This column is part of a series about moving out of this time of pandemic.
Last week, I wrote about how Walter Brueggemann divides the Psalms into three categories of orientation, disorientation, and new orientation. He ties that into the different seasons of human life. Readers told me you found this a helpful way of thinking about the pandemic and where we are now in relation to the virus which has altered our lives in such dramatic ways.
Church historian Diana Butler Bass uses the word “dislocation” to describe this time. As a regular commentator on spiritual matters, she notes that the last 16 months have been a time of loss. “We have lost a year of our lives. [Many] have lost income. We have lost our freedom to gather with friends and family, and the ability to move freely through the world. We have lost friends and relatives to death. We have lost a lot, and many of us are feeling that loss keenly.”
For me, these two words are virtually synonyms. We truly are living in a time of dislocation and disorientation. It has been an extended time of grief and lament, which is hard for us because we live in a society which teaches us to be as positive as we can be. “Never let them see you sweat.” “Never let the naysayers get you down.” Or as I saw recently, “The best revenge is just moving on and getting over it. Don’t give someone the satisfaction of watching you suffer.”
But that doesn’t ring true anymore. We have learned that life is not predictable, and we have lost any sense of control.
Butler Bass helpfully identifies four major ways in which our lives have been dislocated.
We have lost our sense of time, a temporal dislocation. “How often have you thought in this past year, ‘What day is this? What time is it? Did I miss an event?’” Our lives have taken on a sameness—we’re mostly at home all the time, we are by ourselves, or with the same small group all the time, and we have lost some of the ways in which we used to mark time. That is temporal dislocation.
Secondly, she says, we have “lost our sense of where we belong in the larger story of our own lives and our communal stories”. History has been disrupted and she notes that one of the symptoms of this is “the growth of conspiracy theories”. People are struggling to find a larger “meaningful story to frame their lives because the older stories have failed.” That is historical dislocation.
Thirdly, we have lost “our sense of embodiment with others and geographical location”. Since we can’t gather physically with other people, we have moved “into cyber–space, and most of us have no idea what to do with this virtual sense of location.” We have lost our familiar sense of being physically present in specific spaces. That’s physical dislocation.
Fourthly, she says, we “have lost our daily habits of interactions with other human beings”. A cup of coffee with a friend. A hug. A party in the backyard. Attending a concert or play. Smiles are now hidden behind a mask. And I don’t know about you, but I’ve worried (just a little bit) about how I’ll react to being in a large group or seeing people without masks. That’s relational dislocation.
I want to add a fifth element, which I’ll call “spiritual dislocation”. A few weeks ago, I wrote that I define spirituality as a matter of connection—with others, with nature, with myself, and with that other reality which I name God. This pandemic has broken the links of those connections. There are a bunch of loose threads in our lives and a generalized sense of anxiety about how we will face the new reality which we are building, about how we will reconnect, about how we will deal with being part of a larger community again after we have spent so long learning to be alone or nearly alone. This spiritual dislocation has elements of the other kinds of dislocations, to be sure, but I believe the spiritual dislocation is an important element which we can name on its own.
That spiritual dislocation has deepened in Canada with the awful news about the recovery of the graves of children on the grounds of different former Indian Residential Schools. I have been shaken to my core to learn that indigenous people have known about these graves, they have testified to the existence of these graves, and no one was listening.
That is the nature of the time in which we are living. We name it, because if we don’t, we won’t be able to deal with it.
Given this time of disorientation or dislocation in which we live, what is the nature of the work before us?
Butler Bass insists that “religious communities need to be about the work of relocation—finding what has been lost, repairing what has been broken, and re–grounding people into their own lives and communities.”
I would refine that slightly by saying that the work of relocation is the work of the gospel and anyone who shares in this work is doing the work of the gospel. It’s a massive task. No one can predict what it will look like. No one knows what the future will be, despite all the prognosticators out there. We need to be very modest when speaking of how we move into that newness, that time of new orientation, that time of relocation.
This journey will only happen step by step. One vaccine after another. Dealing with one variant of the virus after another. Listening carefully to scientists and medical experts. Working together—yes together—to build a new way of being which will be of benefit for the whole community.
I’ll have more to say next week.
Yme Woensdregt is a retired Anglican priest living in Cranbrook