Standing in the Doorway

Rev. Douglas Taylor



Normal. Part of the trouble is the things considered normal. Arundhati Roy, in that excellent piece we heard as our reading, says we don’t want to go back to normal. She says this pandemic is a portal through which we can move – not back to normal – but forward into a new way of being. This got me thinking, if normal is not what we want, what do we want instead?

Later, at the end of the month, I will offer a companion sermon “Rowing Toward Home” on the topic of how this pandemic will leave a lasting impact on how we Unitarian Universalists worship and gather in community. For today, I focus on how this impacts our nation. Today let us consider this pandemic portal and where it might lead for us as citizens of our country: back to normal or on toward something new.

Author and activist, Sonya Renee Taylor has recently said:

“We will not go back to normal. Normal never was. Our pre-corona existence was not normal other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding, hate, and lack. We should not long to return, my friends. We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment. One that fits all of humanity and nature.” (Note: I misattributed this to Brené Brown.)

What Sonya Taylor is saying is much the same Arundhati Roy was talking about in her article. Roy described the many ways in which the pandemic and the Indian government’s response to the pandemic have revealed glaring inequalities and the tragic consequences of prejudices.

At the time she wrote her piece, shortly into the month of April, Roy sited that “The number of [CoVid-19] cases worldwide … crept over a million. More than 50,000 people have died already.” Today, five weeks later, those numbers are still climbing globally. We’ve gone from 1 million to 4 million confirmed cases worldwide in those five weeks; from more than 50,000 dead to more than 275,000 dead worldwide. Roy, as I’ve said, was writing about her own country of India, but we in the United States, are superlative – as always. We have 1.3 million of those 4 million cases right here in our country. And we’ve had nearly 80,000 deaths so far. This is hitting us hard. And we are not done.

And that is just the virus. This is a pandemic crisis as well as a political crisis and an economic crisis and healthcare crisis. Arundhati Roy talked about how the caste system in India has amplified the pandemic problem. In our country we have a similar impact – poor people and minorities are disproportionately hit harder by this pandemic because of the way our society is structured and the way our government has responded.

If this pandemic is to become the portal we need it to be, we must approach this with an active hope toward the world we long to create. Right now may be a pivotal moment of what some are calling the great turning. In the environmental movement, people talk of the Great Turning. Joanna Macy’s elegant articulation about choosing a middle way between blindly ignoring and denying the problem versus getting stuck in feelings of despair and powerlessness. That middle way is to see the world at a turning. It calls us into active hope. I see this pandemic bringing these similar responses from people around me: active denial, active despair, and active hope.

The Great Turning is not something that might happen to us, it is a choice we can make together about how we will respond. For Johanna Macy the climate crisis it is not about saving the planet or saving humanity. The active hope found in the Great Turning is not about promises of a particular outcome. It is instead about facing the reality we are in now and responding in our best way.

We can’t avoid the CoVid-19 crisis – it’s already here. We are living in it. (And Macy will tell you the same thing for Climate Crisis – we’re already in it) The big question is not how we can avoid a disruption, but how we will navigate it. How can we steer our way as it crashes around us?

The pandemic crisis reveals these other crises. As a country we are in the balance of either drifting politically into full oligarchy with shades of fascism and plutocracy or perhaps a recommitment to a democratic republic with greater ecological, economical, and social balance. Something will come from all this. We should take part in determining what. Something different will rise in our society from this pandemic.  

With the healthcare atrocities continuing to unfold around us in the form of shortages and profiteering, we can perhaps push more strongly now for a single-payer solution, to pull for-profit healthcare from the equation if possible. With the record-level unemployment we are experiencing even as the Dow Jones rebounds, we can perhaps push the conversation of minimum income or at least a real living wage level for the minimum wage. I’m not suggesting anything all that radical, just things that are civil and, dare I suggest, functional for a healthy society.

The goal is to not be reactionary. I’m not suggesting we react in panic to swing a pendulum as far to the other side as possible. No. Our goal is instead to be intentional. It is to view what is happening through the lens of our values and connections. And then to lift up what we know and point toward the future we want to create together.

Look toward the systemic changes needed. We will get to the other side of this pandemic. Will we drag our old baggage along? Or perhaps, in looking at the things we’ve done to get through this, we can choose to continue some of them on the other side of this; such as caring about the vulnerable among us, such as valuing health workers and teachers more, such as prizing flexibility in a workforce rather than blind obedience. Perhaps the tools that have seen us through this are the tools we want more permanently in place as we emerge. 

In her book Emergent Strategy, Adrienne Maree Brown says “Change is constant.” We are in the midst of obvious change. Let’s lean into it rather than fight for a return to ‘normal!’ Brown offers an outline in the book, strategies for navigating change. Her guiding principle is to recognize that change is constant. She also says “Never a failure, always a lesson,” “Move at the speed of trust,” and “What you pay attention to grows.” Her list is a little longer than that, but I just want you get a flavor for her elements of emergent strategy. We can be strategic through the change, noticing what emerges and how we can nurture the parts we most want.

Adrienne Maree Brown talks about change as not only constant but also fractal and iterative, interdependent and intentional. The thrust of her message and the point I am attempting to raise here is this: We have a part to play in how this all unfolds. Something is emerging in this time of difficulty and we can nurture it along in our own personal lives, in our circles and communities, and we can call for it as our nation winds its way through this trouble.

Arundhati Roy said:

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”

She reminded us that we don’t have to trip along and come gasping out of this pandemic crying out for a return to income inequality, a return to hyper-polarized politics, a return to prejudice and hate, a return to fetishizing our police officers while devaluing our teachers, or a return to the sick, sick way we have commodified health. We don’t need to simply stand in the doorway wondering what might come next. We can, instead, choose to rise up and walk through this portal with a plan. We can, instead, choose to cross this tragic threshold with an eye toward the world we intend to create. We can, together, make of this pandemic a portal toward the more just and fair society that is emerging among us even now.

In a world without end

May it be so