Posts by Rabbi Mara Young

Friday, August 6, 2021

Pandemic Nostaligic

In the early days of the pandemic (which we didn’t know were the “early days” of what will be now a 2 year slog), we waxed poetic on what we had learned as a society. A video went viral of Tom Roberts - a guy my age who makes internet videos - reading a child a “bedtime story” called The Great Realisation. He imagined a vaccinated world after the pandemic, and what it would look like. He began:

“It was a world of waste and wonder, of poverty and plenty,
Back before we understood why hindsight’s 2020
You see, the people came up with companies to trade across all lands
But they swelled and got much bigger than we ever could have planned
We always had our wants, but now, it got so quick
You could have anything you dreamed of, in a day and with a click...
And while we drank and smoked and gambled, our leaders taught us why,
It's best to not upset the lobbies, more convenient to die.
'But then in 2020, a new virus came our way.
The government reacted and told us all to hide away.
'But while we were all hidden, amidst the fear and all the while,
The people dusted off their instincts, they remembered how to smile.
'They started clapping to say thank you, and calling up their mums.
'And while the cars’ keys were gathering dust, they would look forward to their runs.
'And with the sky less full of planes, the earth began to breathe.
And the beaches brought new wildlife that scattered off into the seas…
'Some people started dancing, some were singing, some were baking.
We'd grown so used to bad news but some good news was in the making.
'And so when we found the cure and were allowed to go outside,
We all preferred the world we found to the one we'd left behind.
'Old habits became extinct, and they made way for the new.
And every simple act of kindness was now given its due.
'But why did it take a virus to bring the people back together?'
'Well, sometimes, you got to get sick, my boy, before you start feeling better.
'Now lie down, and dream of tomorrow, and all the things that we can do.
And who knows, maybe if you dream strong enough, maybe some of them will come true.
'We now call it the Great Realisation, and yes, since then there have been many.
'But that's the story of how it started, and why hindsight's 2020.'

At the time, it was so uplifting, encouraging, it made it feel like all our actions were worth it.

But 2020 became 2021 and our patience for bedtime stories and compelling poems has waned.

Perhaps it is because at this moment, a new variant has us scared and confused. The conflicting science and lack of clear guidance has us fatigued.

Or, could it be that we haven’t actually learned all the lessons we thought we did? Could it be we need more time?

Back in June, Stephen Collinson of CNN wrote:

“The joy of family reunions, delayed weddings, the urge to travel and traffic returning to clog city freeways speak to a national reawakening that has seen infections and deaths shrink since early in the year. 

But such rituals have coincided with the jarring return of another quintessentially American rite: the mass shooting, 10 each on the last two weekends alone. Cities like San Francisco and New York are recalling their dangerous after dark reputations of the past. And questions are being raised over whether the pent-up frustration of months of social distancing and consequential mental health issues are combining in a fatal mix with a nation awash in firearms.

As states have lifted Covid-19 restrictions and the weather warmed, many US cities were hit by a sudden spike in gun crime, violence and homicides. Mass shootings have proliferated from Oregon to Louisiana and from Utah to Michigan. Last weekend, there were 10 mass shootings across nine states that killed seven people and injured at least 45 others…”

That same month, we got reports of airlines banning alcohol from their flights due to a higher incidences of drunk and unruly passengers. People are acting out. Not because we’re naturally violent, ungrateful beasts, but because we’re traumatized.

We aren’t meant to live as isolated ascetics. Unsurprisingly, humanity has crept back toward each other. Given the amount of psychological trauma and the fact that racist, misogynistic structures still prop up our society, it is perhaps no surprise that we emerged from our isolation more chaotic than ever.

For those with mental health struggles, they were exacerbated. For those without pre-existing conditions, the pressure has taken a toll. We tell ourselves: by doing this….I’ll feel ok. The benchmark comes and we don’t feel better. So then we say, by doing this, or when this happens….I’ll feel ok. And then we’re not.

The needle keeps getting pushed back. When we hit the benchmark and we don’t feel ok, we get angry, we feel guilty, we feel lost.

As the Delta variant moves the needle yet again, I wonder if it is possible to return to those feelings of moral recalibration. How can we tap back into that sublime state of ethical discovery? Or perhaps put differently: is there still time to actualize The Great Realisation?

Enter Torah. Torah understands people as emotional beings - speaking to us in spiritual and moral language. And it also understands us as social beings who don’t always know how to regulate those feelings. Therefore it legislates our actions. Deuteronomy, the book we are currently reading, takes great care to reiterate what these actions should be. Our tradition is so magically practical in its approach.

This week, Deuteronomy reminds us that we are an am kadosh, a holy people, that we are banim Adonai - literally children of God. It operates in the language of relationship and love, precisely what we’ve been reflecting on throughout quarantine. It reminds us that we are of God and therefore capable of demonstrating tremendous love.

This God-like emotional energy alone is pure and creative, but when applied to the human world, easily turns destructive. Hence the need for a religious code and a roadmap for living. Hence all the laws we get in this week’s Torah portion, Re’eh.

Torah itself is “the Great Realisation” - the idealistic projection of what the world and we can be. And like our ancestors this week, specifically Moses, we find ourselves on the cusp of the Promised future but not yet ready, or allowed, to go in. We’re still “in the thick of it,” so to speak.

Which is why I keep coming back to a piece that Sam Anderson wrote for the NYTimes called “The Truth about Cocoons.” Cocoons - the kinds butterflies emerge from.

He asks: “What is it actually like inside a cocoon? Is it cozy and peaceful? Or cramped and dim? Is the bug’s stay voluntary, involuntary or something in between? And what really happens during that seemingly magical change? Is it inspiring and wondrous? Or is it unpleasant and grim? What did I not learn in kindergarten?

It turns out that the inside of a cocoon is — at least by outside-of-a-cocoon standards — pretty bleak. Terrible things happen in there: a campaign of grisly desolation that would put most horror movies to shame. What a caterpillar is doing, in its self--imposed quarantine, is basically digesting itself. It is using enzymes to reduce its body to goo, turning itself into a soup of ex-caterpillar — a nearly formless sludge oozing around a couple of leftover essential organs...

Only after this near-total self-annihilation can the new growth begin. Inside that gruesome mush are special clusters of cells called ‘‘imaginal discs,”...[these discs are] basically the seeds of crucial butterfly structures: eyes, wings, genitalia and so on. These parts gorge themselves on the protein of the deconstructed caterpillar, growing exponentially, taking form, becoming real. That’s how you get a butterfly: out of the horrid meltdown of a modest caterpillar.”

We are still in the grisly desolation of a global pandemic - and not just because the Delta variant has us masked up and staying home again. We’re still mid-#metoo. We’re still asserting that Black Lives Matter. Extreme weather is causing homelessness, famine and poverty. We are still in the deconstructed soup of it.

But this fact, as grim as it feels, does not negate all the blessings we’ve discovered in our hearts during this time. In this primordial goo of our reinvention, those holy feelings of love and connection that we are discovering are exactly what we must gorge ourselves on; feeding on it long enough to translate those feelings to action and finally emerge transformed.

1 comment:

  1. Mara, I love this. It speaks to me and to my family. The chyrsalis metaphor, along with inspiration from Torah is so on point. Thank you.