A piece originally posted here written about uncertainty as we stumble around sort of post pandemic lockdown but still mid pandemic.
“[A time of] fruitful chaos, a place of incubation for new ideas and lifestyles, of resistance and creativity” – Victor Turner
This is how anthropologist Victor Turner describes times of ‘anti-structure’ which cultures engage in, as opposed to the normal times of ‘structure’ (1). The former consists of legitimised periods of liminal time when the rules are set aside or subverted, when everything is challenged. Once this rebellious instinct has been vented, we return to ‘structure’ at the determined time quite readily, having had enough (2). Charles Taylor gives the example of the medieval Carnivals, when paupers would pretend to be kings, and argues that such pressure valves have been lost (3). He also highlights Turner’s notion of ‘communitas’ – essentially the sense that we all belong together and are bound together – that is brought to the surface during times of anti-structure.
When the pandemic lockdown began, it felt like this – not the party of Carnival, of course, but a temporary time of ‘anti-structure’ when practices and routines were disrupted, an unpredictable virus wandered our streets along with goats and penguins, workers often neglected were recognised as vital, and we all took gulps of fresher air together. We knew everything would be turned upside down for three weeks, but then, when it was over, we would go back to normal life. We would be left with the tragedy of death and the immense challenge for those on the front lines, but also with the lockdown bucket list of things we did during this liminal time that were unlike us, whether shaving our head, actually talking to our neighbours, bunny hopping around the living room with Joe Wicks, or simply working in our pyjamas all day. How many of these activities were our attempt to turn chaotic anti-structure into something we controlled?
What we face now is that this period of time-bound ‘anti-structure’ is bleeding into structure. The ending of what was supposed to be a temporary measure is not clear cut – we have had enough, we’d prefer a return to ‘normal’, but we are uncertain about every step of what comes next. We are being asked to rethink almost every aspect of our lives on a long-term basis, to make some kind of new structure, order from chaos. You may have seen circulated Maslow’s hierarchy of needs), with food and safety at the bottom and self-realization at the top. An arrow points to the bottom of the pyramid, to ensuring food and safety, and says ‘we are here – don’t try to be heroes’. So how can we possibly talk about flourishing when we are focused on surviving and getting through the day?
What do we do with this constant uncertainty and how do we guide others who are struggling?
Uncertainty is a feature both of our faith and our life at all times – whether in terms of not knowing what the future will bring, or in terms of the beliefs and practices we usually hold dear. So a part of flourishing, especially now, is what we do with that uncertainty. We could try to ignore it, but from the science of mindfulness to the spirituality of Buddhism, we learn that the received gift and practiced skill of both stillness and acceptance are key to a flourishing mind/body/soul.
Christian religious tradition has often tried to wrangle uncertainty to the ground, boxing it into dogma and control. Some theologies declare – with certainty – that God has a predetermined sovereign plan, which means that uncertainty is simply our unfamiliarity with said plan or inability to commit to said dogma. Other theologies create a virtue of uncertainty, relishing an anarchic freedom – we’re all (God included) making it up as we go along. We may wander and visit both these towns from time to time depending whether we feel drawn to predictable structure or the chaotic Carnival – they both belong as places in a world grounded in Love.
Uncertainty sits hand in hand with patience and trust and serves as the balance to control, as the counterweight to faith, if you will. We can learn more about befriending uncertainty now than we could have in ‘normal life’, and this will richly feed our flourishing for the long term. If people look to us as leaders for comfort and guidance in these times, our acceptance and befriending (not ‘management’) of uncertainty will influence how we counsel them. Can we help create spaces outside of any box where people can befriend uncertainty? Can we together breathe into the feeling of panic, see how uncertainty shows up in our bodies, ask any question of it (or yourself, or God), write or draw or sing an uncertain psalm (there is biblical precedent), or even give our uncertainty a name (less precedent, but why not)? Could we try placing all worries about uncertainty into a scapegoat sunflower seed, plant it and watch it grow? How can we uncertainly flourish together? This is the question.
‘If you will cling to Nature, to the simple in Nature, to the little things that hardly anyone sees, and that can so unexpectedly become big and beyond measuring; if you have this love of inconsiderable things and seek quite simply, as one who serves, to win the confidence of what seems poor: then everything will become easier, more coherent and somehow more conciliatory for you, not in your intellect, perhaps, which lags marvelling behind, but in your inmost consciousness…
(1) Victor Turner The Ritual Process (Piscataway: Aldine, 1995 (1966)), quoted in Kees Waaijman Spirituality: Forms, Foundations, Methods (Leuven: Peters, 2002).
(2) I discuss solitude as a type of anti-structure in my 2014 Finding a Place for Solitude in Contemporary Trinitarian Theology (2014), p98.
(3) Charles Taylor A Secular Age (Cambridge: Belknap, 2007) p45-49, and following.
(4) Rainer Maria Rilke Letters to a Young Poet (New York, Newton, 1993 (1934)), p34-35.
Here is a piece I recently wrote during the lockdown for the coronavirus pandemic. In essence, cut yourself some slack. (Originally here).
Have you noticed that nature is carrying on regardless during our crisis? Here in the northern hemisphere leaves are appearing, the air is warming, and shoots of new life are emerging from the soil. With the reduction in pollution there is trembling joy in spring growth, in clean air, in birdsong. I have taken to watching a live feed of an African elephant park from the corner of my eye as I work from home, and while my leek, pea and bean seedlings push up out of the soil on the window sill. Life wins.
May we take time to 'en-joy' nature as it persists. May we preach to the birds, and may we also take time to listen to them preaching to us. May this glimpse of a cleaner, quieter world change our actions and teach us how to inhabit this planet with greater care.
Do not be afraid. Do not let your hearts be troubled. Suggesting ‘just stop being anxious’ to a troubled soul is rarely well-received, but let us not hear these ‘do nots’ as startling, guilt-inducing commands but rather let us allow the soothing tenor and comfort of the voice to convince us into responsibility. Peace, whether of our own minds or in our communities and countries, never just drops into our lap. It has to be built, 'peace by piece' as it were. It takes discipline of thought, the quiet, consistent sitting-alongside of others, and the will to believe that peace is possible.
May we nurture the seed of belief in peace by our thoughts and our actions however small, however unseen. May we learn to move and stretch our bodies so that peace percolates from our heads to our toes. May we consider deeply our acceptance of the cycle of life and death, and know that the roots extending from that seed of peace extend into both.
I saw a tweet recently that read something like, ‘My wife and I are playing a lockdown game called “That’s not the way we do that”. There are no winners’. For those in some degree of lockdown with others, even (especially) immediate family, the rules have changed. Negotiation of space, noise, time, food, and managing anxiety take immense energy, grace and patience. And then on the other hand, those self-isolated alone are being forced to develop the patience to wait for a time when they can again be hugged or share a cup of tea with a friend.
May this experience teach us grace with each other and imagination to find ways to accompany those who have to be alone. May it also prompt us not to turn a blind eye to those trapped in abusive homes or living isolated and alone as part of their ‘normal’ life.
Reaching out in kindness has become a feature of this time. We see neighbours speaking who have never spoken, offers of help between strangers, hundreds of thousands volunteering their time, rainbows in windows, clapping, and the many, many phone calls and attempts to teach video calling to those who can barely operate their TV remote control. These are familiar stories.
May we also be aware of the need for kindness towards ourselves, not underestimating the impact of living through a time of global trauma, and allowing ourselves to rest, to be less productive, to not compare ourselves to others, and to care for our own souls so that we are better placed to care for others.
Our energy, brain space, money and time are all limited. We have to make considered decisions as to how we use all of them and so it can be a challenge to be generous. This time is making us think more carefully about how we spend our money, and which companies deserve it. We are also thinking anew about how to be generous with the skills and time that we have, seeing truly that we receive more than we give in uncountable ways.
May we be thoughtful and generous in supporting companies, charities, ideas and movements that serve the common good and promote the wellbeing of the earth. May we look for new ways we can serve that common good in a manner that brings us deep gladness.
The disruption of routine, practices and presences in places that are sacred to us forces us to consider what signifies the essence of our faith. Celebrating Easter from home meant the loss of physical presence in church along with the connection and rituals that brings. What does it mean for us to be faithful to a tradition or particular theology in these times? What does it mean to be faithful to God? Are these the same or not? How might we keep the faith amidst change, allowing flexibility and uncertainty to feed our faith rather than threaten it?
May this time of adaptation give us confidence in the consistency of a loving God. May we be granted imagination and creativity to express worship, and to connect with that Love, in unexpected and life-giving ways.
Goodness but don’t we need gentleness at this time? Change and uncertainty makes us spiky, and we can end up hurting others and ourselves. Any trip to the supermarket can cause fear of scarcity to bubble up and make us aggressive and irrational. None of us is immune to that virus.
May we forgive ourselves when we mis-speak or mis-step, or take too many bags of pasta. May we not ask too much of ourselves, and yet ask just enough to give us pause before speaking, typing or acting out of a place of fear. May we know the gentle hand of Love upon our shoulder and may we breathe deeply into the gentleness that resides within us.
Are you learning a new language? Baking home-made bread? Creating artistic masterpieces out of household objects? If not, why not? Are you proud of being more productive during your lockdown? Are you defiantly less productive? One thing we are learning from engaging with others about their experience now is that we are all managing it differently. What is helpful for one person may be entirely unhelpful for another. We can be quick to look at what others are doing or not doing at this time, and presume to know the burdens they are carrying, the complexity of their minds and lives.
May we be self-controlled in responding to others’ activity or lack of activity in this time, avoiding judgement in favour of grace and an appreciation of our different wiring. May we be charitable in our thoughts and responses.
The greatest of these. We wonder if and how our lives, relationships, beliefs and practices will be the same after the pandemic. We wonder if there will even be a definitive ‘after’. Amidst the challenges, may we look for the opportunities. We are outside the box – how can we now think and move differently? New relationships and communities are springing up – how will we now love more richly? Which issues will become unimportant and which will we discover to be the real soil where we are rooted?
We are experiencing just a mere taste of the fragile, uncertain and dangerous life that many displaced and oppressed people of our own country and across the world cope with long term, with no ending in sight. How will we turn the challenges and disruption we are experiencing outward to give voice to an empathetic, fervent call for justice. How will it impact the way we live, relate, move, give, and love?
May love be the wolf we feed.