We Are All So Entangled
The pandemic has catapulted us into the quantum age of non-binaries
by Tim Leberecht
When astronauts look down on planet earth from space, their feeling of awe is often described as the “overview effect.” The experience is reportedly quite moving and leads to bigger-picture thinking, including a sense of intimate responsibility for the planet’s wellbeing as well as a deep connection with its citizens. The COVID-19 pandemic has provided a similar, and synchronous, overview effect. We have gained a much broader perspective and painfully realized how everything is interdependent: our economies, health, nature, our wellbeing.
Astronauts are one small group we can learn from as we make sense of this crisis. The other population are people who have experienced incarceration. This may sound a bit strange, and I can’t possibly equate their unique experiences on the same level as ours during the lockdown, but when I spoke to one formerly incarcerated person, Erwin James, who spent 20 years in prison, I noticed some interesting analogies. Many of us felt imprisoned during self-isolation, not only trapped in their own walls but also in their own lives.
Overview effect and magnifying glass
Erwin told me, “In prison, I had to learn how to live a smaller life.” We did, too. We realized that perhaps we don’t need all the stuff, eating out, traveling, flying, meetings. We began to appreciate the small things, the small life, a smaller version of ourselves, rather than the big ambitions, the travel, the rat race, the constant competition for attention from others. We appreciated the new minimal lifestyle, a return to what is truly essential, asking some of the big, more profound questions: Is this the life I want to live? What is it I really want? What would I do if I were not afraid?
The pandemic has provided both an overview effect and a magnifying glass. While we have this unprecedented perspective, we are also grieving: not only for the life before Corona that we will not be able to ever fully re-enter. We are also grieving for the emotional intensity and the clarity of the months in full lockdown mode. And we’re also grieving for what is to come. With COVID-19 cases soaring in the US and many cities around the world experiencing a sustained first or new second wave, we know the crisis is not over. We are feeling anticipatory grief. It’s not before and after. After is still in the middle.
With both feet in the liminal space
We are squarely in the in-between space, between the old life that we lost and the new life that has not quite fully emerged yet. It is what anthropologists call the “liminal space.” The word “liminal” comes from the Latin root, limen, which means “threshold.” One kind of liminal space is that time in the early morning when we are floating in and out of sleep. Or the transition from one identity to another: puberty is a liminal space, and so is being engaged, but not married. Liminal is the grey zone where nothing is definitive, and everything is still possible.
It’s a space where we wait, where we listen, and where we can ask questions rather than having answers. This is, by the way, why the liminal space is so important for business or any organization: it’s where innovation happens.
“Transformation happens when we are not in charge”
Likewise, transformation takes place in this liminal space. The past and the future are both in sight, but there is no clarity of meaning, no clear path forward yet. The only thing that is for sure is that we need to let go to make it to the other side. The founder of the Center for Transformational Presence, Alan Seale, once said: “Transformation happens when we are not in charge.”
The pandemic has been transformative for that very reason: we realized we are not in charge. We have never been in charge. The three-year strategy plans — they gave us an illusion of control, but they are basically fictions, stories we tell ourselves.
And perhaps, the liminal space, the in-between space, the transition space, is the new space: a space where things are constantly in flux, or even in tension, and identities fluid.
It is no longer only a sign of a “first-rate intelligence,” as the writer F. Scott Fitzgerald famously put it, “to hold two opposing ideas in one mind and still retain the ability to function” — it is now a matter of survival.
The new non-binary reality
The pandemic world we will live in for the foreseeable future is not one of easy solutions and quick fixes, and it is certainly not one of simple truths. Management no longer means making things less complicated. Management now means allowing things to be complex.
The architect and workplace expert Ryan Mullenix observes that in the midst of the pandemic “we see first-hand the fallacy of the binary mindset.” He writes: “We no longer live in a virus-free or virus-riddled world — we understand that neither exist. We understand that working remotely or in an office should not be an either-or. We don’t care about an open-office or closed-office, just about a place that caters to our current task while offering awareness, delight, and social cohesion. And ideally, we will no longer divide our days into either working or living. Instead we have an opportunity to rediscover how work — and wherever it happens — is a platform for the way we want to live.”
If the crisis has taught us anything, then that it is time to transcend binary thinking and accept that the pandemic has catapulted us into the “quantum age” in which — derived from quantum physics — we experience a state of entanglement where everything can always assume two or more (even oppositional) positions, so-called “superpositions.”
This applies to the workplace and to management, to our relationship to time, to our understanding of nature, and not the least to our concepts of self, from neuro-diversity to transsexuality. As Tristan Greene argues, “We’re all a bunch of interacting subatomic particles that could, theoretically, find ourselves in physical quantum states such as superposition and entanglement. We need a new model for human sexuality that doesn’t rely on the need for static expressions of gender and sexual identity — we need a Schrodinger’s cat for sexuality and gender.”
This “beauty of the blur,” as the intersex activist Alicia Weigel calls it — the liberation from mechanical time, from mechanistic management, and from binary bodies and minds — can be one beautiful outcome from the ugly reality of the pandemic.
This article first appeared on Psychology Today.