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.