When I read that headline in The Atlantic, it was my B.C./A.C. moment. Before Coronavirus. After Coronavirus. Most of us have had a moment like that—the hinge moment when COVID-19 finally felt real, and we sensed our lives were going to be changing for a while, maybe even forever.
Earlier in the day, I’d told an event planner in Louisiana that I didn’t think we should cancel the events at which I’d be speaking the following week. I’d beaten the old flu before and I figured that, as a healthy 43-year-old, I could beat this new one. Lying in bed and scrolling through the news, however, I was noticing the tone of doctors and public officials had changed significantly in the past twelve hours. Then, that headline: Cancel everything. The following day, the NBA suspended its season.
The rest of life quickly followed like dominoes.
Our family deleted much of what we hold dear from our family calendar. Caitlin’s basketball camp. Quinn’s scholastic bowl and soccer seasons. Aidan’s spring musical. My speaking events. My wife’s visit to see her ailing grandmother. It was easy to cancel those things. I just swiped left on our family calendar app. Releasing them, though, was a little more difficult. Releasing them meant swiping left on them in our hearts.
And hearts don’t tend to let go so easily.
The last time Caitlin went to basketball camp, she didn’t know it was the last time she’d laugh in the presence of her friends for at least a month. It’s hard to swipe left on analog laughter. Quinn’s scholastic bowl team had been the hub of his friendships. It’s hard to swipe left on a centerpiece of companionship. His soccer games are our favorite reason to sit in a lawn chair on a crystal clear spring morning and do nothing but enjoy our son growing up for an hour. It’s hard to swipe left on the ordinary grace of that. No spotlight on opening night for Aidan. No hug with a grandmother who may not be here much longer for my wife.
So. hard. to. swipe. left.
Nevertheless, we did it. Not only did we cancel all of it, we truly released everything for March and April, too. We let it go. However, we weren’t able to do so because we’re spiritual giants. No, we were able to do so because all of this releasing felt like a temporary thing. We had an unspoken agreement that we can endure any kind of loss for a little while. We were able to release March and April because of our hopes for May and June. Then came another headline:
“Minnesota cancels summer.”
It was the first of many headlines like it. As these kinds of cancellations have proliferated, I’ve watched the mood of my therapy clients and my household and my own heart begin to decline. A deep, deep sadness has set in, the likes of which has not been widely known amongst humanity for generations. Some are fighting back against this sadness. Literally. Cue protests.
Because it’s really, really hard to swipe left on a season, maybe even a year.
In June, for the first time ever, my family was going to leave our continent and travel overseas. My wife and I had spent days upon days meticulously planning it. Everything was in place. Last week, I opened up my travel apps a half dozen times before finally forcing myself to push the cancel buttons. When I did so, it felt like something physical was tearing within me. Maybe I’m being dramatic.
Maybe I’m just being human.
Every year, the pinnacle of our family’s summer is our town’s annual Fourth of July festival. On the Saturday morning of the festival, the whole town comes out for a 5k run. Last week, they canceled the run, and it felt like something tore inside of me again. It’s not just the feeling of canceling something. That feels like a thumb swiping left over glass. It’s the feeling of a little more hope for normality being taken away.
It’s the feeling of releasing everything.
Last night, our family watched a television show called “Songland.” Each episode centers around four songwriters pitching their best song to three producers and a professional musician. The group chooses three of the four songwriters, and they work together to make each song as good as it can possibly be. You get to watch creativity at work.
And we watched something remarkable happen.
Of the three songs, the one we liked most at first wound up being our least favorite song, and the song we liked least at first was transformed into our favorite song by the end of the episode. Indeed, it was chosen as the winner. That’s what creativity does. It doesn’t just churn out beautiful things. It transforms rough and unfinished things into beautiful things. But only under one condition. The winning song was transformed the most because the songwriter who’d written it was the one most willing to let it be transformed. She was the one most willing to watch the thing she loved become something different.
She released it.
So, as you and I are forced to cancel more and more of what we hold dear—and as we are faced with the decision to also release those things in our hearts, or not—I wonder what it would look like if we began drawing upon our creativity to swipe left on the lives we were planning to live, not as an act of desperation, but as an act of transformation? Maybe, just maybe, we’d begin to embrace that in order to create something beautiful with our rough and unfinished days, we have to do something else first.
We have to release everything.
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Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable, and his next book, True Companions, will be published in 2021.