A Portal to a New World – Jane Little on New Beginnings amid a Pandemic for the Things Unseen Podcast

“We are all on a Vision Quest now.” Religion and Its Publics Associate Director, Jane Little, reflects on whether the pandemic, alongside all the pain and loss it has brought, could also be a new beginning: a portal to a new and better world.

Little’s piece for the Things Unseen podcast, “The First Shall Be Last,” is available for streaming and download here. A transcript, adapted for this blog, is below. 

There is much talk these days of the “new normal.” And to some extent I am living a new-normal twice over. Just days ago I packed up a rented cottage in my native Lake District and flew across the Atlantic to return to the US. It was the hardest decision, to leave my parents and sisters and friends and the soft landscapes of home at this deeply unsettling time. I couldn’t even hug my parents goodbye when I dumped piles of things on their doorstep for them to store until – well, until whenever I could return.

But it was also a clear decision. My husband, Jay, is in Virginia. And our son, Edward, and I needed to rejoin him in what was to be our first family home together in two years after a long period of enforced separation and upheaval. It’s been a tough chapter of my life but one which in many ways has prepared me for this dramatic change that has reshaped all of our lives, for better and for worse.

Illness – my son’s, my own – forced a break from my previous life and identity. As one-time Religion Correspondent for the BBC I traveled the world probing other people’s beliefs and rituals with a dispassionate reporter’s ear. Then suddenly I was confined to home and faced with my own mortality – and worse, my son’s. There are many others out there with chronic health conditions who know what it is like to have your world shrink to four walls, to be forced into stillness, to go inward, digging deep to find – you hope – inner resources you’d never found before.

There has been much loss for us; we lost a home and most of our things – but also great gains. I feel lighter. I didn’t need all that. And I feel that I’ve acquired a spiritual toolkit that can help me in these tough times, and a clearer vision of what matters and of what a better society might look like when we get through this. It feels as though we are at an inflection point; this is a moment of reckoning and an opportunity to re-order our values, to put our collective well-being ahead of profit, to reconnect our health to that of the planet – and there we have signs of hope; Mother Nature is rebounding while we humans have been forced inwards and indoors.  

I do not wish to downplay the vast human tragedy, the grieving for loss of loved ones, of income, of a feeling of security in the world. We are facing huge challenges as a global society and we have a choice for what happens next; we will be defined by how we collectively respond; by how much we sacrifice our own freedom for the life of a neighbor; by how much we are willing to give up to make our unequal societies fairer, simpler, better. The virus has the potential to be a great leveler. Right now it is disproportionately hitting poorer, non-white populations here. That’s an indictment of what America has become. But I keep hearing in my head the words of Jesus; “And the last shall be first and the first shall be last.” I hope so and soon.

I choose to believe that a new world is possible. We have according to many spiritual traditions been on the verge of a shift, a new era, for some time. In the last few days, I’ve heard a Sikh yoga teacher, an Indian novelist, and a Native American elder all use the term “Portal.” A gateway to a new level of consciousness, a better world connected by love and not divided by borders. Here’s what I received a couple of days ago from an elder of the Hopi tribe: 

“This moment humanity is going through can now be seen as a portal and as a hole.  The decision to fall into the hole or go through the portal is up to you.”

He implores us to calm down, pray, and to meet the sacred every day.

In indigenous cultures there is a rite of passage called the Vision Quest. You go alone into the wild, for days, without food or shelter, to face your darkest fears. The point is to get a new vision of the world, to gain spiritual insight and strength.

We are all on a Vision Quest now. We’ve had to slow down, face our fears, learn who we are and what we want to create. Illness has often done that to us as individuals and the isolation has been borne alone. Now we are all in this together and we can only get through this together.

As I sit here in my new home office I see my neighbor carrying a large box. Jacob is a neurosurgeon. He was meant to be visiting family in England now. Instead he’s using the time off to re-fashion snorkels. That’s right, snorkels. He’s putting Hepa filters on the ends and adapting the masks so that he and his team can go back into the operating room to save lives. It’s humbling to watch. An experienced brain surgeon is learning new skills, adapting to our new normal, to help more of us survive this and see our way, we hope, through the portal.

What Passover in the times of plague can teach us about our shared humanity by Elisabeth Becker-Topkara

As Jewish children raised in Morningside Heights (also known as Cathedral Parkway), New York City, plagues were a topic reserved for Passover. We children would name the ten plagues faced by the Egyptians, as the Jews were freed (through the leadership of Moses) from slavery in Ancient Egypt: blood, frogs, lice, beasts, cattle disease, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, and death of the first born. Each time, we dipped a finger in wine and marked our plates with drops the color of blood.

The Passover story (in a very boiled down version) recounts the freeing of Jewish slaves from Ancient Egypt, who fled together with unleavened bread—hence, the matzah—and the protection of God—hence the parting of the seas to let them pass. Its namesake draws on God “passing over” first-born Jews in the tenth plague. From walking through water, to thousands of sons saved, matzah and wine, Passover’s beauty lies in a celebration of the miraculous and the mundane as one. It is a story of overcoming.

Passover was always my favorite holiday. It united our family with our closest family friends, the scents of my mother’s cooking, and the inevitable search for the afikomen (a piece of matzah hidden for children to find, which my sister located every single year of my childhood). It was a time of celebration and revelry, of being close to one another as we—an eclectic Jewish, Christian, American, Indian bunch—sought to learn from the Jewish tradition. Each year over the Seder, we celebrated our differences and yet togetherness in a city that had offered respite to so many who fled not Egypt, but other eras and areas of persecution. 

I took away certain lessons from our Seder book and discussions at a young age: that our people had overcome great suffering, and that it marked us with a great responsibility to alleviate the suffering of others. Our particular Passover lessons were often studded with parallel lessons from the Civil Rights Movement. My father was a quietly Christian man who, just like my mother, had participated in civil rights protests, along with our family friends. My sister, myself, and the other two children (Tess and James) all attended Riverside Church nursery school—an institution where Reverend Martin Luther King Junior had left his mark. There he gave his speech “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Breach the Silence,” and outlined his broader hope to “save the soul of the nation,” and to stand together, first and foremost as human denizens of this earth. In fact, the only two songs that I remember clearly from my childhood are “Let My People Go” (recounting the slavery of Jews in Ancient Egypt) and “We Shall Overcome” (a civil rights song written by Pete Seeger, for whom my second nephew is named).

There are four questions on Passover, but this year I am focused on a fifth. Who are our people? Or rather, who are not our people? Last year, my husband (a Muslim man) and I hosted a seder, uniting another eclectic bunch (Jewish, Christian, Muslim, agnostic, atheist). Passover has, I realized, for my family always been a time of inviting not only those like us, but also those beyond our immediate circle  into our home (along with the Prophet Elijah, of course, for whom we always set out a cup of wine). Passover is a holiday where we celebrate not first and foremost our Jewishness but our humanity.

This year, Passover will be a lonely affair here in America and across the world, as we distance ourselves to save one another. Some families will join each other on Zoom or other virtual platforms. Some will have to substitute key foods after a run on the grocery stores. The loneliness will hurt and yet it will, for many of us, also hold the greatest lesson of our lives.

Today, as I watch the vistas of my childhood emptied of life, I, a Jewish woman, take comfort in the churches of my childhood neighborhood in New York City. When I hear sirens, I imagine the Peace Fountain at Cathedral St. John the Divine, where a stone lion lies down with a lamb, to calm my mind. Or the staircases at Riverside Church that led to stained glass windows and to the bells that call the faithful to prayer. Today, I imagine Dr. King speaking in the same chapel where we learned to sing Peter Seeger’s songs in kindergarten, and where we mourned my father after his sudden death.

We are all together, if divided by time, in that stone church, in fleeing subjugation, and in this sudden new day of the plague.

Most of us in the so-called “Western world” thought we were free: free of imminent threats, whether in the form of armed conflict or disease. We externalized both, ignoring them when they lay outside of the bounds of our families, our geographical borders, our time. This year, of course, plagues have a terrifying relevance. As a virus upends our global order, as we fear for our lives and the lives of others, our interdependence comes clearly into focus. Today, we cannot look away.

This year, the greatest lesson to be found in Passover is both a Jewish lesson and a human lesson. And perhaps it is best summarized by the words of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s, words spoken in the same building where I learned how to read and I learned how to sing: “Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.”

Maybe this year, not throwing tradition aside but making it our own, we will add Peter Seeger’s song to our Passover repertoire—“We Shall Overcome”—to signal our hope for overcoming, and our newfound awareness that our vulnerability ascends all borders. That we are all, in our mundane differences, miraculous and worthy of life. And that no one kind of person will be saved from this plague.

Yet I also take comfort in the fact that we are all in this together, even though apart. In the lyrics of Peter Seeger, “deep in my heart, I do believe, We’ll walk hand in hand someday.” Today, I do believe, is that day.

Elisabeth Becker-Topkara is a 2019-2020 Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. She was a postdoctoral fellow for the Religion and Its Publics project for 2018-2019.

Photo Credit: Joshua Bousel via Flikr