When Your Worst Fears Materialize, So, Too, Ingenuity.

May 15, 2020


Six years ago, I spent 33 days in one of the world’s best children’s hospitals while my nine year-old daughter lay in disturbingly stubborn kidney failure. We saw it coming, slowly, a few months before as she swelled up and gained astounding weight, at one point suddenly too heavy for her and a friend to win a piggyback race. I watched as the friend sloughed her off and ran ahead without this awkward albatross who lagged behind, slower, not yet as sad as she’d soon become, but wise enough. She’d always been so.

By New Year’s we checked in, as if at a hotel, for the doctors to figure out what on earth to do with this sweet kid with a rare disease who was responding to nothing. These were the folks supposedly with the answers, the ones you consult when all else fails, and we were collectively spitballing what-ifs and how-abouts after daily rounds every 7 a.m. Me, a writer by trade, now Family Chief Medical Officer by circumstance. 

Every day her condition worsened, her mood soured, her blood pressure climbed. Dialysis, plasmapheresis, zebra-striped-journal and low-salt-pretzel gift baskets: bupkis. Until she seized right in front of me. And then seized again. After a code blue, she had a Medusa-nest of sensors on her head, a neurologist, a tube in each of the big arteries, a 24/7 nurse and chiefs of every discipline quietly trading glances. I slept on the plastic pull-out chair watching the systolic blood pressure monitor—the scoreboard, we came to call it—tickle the dangerous heights of 145 all night long. When the dialysis team arrived the space could not accommodate both a mother and the machine. No visitors were allowed as it was flu season and she was too vulnerable. (I cry now, thinking of Covid patients suffering without even just one person who knows their middle name and what their living room looks like.) Cheerleading at the bedside of someone who sees right through your flimsy suggestions of joy just may be humanity's cruelest test. I insisted on knowing what we’d do tomorrow and next week and next year. What would the future bring? How were we going to live like this? Her doctor, a marvelous man and titan in his field, shook me down with his typical, human advice before moving heaven and earth to find a clinical cocktail that brought her back to well: we’ll never know, Mrs. Thompson. It’s the future.

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Which brings me to the economic survival millions are now faced with, thanks to this coronavirus. My family now included, as my husband just lost his job. What will the future bring? How are we going to live like this? How will we manage college/the mortgage/a sick relative/a blown water heater/the unforeseeable? 

For us, having endured the unendurable, my parting gift was the following for all future crises: I fear nothing. We reached the bottom of poop barrel and nothing so far has compared to that paralysis. Important board presentation? We’ll get there. Thorny project brief? Please. There must be other methods for reaching this nirvana, because I don’t recommend ours. But hopefully the moral’s meaningful to others in this time, facing next week and next month and next year with fear: we can’t possibly know what the world will bring. Our daughter’s brilliant doctor told us so, a salvo he kindly repeated for years after our hospital stay. 

It may be better said still by Conan O’Brien, who famously remarked, “There are few things more liberating in this life than having your worst fear realized.” Because there, after crossing off your last option at the terrifying bottom of a struck-through list of options, somehow comes…your next list. Facing your worst fears has the power to catalyze ingenuity, the kind that can take your breath away. If necessity is the mother of invention, sitting at home with one less income, a sea of competition and not even a dinner with friends to escape to, is a hell of a way to find one’s new path. But it’s the origin story of pure creativity.

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It’s the same way we turn an oh-shit moment in the creative department into an aha revelation. When the team’s clean out of inspiration but the meeting isn’t moving, that back-against-the-wall, what-do-we-have-to-lose energy can really open a vein of originality. The big swings, the maybe-just’s. It’s the same kind of resolve I learned back in the ICU. We are creative because zero options is unendurable. We are creative because we have no other choice. And if the goal is to build fearless creative work every time, perhaps this scenario we’re living through will be just the model. 

Tracy Thompson was once a psychologist-in-training and is today Karma’s Executive Creative Director. She brings several decades’ worth of passionate experience—business and otherwise—to bear when building communications solutions for clients. 

The Karma Agency is a strategic communications and digital marketing services firm, headquartered in Philadelphia, PA. We help companies humanize their business through insightful strategies and captivating storytelling. Please drop us a line at hello@karmaagency.com. We’d love to hear from you.