Emma Pavey reflects on this time of pandemic uncertainty and what we might learn both for ourselves and as we lead others.
Image also by Emma.
“[A time of] fruitful chaos, a place of incubation for new ideas and lifestyles, of resistance and creativity” – V. 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…
I want to beg you, as much as I can, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is this, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.’
Rainer Maria Rilke (4)
(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.