On September 11, 2001, I was 24 years old and was convinced that I was a fraud.
A few weeks after the attacks, I remember opening the full-colour front page of the Sunday paper. Almost 3,000 faces of the dead stared back, their lives prematurely ended in that act of unspeakable violence. “Bear witness,” I whispered.
But I didn’t. Instead, I balled up the paper, buried it in the bottom of the recycling bin and tried to forget what I saw.
A sensitive child growing up in a loud world, I’ve always been quite skilled at repressing pain. With 9/11, I went through the motions of grieving alongside our nation, believing that if you can outrun fear, it can’t swallow you whole.
But pain bats last. And I was left exhausted from denying my sorrow, ashamed for trying to avoid it and diminished by my belief that I wasn’t strong enough to handle any of it.
I had yet to learn the paradoxical truth about suffering.
Denying suffering destroys you. Opening ourselves to it awakens our compassion, which is the gateway to the most powerful force in the world: Love.
This too shall pass
Coronavirus, with its human and economic wreckage, evokes an eerily similar response as to 9/11. The toll still unknown, but devastation is assured.
Over these almost 20 years since 2001, I’ve practiced inhabiting the places that scare me. I’m still plenty afraid, but mercifully, I have more awareness of when I start to fear the fear. The funny thing about fear is how it dissipates—softens, loosens—when we bring gentle attention to it. A quieter truth emerges. Something akin to your Grandma Helen’s needlepoint above the kitchen sink: “This too shall pass.”
Lately, friends sheltering in place have called, confessing to waking up to a mystifying calmness, amid the swirling chaos. Unlike my 9/11 avoidance, their peace doesn’t deny the terrible crisis. Instead they’ve cultivated a quality of aliveness that illness, devastation, even death, can’t touch.
The 14th-century mystic Julian of Norwich said, “All will be well, all will be well, all manner of things will be well.” Against all reason, people believed her.
Coronavirus is demanding sacrifices from us, great and small. ‘Sacred’ is at the root of sacrifice, meaning to cut open, to give something up. Not because a vengeful God requires sacrifice, but because the friction of shedding ignites the fire of purification necessary to reveal the gold within.
When everything is given up, everything can be given.
As a global body, we’ve been careening forward unsustainably for far too long. The horrible truth is that some of us will pay a higher price than others. Those least responsible are most at risk. For it’s not the corporate titans who’ve chosen profit over people, but the labourers with no safety net who are most vulnerable.
Sacrifice hurts, even for those of us lucky enough to ride this thing out with our basic needs met. But great sages teach that in the fire of tribulation is a womb that gives birth to a renewed spirit inside us. There is a stirring in the womb of life. A loudening rumble that the great pause of Coronavirus lets us hear.
Tipping the scales towards equilibrium
The history of emergencies is that short-term fixes become entrenched ways of life. Consider our pre- and post-9/11 flying norms of shoe removal and liquid restrictions, as one example. Decisions that would normally take years are made in days.
Make no mistake, there are real systems that profit from isolation and alienating us. As Rebecca Solnit says, people who find their deepest meaning and satisfaction in their connection to each other don’t make good consumers.
We must act decisively so that short-term measures tip the scales towards equilibrium, mercy and community care, not tightening authoritarianism. Becoming co-creators of the future we want to inhabit begins with believing that’s possible. We have far greater power and resilience than we realize. Look how quickly we’ve adapted to thrive in this new environment with no preparation, under enormous stress.
Individually, we’re sharing with each other, talking to our neighbours from a safe distance, checking in on the vulnerable. Evenings are spent playing games, cooking meals or enjoying the solitude of long walks. By no longer commuting to work or chauffeuring kids, we’re reducing our carbon footprint and rediscovering simple joys.
Nationally, impossibilities have become possible, as Astra Taylor reports on the Coronavirus’s impact on public life. “All along,” she writes, “the homeless could’ve been housed and sheltered in government buildings; water and electricity didn’t need to be turned off for people behind on their bills; paid sick leave could’ve been a right for all workers; paying your mortgage late didn’t need to lead to foreclosure.”
Parents thrown into homeschooling may now be more invested in the most effective ways to engage curious learners, rather than relentlessly pursuing Harvard. Telemedicine can transform healthcare, just like online learning could spark innovation to reduce the astronomical costs of higher education.
After being forced to abandon our (atrophying) public spaces, we can create space anew. Modern-day parlours, French for ‘a place for speaking,’ living rooms where our social imagination can be nourished and we can find our way back to each other.
A whole new world
Maybe we don’t want to go back to normal. Maybe normal wasn’t working for us.
“Now I deem the world
To be a womb
In this womb
I have seen
in the midst of the flames
a whole new world.”
Just one year ago, we watched in horror as Notre Dame, known as ‘our great mother,’ burned. As her famous spire crackled and fell, Parisians poured onto the streets, holding candles and singing songs of praise and mourning, compelled to metabolize their grief in public.
What if they harnessed the generative power of their grief and turned to each other to rebuild their home? Instead, this vital work was given over to a small group of outsider experts, funded by a handful of powerful billionaires. We did not heed her prophetic warning.
Here, again, we’re at the dawn of Holy Week, a time in the Christian calendar when the darkness of the tomb gives way to light. Death is overcome by life eternal. Here, again, we’re at the time of the census. Mother Mary gave birth to Jesus in Bethlehem, where she’d travelled for the census to stand up and be counted.
What we thought was a tomb is a womb.
The future we imagine is labouring hard, pregnant with anticipation, but she will not birth herself. We’re her midwives. Like Mary, let’s stand up and be counted. Let’s find each other and work together to give birth to a new way of life.
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