Last month I was invited to participate in a panel discussion with several contemplative leaders here in the Atlanta area, under the topic “2020 Vision.”
This delicious pun invites us to reflect on how the challenges and opportunities of the year 2020 have contributed to our capacity to see clearly, especially in light of contemplative practice.￼
What are you seeing that you did not see before the pandemic? How is your vision changing and what might else look different after the pandemic ends?
These questions were featured on the flyer promoting this event,￼ And so in preparing for the talk, I realized these were questions worth reflecting here on my blog as well.￼
Clearly, my “vision changing” makes sense only on a spiritual level —￼ but I think it makes sense that events in the course of history will alter how we see the world, or circumstances in our lives.￼
For me, three ways in which my vision has been changed in 2020 have to do with: 1) The pandemic and our response to it; 2) Social media’s power to shape public discourse and the way we perceive the world￼￼￼￼, and 3) The necessity for finding new avenues of hope in terms of politics and our shared community life.
Let’s look at these one by one.
The Pandemic, Masks, and The Mandate to “Judge Not”
My wife and I live in the metro Atlanta area, in the shadow of Emory University and the CDC. Because of this, the coronavirus — and the steps we need to take to lessen its toll — got onto our radar in January of last year. I remember vividly having a conversation with a former student who is a physician at the CDC, talking about the importance of social distancing, wearing a mask, washing hands for 20 seconds — all topics that became part of our national conversation several weeks later.
Maybe it’s because I heard these guidelines from a real human being I trust, rather than just a political or media figure. But I simply accepted that this is what we all need to do.
Never in my wildest imagining did I think there was anything “political” about responding to the coronavirus. So imagine how dumbfounded I have felt, for months now, as I’ve watched how public health has become politicized. Or, should I say, more politicized than ever before?
This was brought home to me just this past week, when Fran and I went to stay at a friend’s beachfront condo in Florida. It was our first time away from home since March. We were stunned — simply stunned — by how few people were wearing masks in public, even though COVID-19 rates are continuing to rise.
What, then, am I seeing clearly? First, I must acknowledge my own capacity to judge — to be judgmental. While I was in Florida, I had to keep reminding myself that people who choose not to wear masks are, in most cases, those who get their news from different sources than I do. If you trust pundits who are telling you the pandemic is either a hoax or has been blown way out of proportion, then naturally you aren’t going to take seriously the mandate to wear a mask or practice social distancing.
Don’t get me wrong: I still consider it foolish and inconsiderate to go without a mask in public. But I know that judging someone as “bad” because they have made a different decision than I do will not help anyone.
Part of what I am seeing here is just how deeply divided our nation is. It’s no secret that we are divided in our politics, or in “big” issues like how best to protect the environment or what needs to happen to dismantle systemic racism. But the mask issue makes me see clearly that our divisions are much more pervasive than I previously would have guessed.
It seems we are so divided that we literally have two entirely different narratives — stories — that define who we are and what we need to do to live well.
And this brings me to my second point.
Social Media and the New, Corporate-Engineered Tribalism
I have long had a rather complex and uncomfortable relationship with social media. I first began to us MySpace (remember that?), followed by Facebook and Twitter, and then LinkedIn, Instagram and Pinterest, primarily for professional reasons. These days, publishers pretty much insist that authors not only have a social media presence, but are actively engaged in connecting with their social media “tribe.”
I love how social media has enabled me to stay in touch with family and friends, as well as to reconnect with people who I haven’t been connected to in ages — like a cousin who I last saw in person in the mid-1970s; he now lives in New York and is about as deeply involved in both Christian contemplation and interfaith spirituality as I am. Who would have guessed?
But I have long been troubled by how social media seems to function as an echo chamber for our most divisive and inflammatory political opinions, creating the conditions for people to be truly hostile to those who disagree with them, without much opportunity for reasoned, thoughtful discourse or debate — in other words, shedding much more heat than light. I see this problem defining not only the way we talk about politics online, but also spirituality.
In September 2020 the documentary The Social Dilemma premiered on Netflix. If you haven’t watched it, I encourage you to (and if you don’t subscribe to Netflix, try to find a friend who can host a socially-distanced watch party so you can see it). It’s a movie that examines how the social media providers, in order to make money off their advertising, have created platforms that work to keep us focussed on content that reinforces our existing beliefs — because we’ll pay more and longer attention to content we “like,” which in turn makes us more valuable consumers to advertisers.
In other words: social media is actually engineered to reinforce our political, social and spiritual prejudices. Instead of helping us to find consensus and common ground, social media actually contributes to us, as a society, becoming more polarized.
So no wonder we can’t even figure out a common policy about wearing masks.
Where Do We Find Hope?
The pandemic helped me see more clearly how divided we are, and The Social Dilemma helped me to understand some of the forces that work to keep us divided.
So — where do we find hope?
I’m reminded of a passage I often quote on this blog, from the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. Here’s a snippet:
Contemplation is … the key to the essence of a renewed humanity that is capable of seeing the world and other subjects in the world with freedom – freedom from self-oriented, acquisitive habits and the distorted understanding that comes from them… To learn contemplative practice is to learn what we need so as to live truthfully and honestly and lovingly. It is a deeply revolutionary matter.”
Our political, religious, and business leaders cannot (or will not) do what is necessary to help us overcome our divisions. Mark Zuckerberg will not save us; neither will Joe Biden or Franklin Graham. We may be divided at the top, but I believe our only hope for unity comes down at the grassroots.
I could see the value of wearing a mask because someone I trusted at the grassroots explained it to me. I believe we need to do all we can, individually and collectively, to restore the capacity of speaking — and listening — to each other, not on social media, not on some global scale, but in the ordinary channels of our lives.
But this is going to require qualities like a basic humility, a capacity to listen, and a willingness to see with unprejudiced eyes. Qualities, in other words, that contemplative practice helps us to cultivate.
As Archbishop Williams points out, contemplation is about learning to tell the truth and to be loving. It’s about learning to see with the eyes of freedom. It’s about learning to trust.
Is contemplation a panacea? Not hardly. It needs to be joined together with learning skills for effective communication, and with a lot of soul-searching, at the national level, about what we understand regarding truth, and science, and the rules of civility and compassion. The divisions we experience will not be healed over night, and they cannot be healed as long as we try to maintain systems of economic and social privilege in our society.
In other words: we have a lot of work to do.
So here’s the question: when we learn to see clearly (something contemplation can help us to do), are we willing to do the hard work necessary to make our world a better place? I believe anyone who is serious about contemplative practice will answer that question “Yes” — even though the task is mighty and the work is sure to be a challenge.
But it’s work that needs to be done. That much is clear.