Initiation by Coronavirus
There is a truth that every rite of passage guide shares with those in their care: once you cross the threshold, there is no going back.
The old life is gone.
Now you must travel your way through the darkness, no-longer and not-yet, as you move toward your unknown future.
In the middle of the last millenium, a series of plagues took 1/3 of the European population and utterly transformed the economic and political landscape of Western Europe. As we face our current pandemic, and feel its global reach–one not like the plagues but unlike anything in over a hundred years–I am with our collective ancestral trauma. What impact did the plagues have on my ancestors in Wales and England? For those of us European descendants who carry this events in our DNA, I believe the impact continues even today. This can be through the desire to numb or dismiss, struggles with how to respond to the suffering of others, the barely-contained panic, the urge to hoard; I feel these as trauma responses.
In this moment, I speak with my great-grandmothers, and their great-grandmothers before them. I feel the suffering of previous generations as an opportunity to deeper knowing of what it is to be human. I think about the diseases that my ancestors spread knowingly and unknowingly throughout Turtle Island, decimating indigenous cultures. I think of the Lenni Lenape, whom my Quaker ancestors encountered in the late 1600’s. This indigenous nation had lived in this place, peaceably with their neighbors, for at least 13,000 years. They lost 50% of their population in less than a couple of centuries due to diseases carried from Europe. I think of the Methow people, the First Peoples here in the valley where I now live, whose population 150 years ago when white settlers arrived, was a small fraction of what it had been before white people landed on the shores across the continent and began to spread west like a virus, and preceded by bacteria they harbored.
Like many of us, I am constantly thinking of the Spanish Flu of 1918, and wondering how that pandemic, which seems in many ways similar to what is happening now, impacted my great-grandmothers. I wonder if it took any of their children, their parents, their relatives, or their close friends. I have no idea.
I think too of the early days of the AIDS epidemic, when it was known as GRID (gay-related immune disease), and how the disease was used by some as proof that God loved some people less. I am reminded of the terror the disease inflicted, taking too many at such a young age.
This is a time to be with our ancestors, to offer up prayers and libations and call on their ways. There are beautiful stories and poems offered about this, yet as usual, they remain outside of mainstream discourse. These offerings, and taking refuge in my own practices, are what ground me in this time, connecting me with the ancestral wisdom embedded in my cells. I am with some sense of the resilience of this planet and the natural order of things, that sends viruses through species indiscriminately, where powerful humans and their complex economies can be taken down by microscopic cells.
How can we see the coronavirus (I like this name so much better than COVID-19, it’s much more beautiful) as a mindfulness bell? How can we see the threats it brings as invitations for deeper self-inquiry and growth? How can we practice, in small individual ways and systemically, putting the most vulnerable among us at the center of our thoughts and actions?
It is devastating that the elderly in our culture, and those with underlying health conditions and compromised immune systems, are so vulnerable right now. It is devastating that, as usual, those on the margins are disproportionately impacted and suffering. For any of us that are able, mitigating this shameful state of affairs, which is perpetuated every day and amplified in every crisis moment, is our number one imperative.
But our responsibility doesn’t end there. One of the common consequences of disease pandemics is that people retreat into themselves, and they don’t talk about what happened. The stories are so painful that people move on, best they can, in stifling silence. This is a huge part of why communities see the impacts of collective trauma for generations to come. I long to hear the stories of what it is to weather immense loss. What are our grandmothers’ stories?
So many of us know, from our day to day lived experience, that a different world is desperately needed. We know that we live in a culture that is already dead, but doesn’t seem to know it yet. Climate change tells us this every time we allow ourselves to pay attention—and increasingly when it breaks down the door and forces its way in. Devastating inequality, ongoing injustices, and perpetual war remind us that the status quo must end. Yet in this time of a global rite of passage, we struggle to keep going in a runaway culture that is leading us nowhere. Like many have been saying for far too long: the house is on fire! Will we actually listen this time?
Aristotle says that the role of the guide is to help the initiate assume the proper position. What if the coronavirus is our guide into our collective future? What if the pandemic is actually our ally from the more-than-human world, sent to lead us into our future? What lessons could we take from the coronavirus about how to be together, as families, communities, and a species, on this beautiful, wild, and finite planet?
Some Lessons from the Coronavirus:
Wash your Hands
Washing is a common ritual action, found in prayer traditions the world over. This act serves many benefits: hygiene, presence, honoring of one another, and God/Mystery/Creator. How do we wash away the unhealthy residue of the over-culture? How do we wash off whatever someone else has unknowingly passed along to us–whether it’s coronavirus or someone’s fear response–so that we don’t carry it from space to space, and unknowingly pass it along to others or make ourselves sick? For a beautiful meditation on this, perhaps to be posted on the mirror and read aloud each time you wash your hands to help you do it long enough each time, here’s Dori Midnight’s poem, “Wash Your Hands.”
What a gift is the screeching halt to so much air travel, I can almost hear the planet breathe a sigh of relief. The loss of production in China has already saved 200 megatonnes in CO2 output. As this article in the Guardian points out, the environmental gain from the crisis is significant, and shows that governments and average people, working together, can address our carbon emissions rapidly when necessary. May we take from this the larger call to slow down, and consider when and where we need to travel. May the disease pass quickly, with minimal suffering and loss of life—and may it leave in its wake an altered human species committed to no more business as usual.
Center those Most Vulnerable in this Crisis
Right now, this means the chronically ill, immunocompromised, elderly, and disabled. These members of our communities, too often driven to the margins, know what it is to live with uncertainty and health concerns every day.Their stories could be the teaching and medicine we need to weather this storm. Yet now, as usual, their voices are absent as able-bodied pundits wax philosophical about lived experiences they lack. This beautiful podcast shares voices from the margins in a grounded, informative look at coronavirus and its impacts on vulnerable communities. We also need to tend to those economically on the margins: those now facing layoffs, gig economy workers, and those already experiencing poverty before this began.
Pay Attention to the Numbers of the Human Soul, Not Capitalism
For nearly two decades, I’ve wondered what would be different if NPR hourly news updates included the parts per million of carbon dioxide in the air rather than the Dow Jones Industrial Average. In this moment, I am struck by the reminder that the markets do not serve us or our interests, and they serve as a constant tug into a system that is destroying life on this planet. Pay attention to other numbers in these days.
Mourn each and every death. Each. and. every. death.
Pray for those infected.
Fight for those locked up.
Notice each new spring bud, each bird returning.
We Are All Interconnected
Global climate change teaches us that our borders don’t matter; we impact each other no matter what we (try to) do. Coronavirus is forcing us to reckon with our interconnectedness faster than even climate change has been able to do, as we realize that we are bound in an interlocking system. Let it be an interlocking system of mutual support. This article shares beautiful examples of community resiliency bolstered in this crisis. As schools and communities go virtual, this is an opportunity for us to see the full capability of a world connected through the internet. Let us celebrate our interconnectedness at this time, even as we stay at home.
At the same time, let us not forget that there are folks left out of the best of our being interconnected, while being subject to the worst of it. For example, in the rural school district I live in, 2% of students lack internet access at home (which is low compared to many school districts). The inequity they experience every day is now a critical issue. May this be the mindfulness bell for the community to address the issue. Perhaps this is an opportunity to make amends for the ways we haven’t shown up in solidarity with those struggling at the margins, and the way we’ve ignored and deprioritized those with disabilities.
Let Go of the Idea of Containment, and Focus on Mitigation
As the disease has defied efforts at containment, the goal now is to mitigate its damage. This is a beautiful intention to hold with many things in our world today: global climate change, the inevitability of Empire collapse, the impacts of corporate capitalism. The word “mitigate” comes from roots that mean “to draw out softness.” Mitigation invites us to let go of illusions that we can “fix” or “solve” this crisis. The task instead is to soften the impact, and to protect what is sacred. May these be our highest intentions at this time.
Let us heed the lessons of this virus, as we let the truth sink in: life as we knew it is gone. We are in our unknown future. So let us live today, the future we believe in. Let us make prayers to our ancestors, and care for one another. Let us breathe, light candles and sacred herbs, drink tea, and nourish our spirits and bodies.
Whether we are able to touch and be with each other or whether we maintain our distance as our act of solidarity, let’s keep going forward, together. There is no going back.
Some Medicine for the Moment: