Isolation and Connection

Left Hand Creek in Buckingham Park, Boulder County, CO. Photograph by Jo Belasco.

Now that I’ve explained myself, let’s return to the second blog post of this nascent series about the power and potential of the crisis we face at this time. And at the end of this post, I’ll explain the presence of this photograph.

First, I want to say very clearly at the outset that seeing power and potential in a challenging or even tragic event does NOT mean that event has happened “for our own good” or is “not so bad.” It is that bad, it is that painful and dangerous. And it cannot have “been done” for our own good because, quite frankly, we’ve done it to ourselves. Of course we didn’t do it on purpose. But neither did anyone else do it to us on purpose. So let’s be sure to set those ground rules for what I mean and don’t mean as I try to explain what people have asked me to talk about.

The starting point is this: that in our isolation and enforced social distancing, we are discovering the bonds of our common humanity. Let me give you a couple of specific examples, in case you aren’t sure you agree with that observation. Let’s start with American politics. Farmers and bankers, television personalities and assembly line workers, moms and dads, even the politicians themselves, have worried over the increasingly vitriolic rancor between people of different political parties the last few years. Bipartisan cooperation, whether in town halls or the halls of congress, seemed increasingly to be viewed as nearly an act of treason. Yet last night the U.S. Senate passed a relief package for Americans by a vote of 96-0. According to NPR, “Ahead of the 96-0 vote, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told lawmakers, ‘Our nation obviously is going through a kind of crisis that is totally unprecedented in living memory.'” In other words, in a crisis, we come together. 96 to 0. You may say, “Well, that’s a no-brainer. Of course no one is going to vote to withhold help from people in a crisis.”

Well yes. That’s the point.

It’s not just the politicians, and it’s not just the “big” things like passing relief bills. In countries all over the world, people living in social isolation to prevent contagion have begun singing and even clapping together from apartment windows and balconies. A Common Dreams article links to videos from Italy, Lebanon, and Spain that show people “seeking out human connection” that maintains health and hope in a time of social isolation and separation, The Guardian posted a video (please watch it!) that shows how “In January in the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the outbreak is believed to have begun, residents chanted ‘jiāyóu,’ or ‘keep up the fight,’ for the city and its people.”

Did you feel something move within you when you watched these videos? If not, please read tomorrow’s blog. There’s a physiological reason for being unable to feel a response to such videos, just as there’s a physiological reason for feeling moved by them. It is interesting that simply viewing such things on a video can elicit almost the same response as participating in them. We’ll talk about that in a future post too.

For now, I want to focus on what it was you felt stirring inside you when you heard the people of desperate Wuhan, back at the beginning of all this outbreak in January, calling to one another from their balconies in solidarity and hope — literally in the cold darkness of a deep winter night. Back in January, this kind of isolation had never happened before — nowhere in the world, and at no time in history. The move to shut down an entire city with millions of residents was unprecedented. It turned out to be so effective that of course now it’s being practiced worldwide. Epidemiologists and other health professionals know exactly what the alternative outcome to this pandemic looks like, and quarantine on a massive scale prevented, and is still preventing, literally horrific loss of life.

At the same time, there’s a different cost — and not an economic one, either — to quarantine on such a massive scale. Whether you call it quarantine, social distancing, self-isolation, or shelter-in-place, a requirement that people put distance between themselves and other human beings strikes us as somehow unbearable. I can’t count the number of times over the past few weeks I’ve had friends say some variant of, “I can’t imagine not going to my office!” or “I can’t imagine not at least going out to dinner at our favorite restaurant!” Or, more insistently, “There’s no way I can keep my kids from hanging out with their friends!”

Of course, reality is teaching our imaginations what’s actually possible. And if we refuse to retrain our imaginations, the very real threat of literally millions of deaths on unattended gurneys in overwhelmed hospitals is going to make local law enforcement start using hefty fines and future jail time to teach our imaginations new ways of thinking.

But here’s the interesting question: Why do cities and states have to make rules to keep people from being in contact when they know perfectly well they could catch a fatal disease from that contact? Why do people who know what could happen violate these rules, on purpose, to be together anyway — to the point where the rules have to be tightened to ensure enforcement? Why, when the lockdown tightens, do isolated people sing and clap and chant from their windows and balconies? And why does seeing those videos make something powerful move deep inside you?

Because relationship is essential. No, I am not saying you should break quarantine. I am saying that quarantine has taught you something your body and your heart and your soul have known all along, that even your imagination remembered — but that somehow, at a social and political level, this culture forgot: we are all relations. We are deeply, vitally, inextricably connected to one another through a strong-flowing river of Life itself. It is that River we feel stirring and flowing within us when, in the midst of our own fear and isolation, we hear the people of Wuhan calling out to one other and together, chanting in the darkness of winter and the night of a terror that now visits us all: “Keep up the fight! For the city and its people!” And we can FEEL that river of relationship.

Now look again at the picture I posted to express this true thing, at the top of this page. You can see the separate stones on the riverbed, and the sun glints off the surface of the water in beautiful ways that create additional shapes and colors. Yet, within and moving through this beautiful mosaic, is the water of the river itself.

So: In forced isolation from one another, we have discovered our deep and literally vital connection.

Paradox of this type should always make us stop and pay attention. For paradox is the hallmark of spiritual ways of knowing. Powerful paradox such as we are experiencing now signifies the presence of Knowledge from a particularly powerful source. You may think of that source in any of a number of ways, depending on your own religious or cultural traditions. But most traditions see that source as the author of, or expression of, Life itself.

This is not the end of the paradoxical power inherent in the situation moving through our world at this time. Nor is it the end of the ways the situation can be viewed through a lens of Indigenous Knowledge. There will be more tomorrow.

Paradox

Spiritual ways of knowing are keyed to the great paradoxes humans face: the complementarity of light and darkness, illness and health, life and death. That the best of our existence is interlaced with perilous and tragic events challenges any sentient being, and it is often in spirituality that we find expression of the mysterious, unspeakable power that lies in embracing exactly that which most terrifies us. The challenging and terrifying events we’re facing now are bringing out the compassion, generosity, and loving-kindness of human beings who have been separated by differences of inheritance, tradition, and ideology for too long but now discover the increasingly powerful connection of our common humanity. The walls and physical spaces between us are unexpectedly revealing the existence of the vast sea of Life we have all been swimming through, together, all this time, without ever seeing it for what it was.

Heroes in a time of pandemic

Stories in all the worlds’ spiritual traditions tell us of great spiritual heroes who found treasures of incalculable worth in situations most of us would consider unbearably tragic and painful. In the process of doing this, they gave us all another great gift: that of understanding the true nature of reality and the potential for growth that lies in every situation — even one that is tragic and painful. Heroes find treasure in monsters’ lairs, love in a wasteland, hope in the moment of utter despair, life in the belly of death. Treasure, hope, love, and life exist in a time of pandemic. Be heroic.