Sometimes you can’t see what you’re learning till you come out the other side…
We were never taught to navigate through sustained stress or how to overcome our instinctual response to trauma. 2020 impacted all of us, and as we emerge from the depths of all this change, I offer a different way to make sense of the jumble that trauma leaves in its wake. A compass to navigate with. In these articles, I draw on my own experiences putting myself back together: the importance of being seen and feeling understood, the power that comes with accepting my own individual uniqueness, and the bravery to be vulnerable enough to integrate all parts of my Self. I am able to emerge from feeling broken when I find the beauty amongst the chaos. We can all emerge from the breaking, leaving behind what once was, and become unbroken.
This series of articles is a compass for when we feel most lost.
Part One: Orienting your Compass
As I take stock of the aftermath of 2020, I realize there is beauty in being broken. Not in the breaking, but the unbreaking. 2020 was brutal, and it broke me, forcing me to be uncomfortably vulnerable. It was a year when we collectively held our breath. In the chaos of change, we lose our frame of reference, the reference that shapes our individuality — from our preferences to our core beliefs. They have taken a lifetime to form, but chaos disrupts them instantly. We are forced to reckon with our nature of can-change, our innate ability to transform and grow. We need to make sense of and reframe our relationship to change. Instead of rushing our return to how things were, we must determine what we want to keep and what we want to change. And as we put ourselves back together, as we un-break ourselves, we can rediscover things we once loved but have forgotten, find missing pieces we didn’t know we needed, and unlock new, integrated versions of ourselves. And we need to connect with our capacity for vulnerability.
We now have a test, a test to deepen our understanding of resilience. Because, whether we realize it or not, 2020 was a masterclass in resilience. To be resilient we need to understand the jumble of emotions caused by these unrelenting changes. As we continue through 2021, our priority shouldn’t be losing the Covid weight, moving, or changing jobs. Ordering another Amazon box won’t help us regain any control over our lives, either. We do not need to busy ourselves with decorative remodeling in the midst of the worst year of many of our lives. In futility — I did all of this and more. We need to continue through 2021 finding the next version of ourselves and crafting our new story as we leave the old one behind.
I am a creative — a problem solver — it’s the consistent trait across all parts of my life. Professionally, I lead a user experience design team. In a recent project, we were tasked with solving new data privacy laws in California. The team and I influenced the company to reverse the standard order of operations, and present people with categories of data first — before they submit a request. Every technology designer I know wants to make a difference.
That is one facet of the whole me. But only one. I’m also a photography professor at George Mason University’s School of Art. In the classroom, I teach people how to visualize ideas for which they have no words, exposing how to make photographs instead of simply snapping pics. A myriad of thoughts and emotions can be shown in a single image. Photographs that make you pause, question, wonder, and maybe even take your breath away.
Finding beauty is my passion. In my fine art photography practice, beauty anchors us to our humanity. It allows you to look at the difficult feelings. The jumbled, messy, disconnected feelings. Feelings that scare you — that break your frame of reference, leaving you lost. I relate this experience to being underwater, weightless, adrift, and out of control. Every artist has an element that they are obsessed with; mine is water. Water is perfect; it conforms to every environment, simultaneously. It flows and crashes — it has no shape but what we bring to it. Yet, it has the strength to take down mountains.
In the waves of 2020, there was no map to navigate, nor a compass. It disrupted every aspect of our lives. As a design leader, a professor, and a fine artist, everything I did felt wrong. Whenever my head came above water, another wave would crash down. I felt shattered, jumbled, and lost. What I have learned is that being brave enough to be vulnerable is the compass. And maybe these waves ultimately will leave us unbroken.
When we first went into quarantine, I dubbed it the great-inside-time, stuck inside my house and inside my head. I sheltered in place, waiting for it to be safe to go out again. And I’m still waiting. Around the six-month mark, I hit a wall, my lowest point. I heard stories of others reaching their breaking points. My mental health was at risk. Zoom fatigue and blursdays added to this brutality. I felt like a shell of who I once was and started taking medication. As the one-year mark approaches, I predict we’ll hit another wall. We are not out of this. We’re still in the liminal space, the not-yet space. In this space, as we become aware of our surroundings, we can begin to create our new narrative.
In the coming months, we will surely emerge from the constraints of Covid. Instead of rushing our return to how things were, we must determine what we want to keep and what we want to change. I’ve noticed a popular debate on whether to return to our commutes, but is that necessarily the most important choice? There are many other changes to discuss.
During Covid, we have managed to step away from the buttoned-down, blasé business relationship. When you’re invited into someone’s home, even if only via Zoom, the business relationship naturally becomes more intimate — maybe even vulnerable. I value the profundity of that type of relationship.
I started opening up more with colleagues, training other professors as their courses moved online. I began posting daily photographs of ocean waves. I never intended to publish these photographs; they were personal sketches of beauty, giving me a moment to take slower, softer breaths. But they were what my world needed amongst all the chaos of 2020. Unexpectedly, these daily images also became a guide for others. One of the photographs, a former colleague told me, gave her the courage to admit to herself that her marriage was no longer working.
Our relationship was not nearly that open before. Very few of my relationships were. I want to keep relationships that deep, that open, that courageous.
I want to keep that. I don’t want to go back from that.
And I want to be hopeful. Tentatively hopeful. It scares me, but I want to continue being vulnerable. Although we may have acclimated to the waves of chaos, they are still here. You must want to be vulnerable, ’cause you are going to need to be. My newly found bravery and vulnerability to share the things I treasure has become a beacon for others to pause and show a different way through all this change. Accessing your vulnerability is the compass toward being unbroken.
But there is no rush. There is a newness here that we need to give time to develop. We need to provide this newness, this not-yet some time to can-change. To become beautiful.
Noting happens in a bubble, this work would not have been possible if not for the authors before me; Glennon Doyle, Nilofer Merchant, and Brene Brown. For those closest to me and the countless hours of sense-making and developmental editing: Neil Sawyer, Karen Kendrick, Nada Kannan, Lisa Gironda, and Paul-Newell Reaves.