Michelle Trebilcock, 18th May 2020
[These words have been written from my home on Wurundjeri Country of the Kulin Nations in the land called Melbourne, Australia. I pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging who are the continuing sovereign custodians of this land despite the crimes of colonisation.]
For those of us who have devoted ourselves to the work of love and justice, we sense the importance of this time of Covid-19. My Facebook feed (populated by likeminded justice activists and spiritual seekers) is balanced between the extremes of fear and hope: betwixt global social, economic and ecological collapse, and the birth of a new era for spiritually awake humanity.
As we move into the second, third or fourth month of pandemic response measures across the globe, we move beyond adrenalin fuelled adaptation to this crisis, to confront the possibility of ongoing vulnerabilities for ourselves and the people we care about. And, for those who care about love and justice, we know it is those with the least who are, as always, most at risk of both the illness and its economic impact. It is a deeply distressing time for those of us who care. But how do we plan, think, act, organise and lobby in order to make a difference? Be your sphere of activism politics, church or grassroots community, what does activism look like in the liminal space of global pandemic?
There are a group of Plato’s dialogues that are concerned with one or other of the ‘virtues’ of ancient Greek philosophy and end in what he called aporia. Each of these dialogues contains a stream of thinking that ends in puzzlement, perplexity and an impasse of understanding. Aporia is the intellectual state of perplexity, the learning edge. Plato is quite optimistic, even excited, about reaching this edge in a structured discourse of logical reasoning, for this is the edge of new ways of thinking and being in the world.
In the lived experience of our thinking and being systems, aporia can be a very difficult experience. For Plato and his peers, philosophy was a way of life with practical, ethical and social applications. When the stable and structured forms of thinking fall away, the human person (and the human community) is presented with a crisis of un-knowing. We must face the fact that the way we have existed in the world has passed. It is a kind of death and therefore is potentially a moment of profound, complex grief and loss.
It is in these times, Plato suggested, that the philosopher turns to poets and priests, who say there is a memory of perfect virtue contained in our human soul. Knowledge of virtue, and of other subjects of the soul, comes not through teaching, only through what Plato called a ‘recollection’ of the soul. Soul, or psyche is the root of our word for psychology. Sidestepping all the conversations we could have about the obtuse meaning of the word ‘soul,’ we can add psychologists to Plato’s lists of resources for navigating through our present experience of aporia.
Psychologically, living and working through the coronavirus pandemic has the potential to be a dangerous moment of fear, despair, loss, and disorientation. For many it will challenge the balance of our mental health and wellbeing – not because we are weak but because we are human.
Activism frequently has the potential to take us into psychologically challenging spaces. Friends, family and colleagues are usually our primary sources of comfort and support, but at this point in time when we are all challenged by the coronavirus situation, you may find it useful to speak to a professional with whom there is no reciprocal obligation––your GP or an on-line counsellor are good places to start. Francis Weller, author of The Wild Edge of Sorrow describes grief as an apprentice for the work of love in the vocation of life. There is a rich purpose in courageously engaging with feelings that might arise at this time, rather than ignoring or sidelining them as insignificant. Let grief be your teacher.
Personally, I am needing to draw on all my psychological skills to stay present to what is here and now before me: but it is the only way to stay sane! So this is what I do:
Create a safe space – even if that’s in my head – for half a minute.
Take a slow, conscious breath.
Observe what is around me. Breathe.
Observe my body’s reaction. Breathe.
Practice deep acceptance and self compassion. Breathe.
Find a single, small next action. Breathe
Decide to move ahead with grace.
Take an intentional, determined breath. Re-engage with what is before me.
Embracing the opportunities of the pandemic’s disruption to business-as-usual may require new skills for thinking and action, as we navigate the liminal space of global uncertainty and insecurity. We know some things, we do not know others. Apart from our own health and wellbeing, meeting the psychological or spiritual (to use another of soul’s obtuse meanings) challenges is part of the work itself. We may need to form new relationships, experiment with new ways of relating, and be open to new and surprising alliances. Now is the time to reimagine our communication – to integrate feeling, storytelling, art, movement, and non-binary thinking that persuades, stirs and energises new movements for old problems.
All of these non-logical types of thinking require breathing space: the allocation of a safe space where we can stop, let go of what is not working, let go of trying to make it work, rest and then pick up – not from where we left off, but from some new insight gained in the midst of crisis. As Rumi, the thirteenth century Sufi mystic wrote, ‘Beyond right and wrong there is a field, I’ll meet you there.’
In the end, we are all human. It is the human to human connection that leads to lasting change. So, can we advocate with feeling, breath, humility and compassion to a whole sector of government and corporate decision makers who are equally struggling with this sense of aporia. Yes, there is huge opportunity for activists in this moment of crisis, but don’t underestimate the importance of taking a breath. Make space for unhurried reflection, connect to nature, let the silence and solitude of home be a teacher, let yourself feel the plight of the most vulnerable, and use the experiment of new communication technologies to deepen our intention to be in relationship with one other.