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Essays and posts exploring the state of journalism, teaching and nonfiction storytelling.

  • Writer's pictureTracy Dahlby

Coping with Covid-imposed Isolation By Going Inside — It’s Not Easy

Will our future selves pause a streaming video long enough to ask: How much ‘bucket work’ did we do in the teeth of the coronavirus? How much did we put into service to improve our society?

Photo by Steven Wright on Unsplash

This column originally appeared in The Dallas Morning News, as "part of our ongoing opinion commentary on faith, called Living Our Faith. Find this week’s reader question and get weekly roundups of the project in your email inbox by signing up for the Living Our Faith newsletter."

Maybe you’ve seen the meme making the rounds on social media: “If you can’t go outside,” it says, “go inside.” Sage advice for our COVID-cloistered times. Yet it’s easier said than done in a society as ill-equipped for soulful contemplation as ours.

Americans are spiritually inclined. Millions routinely seek guidance in our churches, mosques and synagogues. We practice meditation, yoga and mindfulness. Unless calamity punches us in the gut, however, in the form of addiction, bankruptcy, divorce, deadly illness or chronic isolation, our daily hustles leave little time to engage in the kind of spiritual spelunking the poet Robert Bly has called “bucket work.”

Bucket work, as Bly explained it, involves “going down” to inspect our personal wounds and flaws: "what the ancient Greeks called katabasis.” Sometimes events take us down; sometimes we descend out of choice. Either way, the mission is to clear away the debris blocking efforts to build healthier, more integrated lives.

So like others stuck in monkish solitude, I’ve been fighting the urge to look to Netflix as a lodestar by which we navigate a return to normal. Instead, in a measured descent, I’ve tried to remind myself of the value of doing some personal dredging, as imperfect a task as it may be.

It’s not for everybody; dwelling on what lies beneath without professional supervision can be risky for those suffering from serious mental health issues. And to those on the front lines of the virus wars, reflection is a hard-fought luxury. For many of us shelter-in-placers, though, we have an opportunity to chip away at the grievances, grief and guilt feelings that can clog the wellspring.

That’s a tall order under any circumstances. Our engines of mass distraction — social media and the demands of entertainment on demand — want to keep us light, airborne and consuming, even when we’re feeling anxious, depressed, frightened or bored. Yet if COVID-19 has any merit, it can help us realize the flyaway charms of our screen-based lives come up short in the face of unavoidably existential questions.

Like the coronavirus, trouble has a way of coming in clusters. For me, it showed up in January on a PET scan as thyroid cancer. The following week my wife and I had to say goodbye to our “only child,” a 13-year-old border collie named Stanley. Meanwhile COVID-19 came a-creeping.

Such common-lot occurrences are the costs of doing the business of life. We think about what they mean to us even as they pale in contrast to what others have suffered as COVID-19 deaths in the United States shoot northward of 50,000, our economy tanks, we bicker about “reopening,” and the misery inside our epicenters is as inescapably panoramic as our leadership in the Trump White House is erratic and self-serving.

Yes, COVID-19 has clipped all of our wings in one way or another. But I’m buoyed by the idea that “grounding” doesn’t always mean a malign agent has snatched away our existential car keys. It also means a coming down to earth so we can connect to deeper layers of meaning.

“A wound allows the spirit or soul to enter,” Bly says. In his poem “The Hawk in His Nest,” he puts it this way:

It’s all right if we can’t remain cheerful all day.

The task we have accepted is to go down

To renew our friendship with the ruined things.

What are the ruined things? To each their own, of course, but if you’re teaching college students, as I do, you see them all around: canceled graduation ceremonies; aborted career starts; the first, deflating layoff from a job needed to pay tuition. I’m inspired by how my students have met the pandemic with patience and fortitude, but it’s a tough go for a cohort largely untouched by war and with no previous experience of life inside a crisis like AIDS or 9/11.

So, it can seem odd to talk to them about descent as an opening to personal growth and liberation, but that’s how the ancients saw it. As Hindu wisdom advises: “By what men fall, by that they rise.”

Descent, as Bly interprets it, is the gift by which we come to appreciate how a problem, as private and isolating as it may seem, actually "fits into a great and impersonal story.” It’s the hole in the heart that allows us to link up our individual challenges to society’s wounds — disparities in health care, wealth and opportunity, and the avarice that has afflicted our commonweal for decades.

My descent started in a shallower end of the pool. I’m trying to gain some later-life depth on the writing and ideas that spoke volumes to me when I was young but at a time when I couldn’t have told you why. In so doing, I feel a kinship with wiser voices warning against trying to fly away from our pandemic problems too quickly.

Theologian Father Thomas Joseph White, as quoted by The New York Times’ Ross Douthat, recently observed: “We might think none of this tells us anything about ourselves, or about God’s compassion and justice. But if we simply seek to pass through all this in hasty expectation of a return to normal, perhaps we are missing the fundamental point of the exercise.”

One day, and let us pray it comes safely and soon, we’ll put our current plague behind us. Will our future selves pause a streaming video long enough to ask: How much bucket work did we do in the teeth of the coronavirus? How much of it did we put into service to improve our society?

Tracy Dahlby teaches journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.

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