The Great Unraveling
How Coming Undone Helped Me Put Together the Lessons of 2020

I remember it clearly, the moment I realized that my mind had unraveled. That I had been unmoored from my foundation. That my sense of what was real and true had been shaken.

It began on the morning of November 7th, 2020, the Saturday after the presidential election. It was 11:30. I was in my apartment, high above 42nd street, talking with a friend about what we hoped would be a brighter future. Suddenly, car horns began blaring; we heard fervent shouts and cacophonous noise. What could this be?

After a few seconds, it became evident: this must be the celebration of a Biden-Harris victory. We rushed to the TV in the bedroom and, sure enough, it was the moment we had been waiting for. Four years of grief and disbelief were finally over. Pennsylvania had been called, pushing Biden over 270 electoral votes. In a normal election, we would’ve been celebrating a new beginning; in this election, celebration came with a caveat, as court challenges and a campaign of disinformation would follow. For now, we would celebrate the best we could.

It was a warm, sunny day, temperature in the mid-60’s, and we decided to go downstairs and join the throngs driving, walking, and running up and down the West Side Highway in celebration. We went to the bike room, and as I approached the spot where I kept my bike, I stopped in my tracks. My eyes shot wide open. It was gone! How could this be? I thought back to election night when I’d gone for a ride to get away from the news–election night in 2016 had been so traumatic, I didn’t want to relive the experience–and taken a long jaunt around the southern tip of Manhattan. I’d had dinner outdoors and returned home, placing my bike in its spot. 

How the hell could my bike be stolen from a secure building, with dozens of cameras on every floor? That’s crazy. But everything is crazy–maybe I’m crazy, too?

Frantic–my back arched, my eyes still wide open–I raced outside to the bike rack in front of my building. Could I have locked it there?

No. It was gone.

The idea that I had lost complete track of myself unsettled me. Someplace deep inside, something was loose, undone. 

I reported the theft to security. I was determined not to let this interfere with the joy of what I believed would be a better future, but my unsettled feeling persisted. The next day, I went to Brooklyn to buy another used bike from the man who’d sold me the previous one. The man, Richard, commiserated with me, mentioning that he had several customers who’d had their bicycles stolen from garages and bike rooms. “Go figure,” he said. A sign of the times. 

The following Tuesday, I was in my apartment managing a handful of COVID-related client issues. A maintenance worker from the building was looking at the living room floor, to assess water damage from a leaky humidifier. My mask was on inside my own home, and my head felt clogged with a stupor of grief and fear. My phone rang; it was the head of security.

“My staff looked at the security camera tape from the previous week. They saw you leave the building on Tuesday evening, and return with your bike later that night. You took it out again on Wednesday about 6 p.m. and returned to the building around 9, without the bike. Maybe you had a couple drinks and – you know… ” He chuckled awkwardly. 

The Awakening

My mouth hung open in disbelief. 

I could have sworn it was on Tuesday, the night of the election, that I had gone out to dinner and returned home with the bike. 

I rushed to my computer to check my credit card use. Sure enough, it was Wednesday night–not Tuesday–that I had eaten out.  

Is it possible that I left the bike locked up near the restaurant?  

I rushed over to 44th Street and 10th Avenue. It came into view as I ran up 10th. I stopped, breathing heavily. There it was, a week later, locked to a pole. Even the helmet was still there. I felt so unbalanced that I walked my bike all the way home. 

How could I have been so out of touch with what happened?

As the days passed, I became obsessed with how much my sense of reality had shifted in the past four years–especially in 2020, due to the pandemic and our society’s inability to accept its impact. This virus–this invisible grim reaper–had exposed racial violence, income inequality, and Americans’ radically divergent view of democracy. Leading up to the election, I myself had been so terrified by the prospect of another four years of thinly veiled dictatorship that I contemplated moving out of the country. 

How did I get here?

The mental unraveling that made me lose track of my bike had its roots somewhere. I sifted through the pieces of this tumultuous year, knowing the clues to my unraveling–and the key to knitting the threads back together–must be there.

Remembering the Before

2020 had begun with high hopes. Our company, Opportunity Lab, had a new brand identity, a new website, and new programs, all of which were ready to launch in a few months. In February, I learned that I would become a grandfather, which I’d waited for with great excitement. Our client engagements had gotten off to an excellent start.

By mid-March, as COVID-19 restrictions began to roll across the country, our team realized that we had to move quickly to help our clients work remotely. Our largest client, Adorama, had about 750 employees; Adorama was deeply entrenched in the 9-to-5 office mode with little appetite for change. With Hasidic owners, and a significant number of observant Jews who were not even allowed to have internet in their homes, switching to remote work seemed impossible. Nonetheless, their primary business of ecommerce retail demanded a quick and seamless adaptation to survive, and their CEO, Michael Amkreutz, knew this. As a 15-year advisor to the company, I was thrust into a central role in this transition. It would be my job to help Adorama’s CEO and senior leaders navigate confusion and fear while also navigating an unknowable number of tasks in an ever-shrinking timeline.

 The First Layer

As my mind heads back to March, I remember our collective awakening to a catastrophe that felt out of control. In denial one moment and apocalyptic in the next, millions of us frantically bought frozen foods, hand sanitizer, and toilet paper as we tried to keep up with the evolving crisis. On Thursday, March 12, the owner and CEO of Adorama resolved to stay ahead of the gathering storm; and the following day, twenty senior leaders met on a video conference to plan an unplannable future. The mood was gentle, yet the resolve steely. On March 14th, I boarded the Hampton Jitney–headed for Montauk and a life that would be invented anew each day.

I woke up every day to a firehose of dark confusion. What had been a trickle of rumors in February was now a mounting onslaught of infections, hospitalizations, and deaths as the days ticked on. This ugly, pernicious thing called COVID-19 was the worst virus since the 1918 flu. Each day there was new news, fake news and soon it was impossible to know what was true. 

This thing, this COVID-19 is a hoax perpetrated by the Deep State, nothing worse than the common flu.  

You can be infected by touching a surface that had been touched by an infected person five hours earlier. 

No, it’s much less than five hours.  

There is no proof that surfaces transmit the virus. 

I finally learned to turn off the news when I realized that it was sending me even more off-kilter. I imposed a strict media diet to manage my sanity. 

Much earlier in my career, I’d been a psychotherapist and psychology professor; so I was comfortable in both clinical and teaching roles. I was not, however, comfortable with having the lives of so many employees and their families in my care.  I had seen these kinds of stakes before: right after 9/11, while running a crisis management program for Eurobrokers, a global financial trading firm that lost 62 people in the World Trade Center. The experience served me well, but didn’t fully prepare me for what was to come in 2020. While in the fall of 2001 a sense of dread seemed to filter through the New York City air, in 2020 it came with the worry that any breath or touch might prove fatal. 

As my new life in Montauk found its rhythm, I became untethered from my long-standing routines. I wasn’t going into our office, or seeing clients at theirs. The only people I saw in person were my beloved partner, two local friends, and a handful of gardeners and supermarket cashiers. No gym, no swim, no bike, no restaurants, no travel, no haircuts, and no shopping except for food. I didn’t miss those habits nearly as much as I missed looking into the eyes of my daughter and touching her expectant belly. Or the warmth of a hug. Or the fragrant steam rising from heaping plates of food I’d serve to friends in my home.

Into My Core 

In my new rhythm, I faced personal accounts of fear, sickness, and death through a computer screen. Day after day. I heard about employees–or their wives and husbands, parents and children–growing sick. Some died, and witnessing the collective toll was surreal and heartbreaking. By far the most devastating news was when I heard, over the phone, that the founder of Adorama, Mendel Mendlowits, had passed away from COVID hours before the first night of Passover. He was the first person I had known well, and cared about deeply, who was taken by this plague. There was no one to be next to, no one to cry with, no one to hug, no time to mourn, because there was so much to do. This toxic combination of unpredictable tragedy, social isolation, and a non-stop tending to the sick, traumatized, and struggling, was at the core of my unraveling.

The Dark and the Light  

As time passed, it felt like 2020 had become an alternate reality. The news almost always began with a new death toll, along with something the man we call our President had tweeted in the middle of the night. The unreality seeped into my thinking, again making me question just what was real.  

Will I still have a business when all this is done? Will I get sick? Are my precautions enough? Should I touch the elevator button with my elbow? Is everything I’ve worked for my entire life useless now?

I doubled down on the practices that center me: meditation, biking, spending time in nature, writing, talking with my family and friends. The darker the unraveling felt, the more I noticed a bright and inspiring light peeking through. During the many Zoom sessions between our team and Adorama leaders and employees, there was a continuous flow of generosity, vulnerability, courage, and resilience. Another change was evident: we were now bringing our full selves to work, and it was a beautiful sight. Laughing and crying children floated in and out of view, dogs barked in the background, employees logged on from closets and from poolsides at their parents’ Florida homes. 

In early April, Opportunity Lab launched our Share Lab program: a mix between group coaching, a town hall, and a focus group. It became a central factor in Adorama’s miraculous response to the pandemic, and also in my own.

Finding Purpose

Share Lab, and my role in the pandemic response for clients and our team, gave me purpose and direction and kept the dark side of my unraveling at bay. Our clients’ business results make a strong case for compassion, collaboration, and radical innovation.

Each week at the Adorama All Hands Leadership video conference, there was a new flavor of triumph. Not only did the organization successfully move all non-warehouse employees to work remotely, they also pivoted their product focus: long known as a retailer specializing in cameras and video equipment, they made customers aware that they also sell products that help people work more effectively from home. People who’d never heard of Adorama came in droves, because Adorama had products they couldn’t find anywhere else; in addition, they sourced hard-to-come-by PPE equipment from China. Leaders and employees were energized by the firm’s compassionate and flexible response to their needs. Adorama was en route to changing the way they do business, and the results were promising.

As I watched these changes happen at Adorama, I wondered if we were seeing a shift towards conscious business happen faster and more dramatically than ever thought possible. Opportunity Lab, and many of our other clients, were also experiencing these changes and their profound impact.

Unhealed Wounds

 As I witnessed the bright side of the pandemic through the transformation of Adorama and other clients, the darkness crept in again–this time in the form of America’s ugly, newly exposed underbelly. When George Floyd was murdered by the police officers hired to protect him, it became clear that the Civil War–fought 160 years ago, at the cost of over 750,000 American lives, to preserve the Union and end slavery–had never really ended. It was suddenly starkly clear that as of 2020, we have never really become one country with a shared set of values. While slavery in its 19th Century form has ended, nothing close to equality has been achieved and we are still a nation sorely divided.

The cruel deaths of George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, among too many others, came at the same moment that the COVID-19 pandemic was disproportionately affecting people of color. The confluence of these two injustices finally woke up many in white America. Black, LatinX, and Native Americans are roughly four times as likely to be hospitalized for COVID than whites and are dying at almost three times the rate. In a sad twist of history, more Americans have died of the coronavirus in 2020 than in any single year of the Civil War. Books like White Fragility and How to be an Antiracist have become bestsellers overnight. White people, young and old, marched alongside people of color all across the country in 2020.

Conversations about race, privilege, police violence, and structural inequality were happening between people who’d thought they never would discuss such things.

Having been married to a dark-skinned Puerto Rican woman for 32 years, I once imagined myself to be acutely aware of the racial divide. In the weeks after the Floyd murder, I reached out to her and several African-American friends to listen to and to acknowledge their experiences. I neglected to reach out to a member of our staff who was born in Africa but raised in the US; deeply hurt, she asked me why I hadn’t thought to ask about a death in her family. I felt a pang of shame in my gut for this oversight. I knew I needed to dig beyond my apology and deeper into my own bias, to figure out what I still needed to learn.

The Great Divide

As the summer rolled on, and I began commuting between Montauk and Manhattan each week, my sensitivity to the class divide grew stronger. So many New Yorkers with the means to do so had left the city for the country. Some of my friends belonged to this group and seemed to lose touch with the immediacy of the collective trauma that we are all immersed in–whether we knew it or not. I had a few friends reassure me that despite how bad things were, ‘we will get through it.’ Hearing this, I didn’t know what they meant by WE. I suggested to one friend that many Americans–at least some 370,000 as of this writing–haven’t gotten through it, and many more won’t. Each of those who have died left loved ones behind. Millions more have lost jobs, businesses, homes, and families. The most wrenching part of my year was riding my bike past boarded-up stores, and ‘for sale’ and ‘for rent’ signs blaring in front of shuttered restaurants, theatres, nail salons, pet stores, and the like. 

My friends Giuseppe, Nino, and the other staff at the Zagara Wine Bar are gone. Where are they? I spent many hours writing under their canopy in front; their smiles, their bodies, their presence – all of them are gone. How could this be? 

Many of the people swept under 2020’s tsunami of disease, death, and economic devastation will recover; many will not. The difference between those who survive (or even thrive) through the COVID era and those who don’t often comes down to race, class, beliefs, and simple luck. Riding back and forth on the Long Island Railroad were people who didn’t have the luxury of holding up in the comfort of their own homes: childcare workers, home health aides, parents with young children, transit workers, bike messengers. I am one of those who chooses to go to my physical workplace because I feel like the work I do requires me to be in the physical presence of the people I work with at least once a week. I could have stayed fully remote, but I didn’t feel it would be the right thing to do. Still, I had a choice, while many did not. This reality became suddenly and palpably clear to me.

As summer crept forward, the presidential election moved into its climactic phase. At each step, I became more frightened that our fragile democracy would finally implode. Every day, a vomitous stream of disinformation reflected a psychopathic denial of reality from those who claimed to be our leaders. When it was announced that Trump had COVID, just days after the first debate, my mind took another turn to the surreal. 

Would he get too sick to handle his duties? What would happen then? Would he make himself a martyr, further energizing his base? 

When he recovered quickly and used his recovery to continue his dismissal of the global crisis that’s killed almost two million people worldwide, the light inside of me flickered. It required multiple conversations with friends to keep it from extinguishing.

Hope: the Foundation

After that fateful Saturday, when the celebration of a Biden-Harris victory was marred by the matter of my missing bike, my belief in a livable future began to re-form. I had never given up hope, but the murky darkness that had developed within me had made it hard to envision a bright future. The murk had gotten so thick, in fact, that I’d lost track of my bike for nearly a week; I realized, in its aftermath, that the world was no longer as I had previously understood it to be.

Over the past two centuries, democratic governments and their citizens have joined with the scientific community to virtually eliminate smallpox, tuberculosis, typhoid, cholera, and in recent years, SARS, MERS, and Ebola. As such, I’d lived securely in the belief that science has eradicated the diseases that once threatened entire populations. Yet suddenly, the leader of the United States government, along with a huge number of its citizens, didn’t seem to believe in science or government.

I had also thought that despite our social and political differences, we were a society that pulled together during national crises. Both of my parents lived through the Great Depression, World War II, and the Holocaust; and as devastating as these things were, the majority of Americans felt we were all in this together. Clearly, this isn’t the case right now. In 2020, the coronavirus exposed deep wounds in the American psyche that have never fully healed.

These wounds have been covered over by great progress in many areas, yet at our core, we still haven’t thoroughly embraced the United States’ motto: E Pluribus Unum, or, Out of Many, One.

On the other hand, I saw miracles of possibility that I’d never imagined. Adorama had its best business results ever; but even more important was the developing resilience, camaraderie, and trust that forever mutated the organization’s makeup. It further shifted my understanding about how quickly and profoundly leaders and their organizations can change. It also shifted my understanding of what I am capable of. 

Stripped of many of my cherished daily routines, I leaned on my foundation: my grandparents’ and parents’ courage and resilience, amid circumstances one could argue were worse than those we face now. I realized that my ability to listen deeply amidst unimaginable suffering was both essential to my survival and an affirmation of what I could contribute. Creating channels for our clients and our team to share our collective reality gave me permission to share my own suffering. The profound depth of adversity I witnessed triggered a new level of resourcefulness in me. The better able I was to let go of my attachments to my routines, the more adaptive and happier I became. 

I began surprising myself by spontaneously breaking old habits. I bought flowers, just for myself. I looked at a gap in my calendar, and just threw on my jacket and headed to the beach for a walk. One evening, I found myself so claustrophobic that I left my apartment, jumped on my bike, and rode through Manhattan for an hour and a half; as a reward, I stopped on Second Avenue for a frozen yogurt. I dug my plastic spoon into the creamy sweetness, feeling the cookie crunch topping slide under the roof of my mouth. I tilted my head to look at the moon, savouring a moment upon which the pandemic could not intrude. 

During a recent Zoom call, a dear friend told me a story of breaking into spontaneous joy. He loved to dance; but since COVID he had, without realizing it,  stopped dancing. One unusually warm December morning, he headed to Prospect Park with his phone and his playlist, and startling himself, he hung his coat on a tree branch and began to dance. I was so touched by his story that I flipped on my favorite dance song and pumped up the volume, and immediately we were both out of our seats dancing.

Thank you, COVID, for the unraveling of archaic beliefs and unwanted constraints. For stripping me to the core, to see what is real and what is possible. For helping me see the fragility and sanctity of all life. I hope I can forgive you for all you have taken from us. 

For 2021 and beyond, I see the possibility of healing and transcending this devastation if we commit to listening to each other, even (perhaps especially) to people we see as the other. We need deeper collaboration, regardless of the difficulty and no matter how vast our differences may seem. The COVID pandemic has revealed our interdependence; its rampage has been caused by our failure to accept that interdependence. There is a well-worn saying in business: hope is not a strategy. Clearly, hope alone is not; but we must have hope, in addition to a strong belief in the future, in order to build and realize a strategy. I have that hope–along with a mind that’s been unraveled, informed, and reformed through this momentous year. Gratefully, I enter 2021 with both hope and resolve.

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By Mark Monchek

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