Abiding in Exile - We Contain Multitudes 01/14/2021

Abiding in Exile - We Contain Multitudes 01/14/2021

January 14, 2021

By Lee Roorda Schott

I just noticed that I haven’t been napping on Sunday afternoons. 

This is surprising because I’ve always been a dedicated observer of S.A.I.N.T.: Sunday Afternoon INap Time. I’d get home from worship and whatever else was part of the morning, and I’d be out.

But I’m not, now. Now I find myself changing my clothes and then pondering options. A walk with my husband, or the “crafternoon” we shared recently. Folding the laundry. Some reading, or some Netflix. 

I’m not certain why it’s been different in recent months, but I think it’s the lower level of human interaction on Sundays. As an introvert, it takes something out of me to spend time in a room full of people (as much as I long to return to that!).

For now, I have some options on Sunday afternoon. And I’m glad I noticed this small delight.

It took me a while. My attention has been filled to the brim with other kinds of questions. How to do worship well, in a Livestream, and upgrading our equipment for that purpose. What metrics and trend lines will signal that we can return to in-person worship in our building. Who will enforce the guidelines we’ve set, about masks and distance, and whether anyone will be satisfied being together without the fellowship, hugs, singing, and ease we have all missed so much. When will the numbers improve, and how quickly will the vaccine get distributed, to allow a more fulsome return?

It’s easy to get caught up in what’s hard, and miss what’s sweet. Yet I’m realizing I’m holding both, if I let myself notice. 

I contain multitudes. Like Walt Whitman. 

“Do I contradict myself?” he asked. “Well then, I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”

We all do.

I’m guessing the exiles who found themselves in Babylon had this experience, too. Even as they mourned what they had lost in their distant homeland, there must have been small, surprising pleasures. An agreeable landscape. A lifting of some worrisome responsibility they had borne at home. A nearby toddler it was hard to resist. A local custom or festival that brought a bit of joy.

None of this would change the truth that these people longed for what they had lost, and wished to return home. But at that same time, those other, happy bits were surely true, too. 

I wonder if it was hard for them to own the delights. Held against your will in an inhospitable land, it would cost you something, wouldn’t it, to admit you liked this or that about where you were now? That angry person you lived with, or your own rage about what had happened to you and your people: these things could keep you from admitting your enjoyment of even the tiniest things. 

I’m a little worried about that, in this pandemic. We’ve become so accustomed to lamenting what we don’t like about masks and distances and positivity rates and CDC guidelines. Has it become unfashionable to admit the good we’re discovering along the way?

In unguarded moments, I’ve heard some of my clergy colleagues wonder at the strange freedom Sunday brings when they’ve already recorded their services before the weekend. Church doesn’t consume the morning right now! They’re like many—lay and clergy—who are discovering the ease of Sunday mornings where they can show up at the last minute in pajamas, sipping and refilling a cup of coffee, as they join in online worship from a couch shared with their dog or cat.

We don’t quite want to admit all this. It seems disloyal, in a way. We’re supposed to be impatient and eager for this pandemic season to end! We’re dying to get back to church! That’s our narrative. That’s the way everyone feels, isn’t it?

And it’s not only disloyalty. It’s also fear. It’s easy to worry. What if we all get too used to things this way, and we admit we like it? What will that mean once the pandemic is over? Will our people return? Will any of us want to? 

We don’t want to think very far along these lines. So we could be forgiven if we hold back from savoring any joys that have come with this pandemic. It feels easier to stay focused on our desired return to life as we knew it, before we were dislodged by this virus.

But living in rage and silence and worry costs us something, too. It was true for the exiles and it’s true in a pandemic. 

It’s also true in our nation right now. Long before, and now following the invasion of the U.S. Capitol last week, I’ve seen social media posts from both sides of the Great Divide that predict the end of life as we know it, based on what the other side has up its sleeve. Neither side recognizes the portrait of itself that the other paints, and we find ourselves retreating into silence in lieu of shouting our disagreement and disdain.

That silence costs us something, too. It keeps us from acknowledging when our side is wrong. It keeps us from admitting those rare spots where the other side might have a point. If we allowed ourselves to be honest, those things exist, on both sides, at least in glimpses and around corners.

But when we’re consumed by the narrative of our side, and totally caught up in its version of reality and the questions it wants us to ask and answer, we can’t go there. It feels disloyal to our cause. And fearsome. We can’t risk the anger of that person we live with, or our own dismay were we to discover we’re on a path that feels contrary to who we thought we were.

And yet, we contain multitudes. There is in each of us more than the pressing questions that consume our attention, and the political, spiritual, and other goals that we’ve pledged ourselves to pursue. There’s already, in us, rage and at least some delights. The desire for things to be different and the discovery of some things that might need to stick, from this unchosen reality. We hold joys even if they are incongruous with our tired rage.

We hold something of the truth comedian John Mulaney offered on the eve of the 2020 election:

“Rest assured, no matter what happens, nothing much will change in the United States. The rich will continue to prosper while the poor languish. Families will continue to be upended by mental illness and drug addiction. [and the like]”

Reading those words, I’m not sure why I found them so compelling in that moment! They look like bad news. Bad but true news. And they say another truth we each contain: The parade of horribles is unlikely to seize us with quite the ferocity we conjure. Our fear of fascism, on one side, and of communism, on the other, might be an exaggeration. “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated,” said Mark Twain. So, too, for our democracy, in news cycles and social media algorithms that thrive on such reports.

I’m not saying we needn’t continue the fight, and the questions, and worthy responses. But along the way, let’s pay attention to what we’re noticing, whether we’re talking pandemic or politics or, say, pastoring (or being the church!). Are we allowing ourselves to admit the allure, in even the smallest way, of the thing we’re resisting? Can we set aside the questions that consume us long enough to look around and see the delight that has popped up right in our midst? We’ll be healthier when we can see we contain that, too. We contain multitudes.

(My house, BTW, is tidier than it’s ever been. Danged Coronavirus!)