(Quarantine Essay #22) — by Ric Hudgens
Every day for the past month, something has stunned me. I’ve been unable to respond. I’m astonished by the news stories I’m hearing. I see and hear horrifying things.
The world has never been an entirely pleasant place. Horrifying things happen all the time. But now perhaps I’ve slowed down enough to feel and see the full weight of them.
I’m not surprised by the inequalities revealed in this crisis. They have been there for anyone to see who wanted to look. The callous disregard for human life by those who claim to be “pro-life” doesn’t surprise me. Their understanding of “life” has always been very narrow, partisan, and racist.
I am angry with the greed, dishonesty, and cruelty of the few who either cannot or will not use their power to serve the many. I grieve for those who are dying alone, those who mourn alone, and those who do not care.
But I am stunned by the weakness of systems we have long depended upon to govern and care for us. I’ve suspected the fragility of our way of life, but I would never have guessed it was so dysfunctional. Though never fooled into believing America was the greatest nation in the world, I’ve been stunned to see how demented we are.
“To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never to forget.”
Arundhati Roy wrote this over twenty years ago. It speaks to the layered nature of our lives, the “joy and woe are woven fine” that William Blake spoke of two hundred years before her. We have been living thin lives in a thick world. The crisis is forcing us to go deeper.
It is an apocalyptic time. We often associate apocalypse with doom. But the derivation of the word comes from the ancient Greek. It refers to a revealing or uncovering of things that were hidden. We are living through a time of illumination; light is shining upon much that until now avoided recognition.
The fact that I am stunned about many things makes me feel I’ve been more naive and unsuspecting than I believed myself to be. I’ve heard it said that maturity is a process of disillusionment. If that is true, we can hope for a dramatic increase in maturity among all of us.
Perhaps the rapid spread of the virus, its pervasiveness, and deadliness surprise me. But the impact it has had upon us stuns me. In a few short weeks, we have done what nothing till now has ever persuaded us to do. We have stopped the world.
We are letting the earth “rest” as the old Hebrew sabbath laws recommended. When humans withdraw, the earth refreshes itself. Do we need further proof of our impact on the health of this planet? Air and water begin to clear. Animals, birds, and fish flourish. The earth seemingly grows healthier.
But we must deprive ourselves for this to happen. We must step back, stand down, and stay in place. We relinquish under threat what we would not do voluntarily, and a great balancing begins.
Restraint is hard for us. The very word communicates the strain it places on our economies, our governments, our relationships. Some are using this time to take advantage of others. The rich seek riches while the poor get poorer as it has ever been. We are carrying unequal burdens. Many raise their voices out of their silent desperation.
Psychologists speak of our “distress tolerance,” our ability to cope with distress. This phrase has given me new insight into those ancient sabbath practices I mentioned earlier. There is an excellent reason to recommend periodic withdrawals, even from a secular perspective. Whether or not one day in seven is the correct proportion is a distinct question. But the assertion that our planet needs humans to take regular, perhaps even prolonged periods of ceasing from all of our activities, gains credibility during this time. Regularly distressing ourselves in this way would increase our tolerance.
We need sabbath or something like a sabbath. There is not much of a global impact from individual sabbath practices (except individually). A sabbath by some, while many continue, won’t change much. But we are demonstrating that a societal sabbath, even a global sabbath, has an immediate and sudden impact upon the health of the earth. Sabbath periods (defined sacredly or secularly) become periods of refreshment.
Will we revert to our manic, extractive ways when this crisis is over? We are not equipped financially and governmentally to continue this for much longer. We could be. We can hope and pray that when the virus subsides, our mitigation efforts succeed, or a vaccine arrives, we can return to a new normal in our life together.
We are seeing that we could respond on a global scale to the major crisis of our time (i.e., the health of the planet) if we all felt the urgency and panic of our situation.
We can conceive of human lives lived in rhythm with our planet’s needs, to plan for periodic withdrawals of all fossil-fuel-based transportation, to redirect our finances to make this possible. We are proving it.
But to keep from reverting to our previous addictions and “affluenza,” we will need to remember what we are learning. We live in an apocalyptic time in which much that was hidden is now being revealed. We might emerge from this crisis with a stronger relationship with one another and to this our precious earth. We could begin a new normal that is new.
But we must “watch.” We “must never look away. And never, never forget.”
April 18, 2020