Reverting to normal is a missed spiritual opportunity
As 2020 ends and 2021 begins, people are talking of healing. There is a strong desire to recover from the suffering of the year and return, as speedily as possible, to normal life.
The yearning is right, and the remarkably speedily development of vaccines promises to make it possible. The pain of Covid, and the suffering precipitated by lockdowns, must be eased.
And yet, there is a part of me that is wary of framing 2021 solely in terms of recovery and relief.
The assumption behind returning to normal is that, first, the pandemic is abnormal and, second, that normal life is the best life. But the pandemic is only abnormal in the sense that it is suffered widely and doubly felt in countries not used to having everyday life disrupted. The truth is that disruption is a part of life, not an unfortunate intrusion. Some face disarray often, others infrequently enough to live as if it doesn’t occur — until it does.
The upshot, paradoxically, is that the desire simply to recover is implicitly a wish to return to life as a closed circle of pain and pleasure, advance and setback, laughs and losses. It’s a broadly hedonist philosophy, meant in the strict sense of wanting to maximise pleasures and minimise pains, and begs the question of whether there’s more to life than weighing it in the balance, and hoping it tips more to the good; that happiness mitigates hurt.
To put it another way, there is a kind of spiritual opportunity cost in an unthinking reversion, a missed chance in circling back. But there is a hard element here.
You share the feeling of being with another soul.
Any realisation that there might be more to long for from life may well arise with suffering. This is not to advocate suffering by perversely arguing it is good. It is to ask that since there is, has, and will be suffering, whether it might be possible to learn something from it?
The question arises not as an attempt to escape from suffering but precisely because it is bad, sometimes too bad. It is at least difficult, if not terrible, because suffering is never only physical, but also existential: it underlines that we want more from life than simply to live out our allotted span. We want to love as well as survive, enjoy as well as endure, find meaning as well as relief.
This more can be felt in a related experience much named in 2020: empathy. It means that when you meet another person, you don’t just register a body or hear a voice. You share the feeling of being with another soul. The physical presence in front of you is only the visible appearance of an invisible spirit. A living body projects way more than its bare life, which is why the sight of a dead body can be so discomforting and uncanny.
Empathy is a modern word, coined in 1904, for an ancient perception: that my consciousness and your consciousness is one consciousness. When you say “I” and I say “I” we are reaching towards a unity of being that sustains us all. Another way of putting that is to say we are ensouled.
The strange thing about suffering is that it can intensify this perception of life as well. When suffering, we feel keenly how life is valuable. We know it is felt and soulful, not merely instinctive and mechanical.
Great individuals trust this more of life.
I suspect that the capacity to detect this soulful connection has much to do with how we relate to ourselves as living souls. The person who is inclined to interpret their feelings as rushes of hormones, or neuronal spasms, may hinder or thwart their ability to feel the spiritual presence of others. If you don’t trust your inner life, it’s hard to trust the inner life of those around you. As William Blake put it: “As a man is, so he sees.”
Similarly, if you don’t trust the inner life of the natural world, it will be harder to believe that William Wordsworth was doing more than dreaming when he associated the light of the setting sun with a spirit that rolls through all things.
It’s also why death is a great challenge. The living body of the beloved goes and those remaining have to rely on the now invisible presence of the one who has passed. This is a real loss to incarnate spirits, whose usual means of communication is shared and embodied. The death of someone with whom physical companionship has been a mainstay may, at first, prove intolerable. Your living body loses part of itself when the body of your beloved goes, which is to say your soul is bereft.
Mourning is the hard task of becoming capable, once more, of relating to the person who has died. They are no longer manifest in the world, though they can become present afresh in inner life. Memories linger, to which can be added an ongoing sense of life shared, not as a fantasy that they are always with you, but as an experience that as your life goes on developing, so does theirs — more often apart than together, though with love still exchanged.
An experience of suffering can prompt a desire to know more.
Great individuals trust this more of life and, knowing they are more, see more. In fact, the great innovations in wisdom traditions tend to come when this seeing links to suffering, fostering more to be contemplated. Socrates embraced doubt. Buddha saw people dying. Jesus walked into the wilderness. Such figures realised that suffering can open gateways. They did not want the suffering, or wish it on others, but they learnt to lean into it when it came their way, and to be imaginatively open to it. They found that the capacity to do so increased their freedom, because it reoriented life away from weighing pleasure and pain in the balance, or trying to hold suffering indefinitely at bay, to perceiving that suffering is one indicator that life is worth more than the hedonic calculator can compute.
All this also means that suffering should be eased when it can’t be understood. A child’s pain is the obvious case in point. But for some individuals, and perhaps for a society as a whole, an experience of suffering can prompt a desire to know more: to realign towards life’s soulful foundations, to reconnect with the dead, to forge habits of mind that nurture spiritual as well as material perceptions; to turn towards the being upon which all beings rest.
In this sense, I hope we don’t just return to normal. I am trying not to, feeling that the events of 2020 make 2021 a chance to be more imaginative. The new year might lead into a new world, though, in truth, it is only a lost aspect of the one that is here.