Sprawled on handmade quilts in a grassy orchard, sharing an outdoor, physically distanced visit with my friend Karen under purple pear and transparent apple trees, I am nowhere near a desert. My Willamette Valley farm home is more Edenic than it is barren, devoid, or austere. Yet when Karen, a spiritual director, asks, “Where are the voices teaching us how to be in the desert?,” she put words to a question my heart has been formulating for weeks. We had been cringing at the online events of COVID season: Zoom video conferencing preschool for her daughter; Zoom outdoor school for my fifth-grade goddaughter; 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 replaces anything at all? 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 that might nourish us in this time?
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 shops, libraries, concert halls, bakeries, bars); the joy of the workplace; of school; of performance, music, and ritual. I’ve read that more people are admitting to declines in mental health as the pandemic wears on (as epidemiologists warned it would). In March 2020, many turned frenetically to online replacements for events lost, as if we only needed placeholders to tide us through this brief lacuna in normalcy. But the reality of dire epidemiological predictions is 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?
In an August 2019 podcast episode, Ezra Klein described 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. This was recorded months before the pandemic began 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. We may even be heightening anxiety as we distract ourselves from what’s missing instead of facing it head-on. What the desert calls us into is a real disconnection, because a surprising kind of consolation can, at times, be found there.
It may sound heretical to suggest this: perhaps we 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. 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 training and from organized sacred rituals. For some of us these online activities are not suitable replacements, and our attachment to them is heightening our anxiety and distracting us from the real work of this time. We need to admit that our treasured group gatherings have gone away for now. 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. With so much beauty in the world, how could the awakened life not be full of pleasure? 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 structures 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 on life support, wavering between alive and not-alive.