Do Not Forget to Wait

Photo by Reza Jahangir on Unsplash

Sprawled on handmade quilts in a grassy orchard, sharing an outdoor, physically distanced visit with my friend Karen under purple pear and transparent apple trees, I am nowhere near a desert. My Willamette Valley farm home is more Edenic than it is barren, devoid, or austere. Yet when Karen, a spiritual director, asks, “Where are the voices teaching us how to be in the desert?,” she put words to a question my heart has been formulating for weeks. We had been cringing at the online events of COVID season: Zoom video conferencing preschool for her daughter; Zoom outdoor school for my fifth-grade goddaughter; Zoom dinner parties; Zoom yoga; Zoom reunions; online plays; online church. We are zooming out.

Am I the only one who wonders if all this screen-staring and cyber-connection replaces anything at all? Real face-to-face connection is irreplaceable. Or who wonders if our online stand-ins are sometimes making us more off-kilter, keeping us from doing the work that might nourish us in this time?

Because of the pandemic, most of us have lost things that have nothing to do with death, physical illness, or jobs. We’ve lost physical connection with family, friends, and strangers; the joy of inhabiting diverse spaces (coffee shops, libraries, concert halls, bakeries, bars); the joy of the workplace; of school; of performance, music, and ritual. I’ve read that more people are admitting to declines in mental health as the pandemic wears on (as epidemiologists warned it would). In March 2020, many turned frenetically to online replacements for events lost, as if we only needed placeholders to tide us through this brief lacuna in normalcy. But the reality of dire epidemiological predictions is setting in even as we discover things cannot be replaced. We cannot outrun our losses.

May we let something die during this desert time, instead of keeping stale patterns on life support, wavering between alive and not-alive.

What if instead of grasping to fill the void, we embraced it? What if we settled deeply enough into this void, this desert, to learn what it has to teach? What if we recognized the powerful, metaphorical spiritual stage of the desert and that many of us are in it?

In an August 2019 podcast episode, Ezra Klein described our collective online lives this way: we have the anxieties of connection without the nourishment of connection, and with few of the consolations of real disconnection. This was recorded months before the pandemic began but has only become sharper in light of it. Clearly, anxiety in the COVID era runs high, and our attempts to replace missing connections are not working for many of us. We may even be heightening anxiety as we distract ourselves from what’s missing instead of facing it head-on. What the desert calls us into is a real disconnection, because a surprising kind of consolation can, at times, be found there.

It may sound heretical to suggest this: perhaps we should dive fully into this new desert and coach others on being there. Maybe we should stop trying to replace what cannot be replaced: school, social lives, organized groups, church, classes. Some might un-school the kids for a year; learn how to foster well-being while being alone; plumb deeply the question, ”Who am I?”; take a full-on sabbatical from training and from organized sacred rituals. For some of us these online activities are not suitable replacements, and our attachment to them is heightening our anxiety and distracting us from the real work of this time. We need to admit that our treasured group gatherings have gone away for now. We can practice living without them. We can go into the metaphorical desert: be with what is right now—the whole clamoring lack of it.

I am no ascetic, and I don’t generally deprive myself. I often, in fact, call myself a hedonist—only half-jokingly: a hedonist in the classical sense of striving for contentment and to balance struggle and pleasure in such a way that pleasure wins out. With so much beauty in the world, how could the awakened life not be full of pleasure? But I also look out and see that struggle heightens pleasure and joy; in fact, we seemingly don’t have real joy without struggle. I also see that again and again, in the structures of nature, creation, and social reality, something must die in order for something to be reborn.

May we let something die during this desert time, instead of keeping stale patterns on life support, wavering between alive and not-alive.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels

My own tradition, the Judeo-Christian tradition, is full of narratives of going to the desert for richness and discovery. God spoke to Moses in the desert; the Exodus, a time of desert wandering, was about refinement and preparation; prophets received visions in the desert; Jesus regularly went to the desert to be alone and prepare; the third-century “desert fathers and mothers” fled city distractions and the maddening crowd to go to the desert to struggle and learn what silence and vacuity had to teach: in essence, that God was present within them. One Jewish Midrash explains that “anyone who does not make himself ownerless, like the desert, cannot acquire the Torah.” What a word for our time: “ownerless.” What would it mean to disconnect so as to glimpse how it feels to not be owned by anything for a moment, and thus to become more available for awakening. Francis of Assisi sometimes spent weeks wandering in desolate lands, asking the foundational questions: Who are you, my most dear God, and who am I? In the desert, we seek out, and often find, our true identity.

The idea of going to the desert to discover what is solid, reliable, and true has roots in many religious traditions. But when I went looking for voices that speak to the metaphor of desert, I was most wooed by Carl Jung, particularly experiences recorded in The Red Book that took place during the upheavals of World War I, when he was formulating his ideas in imagined conversation with his soul. I quote him at length because this passage is so apt. It seems to speak directly to our situation amidst the pandemic:

My soul leads me into the desert, into the desert of my own self I did not think that my soul is a desert, a barren, hot desert, dusty and without drink. . . . How eerie is this wasteland. It seems to me that the way leads so far away from mankind. I take my way step by step, and do not know how long my journey will last. Why is my self a desert? Have I lived too much outside of myself in men and events? . . .

Only life is true, and only life leads me into the desert, truly not my thinking, that would like to return to thoughts, to men and events. . . . My soul, what am I to do here? But my soul spoke to me and said, “Wait.” I heard the cruel word. . . .

And at once, I noticed that my self became a desert. . . . I was overwhelmed by the endless infertility of this desert. Even if something could have thrived there, the creative power of desire was still absent. Wherever the creative power of desire is, there springs the soil’s own seed. But do not forget to wait.

Have we lived too long outside of ourselves, in others and events? I worry that we are filling this potential desert time with too many online events and too much social media and streamed entertainment. On the other side of this gaping pandemic, more pleasure and joy await if we can only learn to wait and let the desert have its way with us. If, like farmers, we let this season of void and pandemic nourish seeds in us that we water, they will grow into greater freedom and more clear-eyed perception. Any farmer will tell you it’s a slow process, but that joy can be found in the anticipation. Even the barren fallowness of winter nourishes the soil so something promising can grow come spring. Yet, as Jung writes in a continuation of the passage above, “Nobody can spare themselves the waiting and most will be unable to bear this torment, but will throw themselves with greed back at men, things, and thoughts, whose slaves they will become from then on.” We are so attached to being owned. Anyone who does not make himself ownerless, like the desert, cannot acquire the Torah.

If, like farmers, we let this season of void and pandemic nourish seeds in us that we water, they will grow into greater freedom and more clear-eyed perception. Any farmer will tell you it’s a slow process, but that joy can be found in the anticipation. 

I recognize this likely sounds foreign to essential workers who are at risk of being exposed on a daily basis, and that some people encounter situations that necessitate their working in public wherever and however they can, despite the risks (for example, gig workers, those without unemployment insurance protections, or those whose states have stingy and limited benefits). I recognize that the un-school option sounds like pipe-dream craziness to full-time working parents who cannot leave their kids unsupervised, and that leaving some kids out of school will increase learning disparities that are already too wide. Some people have jobs that simply require online replacement if they want to keep their jobs. I also see the all-out extroverts among us who find online substitutes for face-to-face connection deeply nourishing, good, and necessary. So I am not suggesting a one-size-fits-all unplugging from online activities across the board.

Yet some of us surely have a choice when it comes to how much screen-staring we do. Some of us really can choose whether to unplug and delve into this pandemic desert, or to run from it grasping after artificial connection and online replacement and distraction. In many cases, we choose the overzealous online connection because the desert is simply too daunting.

Can we just admit at this point in the process that our running is, in many cases, not working? Can we be quiet, go into the desert, and wait?

Tricia Gates Brown

Tricia Gates Brown’s essays have appeared in various publications, including Rathalla Review, Christian Century, Oregon Humanities, and Portland Magazine. Living on a farm in Yamhill, Ore., she writes, edits, and dotes on a menagerie of four-legged friends. As an ordained Episcopal deacon, she is training to do spiritual care (chaplaincy); she likes to call herself a Quaker-palian. Contact:

6 thoughts on “Do Not Forget to Wait

  1. I am personally finding inner growth to be valuable for me during this pandemic. My Higher Power is alive and real; the connection with others is deeper and alive. In fact, here is an email I just sent to my four 60ish children: Without a response from you, I am left wondering if you feel there is such a thing as Satan and evil people. If so,  just say so. I have come to the realization that without discussion, I continue on my merry way which is why my parents, Bob and Alice, controlled me so I am now eager to reverse my thinking and be willing to discuss important issues with important people in my life while I still have a chance to change my mind. Perhaps it is because you grew up thinking that discussions were not helpful. In any case, do know that I am learning and growing. Blessings, StarshineGre

  2. I started implementing “Unplugged Days” twice a week in autumn. On Tuesdays and Saturdays I would turn off my wi-fi, power down or “airplane mode” and other electronic devices, and simply do things in real time and real space. It has been wonderful; I had forgotten how afternoons could spread out and how much time I used to engage in projects and stories and just existing. After the first few weeks of adjustment, Unplugged Days have become my favorites- like mini summer vacations I look forward to the rest of the week. This is not for everyone, and requires tolerance of your own company and thoughts…but it has been satisfying for me. I still miss my pre-pandemic social activities…but no longer feel trapped by my new pandemic limitations. Highly recommend trying at least 1-2 “Unplugged Days” for a few weeks to anyone missing the long, fully present days before electronics became full time. Pandemic offers rare chance to reclaim lost hobbies + the freedoms remembered from childhood afternoons…

  3. You are not alone. In Geneva, since March 2020, a few people have shared in presence worship. Almost every Sunday, sometimes alone, sometimes in twos or threes. People ask me why I continue to experience worship at Quaker House, instead of participating in online meetings.
    “So that the walls remember.”
    And because this crisis invite us to “do less”, not “do more.”
    And because “the mines producing the rare metals indispensable to the computerised world employ men, women and children who are often treated as slaves.”
    (Extracts from a text shared with Swiss Friends in French, English and German.)

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