In Cathy’s book Practicing Peace she relates the story of David Livingston, the Scottish explorer in Africa, who had hired a group of porters to carry their supplies on a strenuous march through the jungle. But after the third morning the porters, looking very solemn, refused to go any further. "They are waiting," the Chief explained to the explorer. "They cannot move farther until their souls have caught up with them."
I have had a similar sentiment these past several months as well as I decompress from the daily tensions of the past four years of the Trump administration. And then it has been a full year now since we have been dealing with the stress of adapting to the Covid-19 lockdown and all its related implications on families, schools, business and our every day lives. And then, of course, we have endured the series of pre- and post-election anxieties, the insurrection on January 6 (has it really been a month ago already?), the welcome relief from Inauguration Day, and now the swirl of daily administrative actions during the first two weeks of the Biden administration. And most recently we are dealing with the confusion about the availability and access for our Covid-19 vaccinations. The too long delayed responsibility to reckon with racism and climate disruption also continues to linger in our personal consciousness. So, yes, we all ideally probably need to wait “for our souls to catch up with us."
In reality we seem to be through the worst of the immediate political rapids for now. But our cultural and economic river is still littered with dangerous rocks and likely additional unexpected twists and turns among many uncertainties still ahead. The cumulative impact of the past stresses are not going to be easily assuaged and will continue to challenge us.
So we need to continue to figure out how to cope. Most of us already know the drill in general: Don’t OD on the news, go outside, exercise, have some fun, stay connected with friends and community, be sure to rest and eat well. I think I have been doing pretty well with all that. If the goal of decompression is to seek release from daily stress and pressure, or simply to relax, all this helps.
But maybe the origin of my tension is not just worrying about current issues of health and politics. The deeper source of my unsettledness may well be that I, like so many others, am feeling that all the political, cultural, and medical shifts, among many others, have just come too fast, and my soul hasn’t been able to keep up. When “things fall apart,” as Chinua Achebe wrote in 1958 about the challenges in a rapid cultural shift in Nigeria, we will struggle with the impact of disintegration of accustomed norms, many of which need to change, but at a price. We are caught between letting go of the familiar as we learn to reintegrate ourselves communally and individually.
So much more could be said about the necessity of these transitions if cultures and people are to recover their integrity and wholeness. A healthy way to live into this time is try to maintain the perspective that we have the opportunity to identify and apply whatever these transitional times offer. But to do so we need to deal with the soulful disintegrations and learn to decompress from their stresses.
I want to close with my own process of decompression these days.
It will not surprise you that my approach centers on a spiritual bearing. Our planet, our nations, our communal and personal lives need a balance of an assurance of stability while they also must undergo constant change. We can control a limited level of stability and change, but the reality is that whatever is occurring in the universe, our planet and the earth’s societal and environmental constructs has its own consciousness, laws, and accountabilities. I try to live within my personal and communal ranges of responsibility, and then I must trust a sense of justice that transcends us.
My Quaker practice finds silence to be the means to connect with that larger realm of both responsibility and transcendent justice. Silent worship provides the opportunity for my soul to catch up with me, a process of maintaining integration I always find difficult to adequately describe but I know experientially. Perhaps each of you have found other ways to find your own sense of soulful integrity and peace.
I close with the poetry of Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier who I believe captures the integrative process I am trying to describe.
Drop thy still dews of quietness,
Till our our strivings cease:
Take from our souls the strain and stress,
And let our ordered lives confess
The beauty of they peace.
Breathe through the heats of our desire
Thy coolness and thy balm
Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake,
Wind, and fire,
O still, small voice of calm.