Suspended Animation

We respond to moments of abrupt and unexpected change at different speeds.

My speed has been zero, or maybe zero in reverse. I’ve been lost. Unable to respond. Unable to find the words to describe my being. I’ve been stuck and still and silent. And while I sit here, listening, observing, others have responded with such purpose and power and urgency.

Thoughtful reflection, however, comes to each of us in different ways. One of the more moving reflections came to me recently in the form of a family email, sent from a thoughtful scholar. So, while I remain at a loss for words (and with the generous approval of the author), I find it fitting to share with you a reflection more articulate and more thought-provoking than I could ever hope to provide.  I’ve included all the content, including the obligatory family niceties, because I feel like the author was writing to a far bigger audience. The letter spoke to me, and perhaps it’ll speak to you as well.

I recommend you ‘ride along.’

***

From Professor Robert Van Dellen:

Dear Families & Friends,

T.S. Eliot offers these words of wisdom, his beckoning “prayer” in times of stress:  “Teach us to care and not to care.  Teach us to be still.”  Somehow those words resonate with me during these difficult and trying times. I’m still ruminating, which I belabored in my last lengthy musings.  And my rumination of late brings me to think a lot about the state we are in:  A State of Suspended Animation.  It’s a sensation I feel all too acutely; perhaps you do too?

It’s actually a term that has a definition:  “The temporary cessation of most vital functions without death, as in a dormant seed or a hibernating animal.”  Well, my vital functions as of yet have not ceased, thank gawd, but, nevertheless, there is still a sensation of hanging in a state of limbo while still being active, perhaps standing still on a perpetual escalator.

Now before I continue, you are invited to hit the DELETE key on your device.  I will feel no pain. I won’t even know you did it.  So feel free.  Or the alternative is to ride along as I once again try to make sense of all this senselessness.

How do we cope with non-animation animation? I think I’m doing okay part of the time, but then I  inadvertently slink into some dark place filled with anger, frustration, fear, uncertainty, and simply damn sick of where we are right now. I’m weary of washing my hands 162 times a day, pushing the shopping cart accidentally the wrong way down the aisle wearing that stupid mask, which fogs up my glasses and makes it difficult to keep my glasses on.  It’s all just toooo much, too abnormal, too uncertain.  And yet I know deep down that we will not be going back to that old Pre-Coronavirus state. Whatever the new new normal will become, for it’s still emerging, it will be very different indeed.

***

And so in my suspended animation, I vacillate between thinking I’m doing pretty well, adjusting, handling it; but then I go through a kind of seismic shift – missing so much so terribly:  Not being able to see our children and grandchildren is so very difficult; having to cancel our plans for the summer and fall is frustrating; wondering when we can go out for an enjoyable dinner; wanting to get together with friends; and on and on and on. I think it’s okay to be angry about all this loss.  I think we can permit ourselves to be frustrated and disappointed and to admit that this is not easy.  And those words from T.S. Eliot make sense right now.

I think this is a time when we have to make sure our dragons or ghosts, whatever skeleton, shape, or face they have (fear, doubt, anxiety, anger, etc.), don’t take on too much presence in our lives. If we do, our dragon will seek its own revenge. Conversely, I hope and pray that what emerges from all this are many unrealized possibilities and opportunities waiting to happen—creative, innovative corrections and new beginnings that open doors to a kinder, more gentle, and more humane world.

History can teach us valuable lessons, for we have seen other seismic shifts where the paradigms change directions, the world tilts, and there is no going back to the “old ways.” The two World Wars, the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam are some examples. They show us times of tremendous struggles and yet also times of enormous human capacity for survival, endurance, and even better, brighter angels. I hope and pray we will look back at this time, having gotten out of the vacuum and unsuspended the suspension, when the fog has lifted, and we can sing and dance, dine and drink, celebrate, and be together. Goggle John Legend’s “Bigger Love.” I long for the time when we have moved beyond “Mourning in America & in the World,” to “Morning in the World.”

***

There is a profound philosophical concept that is often misunderstood, misused, and mistreated.  It is “Carpe Diem,” which is a Latin phrase literally meaning “seize the day.” Generally, this concept is one that encourages us to make the most of the present, because we cannot change the past or determine the future. But the concept is much more complex than that, coming from the Roman poet Horace in 23BC. It promotes the important notion that we need to live in the moment, “be still,” and not be egotistically preoccupied with controlling or determining the future, which is always uncertain. It doesn’t mean that we ignore the future, but it does suggest that we need to be humble about our own power of control. It’s a concept fitting for us in these times, I think. So seize the day and make of it the most you can, accepting what you cannot control and being grateful for all the blessings and opportunities you have.

“Teach us to care and not to care. Teach us to be still.”

Or to borrow another worthwhile lesson from T.S. Eliot:  “We shall not cease from exploration.  And the end of all our exploring.  Will be to arrive where we started. And know the place for the first time.”

Miss you, love you, thanks for indulging me—those that didn’t hit “Delete”—and may you truly find some stillness in all this chaos, with my fond regards,

Bob