Ebb Again

In this time of upheaval, I have learned this: the ebb is as important as the flow. In the first few weeks of the lockdown, articles filled the virtual pages of magazines and photos on the grids of Instagrams about how to make this frightening and unusual time worthwhile. If we could bake enough or learn a new language or write a book proposal, then maybe we could keep things like, I don’t know, dread at bay.

Then around the month mark, those same online spaces flipped the script. No, actually, this time should not be marked by productivity. It is a time to survive, not produce, they said. And I suspect for people with children or intense work responsibilities or both, this was a welcomed relief: a reminder that our worth is not determined by how much we do because it is inherent. Just be – that’s a much nicer message.

Being, though, is harder terrain to navigate. Being leaves more space for contemplation, in the pockets of time once filled by things like reorganize storage closet or learn to make French Silk Pie or find a German tutor. Dread, fear, anxiety, sadness, longing, grief, restlessness – all the emotions we’d prefer to avoid – are given room to breathe and speak and shout and consume and overwhelm us then.

Existential dread? I wanted to say, Welcome to my neighborhood! This is the ground I freaking live on. Trust me, you don’t make it through divinity school without a healthy dose of existential dread. We throw the phrase “existential crisis” around a lot, like when we hate our new haircut or we can’t pick a major in college. But literal existential crisis is no joke. It is looking at the mystery of human existence and sitting with the unanswerable and yet unavoidable heaviness: what does it mean?

Does it mean anything? Was the world created arbitrarily? What happens after we die? Are we annihilated? Or does this earthly existence point us to something else? Something larger? Something truer? Something more beautiful? Something beyond our comprehension?

Well, when you’re exhausted, whether that’s by relentless deconstruction in rigorous theology classes or something more like a global pandemic coupled with global economic decline, an upcoming presidential election, and pervasive isolation, the answers will most likely be bleaker.

Atheism says this: death and nothingness. Faith, in even its most shallow form, says: life and meaning. For me, faith is not a light switch, it is a dimmer switch. And there are days when the light is just hovering above its lowest point. Hope, then, might be a dimmer switch, too. Honestly, if someone never has a hard time getting out of bed in this time so full of grief and worry, I would suggest that person is avoiding quite a few serious things. It is hard to maintain hope, and faith, and productivity, which is why we need the rest, the ebb. We need the break. We need the occasional hours of forgetting and instead watching Call the Midwife (unless you’re my husband who says that watching an hour-long program with several scenes of childbirth is not relaxing).

Forgetting and remembering. Resting and trying. Ebbing and flowing. It is the natural order of things. The Productivity Activists and the Rest Advocates are both right in their own ways.

Both/and. For me, I’ll take both baking pie and existential deconstruction. The sweetness of life, in even the simplest manifestations, I have found, can edge us toward meaning-making.

Where there is beauty, there may indeed be truth – reminding us of the unseen order of things.