Greetings from the “city invincible”on the banks of the grand Delaware River!
A new year brings an opportunity for pause; to think about the year that has ended and the year opening up into the future. 2020 has been a year unlike any that most of us have ever experienced. The pandemic, the confrontation with the racism rooted in our history and institutions, and the tumultuous presidential election that ended with a declared winner, but an opponent who refused to accept that fact: all have led to a deepening of divisions between people, between brothers and sisters, between fellow church members, between neighbors. Simply turning the page with a new year will not resolve all of these things, clearly, but the “pause” may be just what we need; it is for me.
So many people, white people I talk to are struggling with understanding what is happening. I am not in a position to offer an explanation, but I will hazard a guess. People are afraid, and I wonder if many of us who are afraid are not used to being afraid. Sure, we might have experienced fear of not getting a desired job, or fear of that special man or woman saying “no,” or the fear a parent experiences when a child is very sick or lost. These fears are part and parcel of the human experience. Some of our fellow human beings, especially our black and brown fellow human beings, experience more existential fears. The fear that leads to “the talk” that black and brown parents have to have with their children, especially their male children. Or the fear of being made “invisible” in a work situation, in the classroom, at the store. Or the fear of being immediately regarded as a threat, in a work situation, in the classroom, at the store. As a white man in the USA I don’t have these kinds of fears, existential fears. As I listen to, and read about, the experience of those who do, while I cannot share their experience, I can hear them, see them, know that another human being carries a burden that no one should have to bear.
I wonder if many people like me in the USA are experiencing this kind of existential fear, and since it is relatively new to them, they don’t know what to make of it, or how to bear it. I am a privileged person in this country. I have a job; a wonderful family; a secure place to live; enough to eat and healthcare available to me. More and more people do not; due to the pandemic, sure, but also due to economic policies that for the last 50 years have slowly undermined what many people took for granted for so long. “My child will do better than I did.” “I will always have a decent job if I work hard.” “My home is mine, and so is my castle.” While these are, in many ways, the claims of the privileged, these phrases have never been completely shared by so many citizens of this country, their loss, or the loss of confidence in saying them, is real. Fear drives many people like me to covet, to grasp at false gods, to demand a return to some mythical place, not recognizing that the mythical place was not all that good for many of our fellow citizens. Something is being lost in these days. Something that seems central to the core of many, a way of being that tells people who they are. With it slipping away, who are they?
Some of my fellow citizens who look like me recognize that there was something amiss in the “way of being” that is slipping away. And they reach, with others, for a vision of our common life that is inclusive of all people. Others refuse to let go; they double down on their insistence that whatever is emerging is bad for them. But how do they know? Because it is different? Because it is more inclusive? Because it considers all human beings to be worthy of a life worth living? I don’t know the answer to that, but I do wonder if fear, fear of the unknown, fear of what might come is a driver of much of the tumult today.
What might happen if we let go of the fear? What might happen if we leaned into the reality of a universe that is constantly emerging new and fresh in ways novel and unexpected? Fear is the absence of faith. I don’t necessarily mean a religious faith, but a faith in the truth that we human beings, all human beings, belong in this universe. That it is on the side of life, on the side of novelty, and relationship, and creativity, and beauty. How do we do that? Again, I don’t have the answers, but it might begin by listening to the birds on a winter day, watching the squirrels cavort around your bird feeder, or marvel at the stars on a clear winter’s night, or enjoy the giggles of delight in the baby who discovers that those hands she occasionally sees in front of her face are connected to her body, and what’s more, she can control them. Pay attention to the connections being made between human beings despite the pandemic. The new ways of connecting that the internet makes possible. Something new is coming into existence, and that newness includes me, it includes you, it includes all of us. It has always been this way. The universe is on the side of creativity, and the universe is conscious in you, a being so full of creativity that it is almost breathtaking.
Fear need not have the last word; indeed, the universe tells us it will not. Emergence, creativity beauty, relationships: this is the stuff of the universe, from the quantum level to the cosmic. And each of us is caught up in the throe of that emergence, and I will hazard a final wonderment: perhaps God is that emergence, that future, calling us to a new way of being, inviting us beyond our fear, into a hope that will never fail.
For those practical minded people, wondering how hope will feed one’s children, or put a roof over their head, I hear you. There are fellow human beings in all communities who have lived with existential fear for at least 400 years on this continent; they continue to model resilience, adaptability, creativity and beauty. But they are human beings; it would be wrong to underestimate our common humanity as the source of so much that can make living worthwhile. We just need to let go of the fear, to lean into the possibilities, and to echo the great mystic Julian of Norwich: “All will be well, all manner of things will be well.”
I wish a relief of fear, for myself and for all who need that relief, and a commitment to lean into the emergence of whatever beautiful and creative lies in store for us in 2021.
Mark Doorley, Ph.D.
Chair, Board of Trustees