'm done. I can't ask any more after that.
HW: How beautiful. Good grief.
CA: Liz, you're really phenomenal. You've just got this unique way of articulating what others can't articulate, and you've brought all of us to a very tender, intimate place, and thank you for that.
EG: Thank you, Chris.
HW: Thank you so much.
EG: And thank you, Helen. Take care of yourselves, everybody. We're right here with each other through this. We can do this.
CA: Thank you, Liz. Goodbye. HW: Thank you.
CA: Oof. HW: Oof.
HW: Deep breaths.
CA: Yeah. No. That was special. That was special to me. I know that you are all in different circumstances online, and that there are so many elements to this thing. There's the problems that those of us who are isolated have, and in many ways, those are the luxurious problems, and we're really aware of that. But they're still problems, and we're going to give space on these TED Connects to many other voices as well. I think we're hoping to hear next week from a doctor at the front line, a voice from India, we hope, on some of the horrifying things that are happening there, and also some pretty amazing proposals for how the world could come out of this, like specific proposals on how we get past this period of lockdown to bring back the economy. All of this matters. So I guess we want Helen and everyone to come back, calendar this, share with friends, and help us figure out how to use this time best.
HW: I also wanted to flag that I don't know if you were able to tune in for Susan David's conversation earlier in the week. We have launched a new podcast with Susan that launched on Monday. We're calling it "Checking In with Susan David," and she is going to be sharing daily tips on how to deal with this pandemic. And so you can find that wherever you find podcasts in this day and age. For this conversation, we will be archiving it. It will be on Facebook, and we'll also put it onto TED.com. You can find the TED Interview podcast that Chris and Liz did last year, which I confess just made me weep for ... too long. You can find that at go.ted.com/tedconnects. But that's it from us. And tomorrow, I want to flag that we have a very special treat, which is less chat, more beauty. We will be joined by the unbelievably talented Butterscotch, who is a beatboxer and a singer and a musician and a sage, and an all-around delight, and she is going to be giving us a glimpse into her world and delighting us all with some sonic deliciousness. So do tune in tomorrow.
CA: Thanks so much, everyone. We're in this together. Stay safe. See you soon.
HW: See you soon. Be well.