By: Lauren Maddox
I rarely watch movies twice except around the holidays, when rewatching the same movie for the 30th time somehow feels like tradition. I happened to catch the tail end of The Martian the other night, and was struck by how relevant that story is to our own “supernatural” experience of living in 2022.
If you haven’t watched the movie, it’s a worthwhile 141 minutes. Here’s a quick recap. Matt Damon’s character, astronaut Mark Watney, is presumed dead after he gets caught in a dust storm on Mars and is left behind during the crew’s emergency exit. The rest of the story is about NASA trying to rescue Mark once they learn he’s alive many months later. Spoiler alert: If you plan to watch it, you might want to stop reading here.
The night the film aired in early January 2022 happened to be a particularly bad week for “doomscrolling.” Threats to our existence from an unrelenting virus, climate crisis and fascist groups working to upend our democracy dominated my newsfeed. So, I was in a particularly mindful mood while rewatching the movie, and took away a few lessons and intentions for the New Year I wanted to share before my post-Covid brain fog resumes and I forget.
Lesson #1 – Accept things are going to go sideways. Then get to work.
At the end of the movie, a gray-templed Mark offers this advice to a room full of fresh-faced, future astronauts, eager to learn the secret of his surviving years alone on Mars. It’s not other-worldly advice, it’s a daily survival skill right here on earth, especially amidst a pandemic that refuses to quit. Fact: We are all going to die. It’s the one sure thing we can count on. Hopefully not today, or tomorrow, or from this particular virus, but someday the meter will run out on our own unique existence. Before then, we’ve got work to do.
Lesson #2 – Pick a problem, do the math, and start solving it.
You won’t be able to solve every problem and to try to do so would lead to overwhelm, anxiety and a feeling of hopelessness. Sound familiar?
So what can you do? That’s up to you. That’s the beautiful part of agency—that knowing in your gut that you have some control over your life and can effect change in the world around you. It’s an inner calling that only you can answer.
Pick one issue that’s nagging at you and get to work on solving it. If climate change is keeping you up at night, start reducing your own carbon footprint and then join with others in the movement to get more people, companies and countries to do the same. If the racial, economic, health and other inequities are depressing you, get to work on building a more equitable world, starting with your own community.
Whatever issue you choose, try to bring some compassion and understanding to the fight. For instance, if you are working to create a more equitable health system, show some empathy for the health workers who have bravely fought on the frontlines of this pandemic for the last two years. They are exhausted from keeping people alive—physically, mentally and emotionally – made worse by labor shortages and having fewer people in the trenches. While health care workers are key to delivering more equitable health care, there is also important work to do upstream – getting at the root causes of systemic inequities. That work can start with a simple question – “Who benefits from the way health care is delivered today and who does not?” Start trying to understand the why and we’ll have a shot at transforming our health care system into something better, that serves all.
Lesson #3 – You can’t do it alone, but you can be the difference-maker.
Figure out who shares your passion and join forces. It will make the whole experience more fulfilling and your efforts go further. This is what change-makers call collective impact. Our individual efforts can feel like tossing stones into a giant pond, generating tiny ripples. But if enough of us do it, those ripples get larger and might even crest into waves of energy, transforming our world in their wake.
In the movie, Mark’s crew find out he’s still alive. After discussing the risks, they vote unanimously as a team to try to rescue him, defying orders and their own self-interest. You see the rational, but disappointing response from NASA, ordering the crew to abandon the rescue mission in the interest of saving their five lives, versus risking six. The crew’s commander insists that she lead the most dangerous part of the rescue mission, lassoing Mark as he’s catapulting through space.
Hollywood heroics aside, daily life is all about navigating risks. Leaders, we need to understand the risks but not avoid them. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
In You Were Made for This, author Clarissa Pinkola Estes says it best, “When a great ship is in harbor and moored, it is safe, there can be no doubt. But that is not what great ships were built for.”
Lesson #4 – Lean in and adapt.
Human existence is a story of survival and adaptation. After two years of binge-watching from our couch, those skills may have gotten a little rusty. Time to dust them off and get to work – surviving, adapting and supporting our fellow humans to do the same regardless of their politics or vaccination status.
Stranded on a lifeless planet without enough food, Mark figures out how to grow potatoes in human waste. Ewww, right? But if it was that or starve to death, and you had Mark’s mad botany skills, you’d likely do the same. No matter what comes our way, such as, say, a global pandemic, assault on democracy and/or climate crisis, our little toolkit of know-how, skills and experience from our years on this planet are everything we need to help us adapt. And if you’re lacking some tools, re-read Lesson #3. No doubt others can lend a hand.
Lesson #5 – Remember to laugh along the way.
Life is funny. It’s okay to laugh. Confronting tense situations, astronaut Mark cracks wise, busting on his commander’s bad taste in music and requesting “no barrel rolls” from his co-pilot as he steers Mark to safety. Let’s all have all have a healthy belly laugh over the funny side of life and then get on with the serious business of adapting our way out of this pandemic, climate crisis, racial inequities and whatever else is keeping you up at night.
All evidence indicates that the story of our planet and our own existence are not going to get better without intentional effort from more of us. So let’s get to work.