“Do not forget to wait”: Being in the Desert

Sprawled on handmade quilts in a grassy orchard, sharing an outdoor physically-distanced visit with friend Karen under purple-pear and Transparent Apple trees, I am nowhere near a desert. My Willamette Valley farm-home is more Edenic than barren devoid austere. Yet when spiritual director Karen asks, Where are the voices teaching us how to be in the desert? it is like she puts words to a question my heart has been formulating for weeks of this pandemic. She and I had been cringing at the online and Zoom events of covid season: Zoom preschool for her daughter; Zoom “outdoor school” for my fifth-grade goddaughter (what the?!); Zoom dinner parties; Zoom yoga; Zoom reunions; online plays; online church. We are zooming out.

Am I the only one who wonders if all this screen-staring and cyber-“connection” doesn’t replace anything at all—because real face-to-face connection is irreplaceable; or who wonders if our online stand-ins are sometimes making us more off-kilter, keeping us from doing the work we’re really supposed to do in this time? —I am not the only one. Not even close.

Because of the pandemic, most of us have lost things that have nothing to do with death, physical illness, or jobs. We’ve lost physical connection with family, friends and strangers; the joy of inhabiting diverse spaces (coffee shop, library, concert hall, bakery, bar); the joy of workplace and school and performance and music and ritual. I read more people admit to declines in mental health as covid wears on (as epidemiologists warned us it would). In March many turned frenetically to online replacements for events lost, like we only needed placeholders to tide us through this brief lacuna in normalcy. But the reality of dire epidemiological predictions are setting in even as we discover things cannot be replaced. We cannot outrun our losses.

What if instead of grasping to fill the void, we embraced it? What if we settled deeply enough into this void, this desert, to learn what it has to teach? What if we recognized the powerful, metaphorical spiritual stage of the desert and that many of us are in it?

I recently heard a favorite podcaster describe our collective online lives this way: we have the anxieties of connection without the nourishment of connection, and with few of the consolations of real disconnection (on The Ezra Klein Show; conversation with Jia Tolentino, August 2019). This was said months before the pandemic but has only become sharper in light of it. Clearly, anxiety in the covid era runs high and our attempts to replace missing connections are not working for many of us; they may even heighten anxiety as we distract ourselves from what’s missing instead of facing it head-on. What the desert calls us into is real disconnecting—because a surprising kind of consolation can, at times, be found there.

It may sound heretical to suggest this: but perhaps some (many?) of us should dive fully into this new desert, and coach others on being there. Maybe we should stop trying to replace what cannot be replaced: school, social lives, organized groups, church, classes. Instead: some might un-school the kids for a year; learn how to foster well-being while being alone; plumb deeply the question, Who am I?; take a full-on sabbatical from trainings and organized sacred ritual—because—for some (many?)—doing them online is no replacement and attachment to ersatz replacements is heightening our anxieties and distracting us from the real work of this time. We need to admit that our treasured group gatherings have gone away for now. They will be back one day; but for now, they are gone. We can practice living without them. We can go into the metaphorical desert. Be with what is right now—the whole clamoring lack of it.

I am no ascetic and I don’t generally deprive myself. I often, in fact, call myself a hedonist—only half-jokingly; a hedonist in the classical sense of striving for contentment and to balance struggle and pleasure in such a way that pleasure wins out (hear! hear!). With so much beauty in the world, how could the awakened life not be pleasureful? But I also look out and see that struggle heightens pleasure and joy—in fact, we seemingly don’t have real joy without struggle. I also see that again and again, in the structure of nature/creation and social reality, something must die in order for something to be reborn.

May we let something die during this desert-time, instead of keeping stale patterns alive-not-alive on life-support.

My own tradition, the Judeo-Christian tradition, is full of narratives of going to the desert for richness and discovery. God spoke to Moses in the desert; the Exodus, a time of desert-wandering, was about refinement and preparation; prophets received visions in the desert; Jesus regularly went to the desert to be alone and prepare; the third-century “desert fathers and mothers” fled city distractions, the maddening crowd, to go to the desert to struggle and learn what silence and vacuity had to teach: in essence, that God was present within them. One Jewish Midrash explains that “[a]nyone who does not make himself ownerless, like the desert, cannot acquire the Torah.” What a word for our time: ownerless. What would it mean to disconnect so as to glimpse how it feels to not be owned by anything for a moment—and thus to become more available for awakening. St. Francis of Assisi (1182–1226) sometimes spent weeks wandering in desolate lands, asking the foundational question: Who are you, my most dear God, and who am I? In the desert, we seek out, and often find, our true identity.

The idea of going to the desert to discover what is solid, reliable, and true has roots in many religious traditions. But when I went looking for voices that speak to the metaphor of desert, I was most wooed by Carl Jung—particularly experiences recorded in The Red Book that took place during the upheavals of WWI when he was formulating his ideas in imagined conversation with his soul. I quote him at length, with more in a note below, because his passage is so apt. It seems to speak directly to our situation in pandemic:

“My soul leads me into the desert, into the desert of my own self. I did not think that my soul is a desert, a barren, hot desert, dusty and without drink…. How eerie is this wasteland. It seems to me that the way leads so far away from [hu]mankind. I take my way step by step, and do not know how long my journey will last. Why is my self a desert? Have I lived too much outside of myself in men and events? …

“… [L]ife leads me into the desert, truly not my thinking, that would like to return to thoughts, to men and events …. My soul, what am I to do here? But my soul spoke to me and said, ‘Wait.’ I heard the cruel word.

“… And at once, I noticed that my self became a desert…. I was overwhelmed by the endless infertility of this desert. Even if something could have thrived there, the creative power of desire was still absent. Wherever the creative power of desire is, there springs the soil’s own seed. But do not forget to wait1 (emphasis added).

Have we lived too long outside of ourselves, in others and events? I worry that we are filling this potential desert-time with too many online events, too much social media and streamed entertainment. Not because I am an ascetic and want us to be desolate and deprived for deprivation’s sake, but because I am a classical hedonist. And I think on the other side of this gaping pandemic more pleasure and joy await if we can only learn to “wait”—if we can let the desert have its way with us. If, like farmers, we can let this season of void and pandemic nourish seeds in us that we water and let grow into greater freedom and more clear-eyed perception. Any farmer will tell you it’s a slow process—and also that joy is found in the anticipation. Even the barren fallowness of winter nourishes the soil so that something promising can grow come spring. Yet as Jung writes in a continuation of the passage above, “Nobody can spare themselves the waiting and most will be unable to bear this torment, but will throw themselves with greed back at men, things, and thoughts, whose slaves they will become from then on.” We are so attached to being owned. Anyone who does not make himself ownerless, like the desert, cannot acquire the Torah.

I recognize this likely sounds foreign to essential workers who are face-to-face exposed daily. And that some people encounter situations (for example, the situations of gig workers, those without unemployment-insurance protections, or those whose states have stingy and limited benefits) necessitating that they must work in public wherever and however they can despite risks. I recognize that un-school sounds like pipe-dream craziness to full-time working parents who cannot leave their kids unsupervised. That leaving some kids out of school will increase learning disparities that are already too wide. That some people have jobs that simply require online replacement if they want to keep their jobs. I also see the all-out extroverts among us who find online substitutes for face-to-face connection deeply nourishing, good, and necessary. I recognize that as an introvert with a work-at-home job (editor/writer)—whether during pandemic or otherwise—I am inordinately well-disposed to weather covid (though in another way—chronic illness—I am inordinately vulnerable). So, I am not suggesting a one-size-fits-all unplugging from online activities across the board.

Yet, some of us surely have a choice when it comes to how much screen-staring we do. Some of us really can choose whether to unplug and delve into this pandemic desert, or to run from it grasping after artificial connection and online “replacement” and distraction. In many cases, we choose overzealous online connection because the desert is simply too daunting.

Can we just admit—at this point in the process—that our running is, in many cases, not working? Can we be quiet, and go into the desert, and wait?


1 Carl Jung, from “The Desert” and “Experiences in the Desert” in The Red Book, pp. 141-143 (W.W. Norton, 2012, ed. Sonu Shamdasani). The Jung passage continues: “… [T]o find their soul, the ancients went into the desert. … [T]hey went into the solitude of the desert to teach us that the place of the soul is a lonely desert. There they found the abundance of visions, the fruits of the desert, the wondrous flowers of the soul. Think diligently about the images that the ancients have left behind. They show the way of what is to come. Look back at the collapse of empires, of growth and death, of the desert and monasteries, they are the images of what is to come. … The words that oscillate between nonsense and supreme meaning are the oldest and truest.

”…  [I said to the soul] I do not want to complain, but let me say to you that mine is a long and dusty road. You are to me like a shady tree in the wilderness. I would like to enjoy your shade. But my soul answered, ‘You are pleasure-seeking. Where is your patience? Your time has not yet run its course. Have you forgotten why you went into the desert?’”

{Photo by Hanaa Turkistani on Scopio}

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2 thoughts on ““Do not forget to wait”: Being in the Desert

Thank you for this metaphor. I too think of COVID as a desert time, but I hadn’t been using the phrase until I read it here. It fits.

    These past few months, I have, while grieving the losses you enumerate, leaned into the desert and largely eschewed online gatherings that attempt to replace the physical. At first I did this because I’m a solitary and it felt good to catch a break. Now, I’m doing it purposefully.

    You’ve inspired me today to think about the criteria I use to distinguish online gatherings that are gifts of connection in this time of isolation, and those that primarily function as distractions. This is a good exercise, and I thank you for the nudge.

    1. I so appreciate your comment, Tara. I too am trying to explore what “the desert” means for me, and how to give myself over to it rather than trying to resist it. Thank you for being a reader.

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