Divinity in the Mundane

10/6/2020

For those of us fortunate enough to be healthy, the initial panic and awe of the pandemic has by now given way to a much more prosaic reality. It has been 85 days since the first stay-at-home order in the United States, 95 days since the first order in Italy, and 140 days since the first order in Wuhan Province, China. Whatever feelings of ordinary heroism or solidarity people initially felt from following quarantine orders have since dissipated, and what is left is the stagnant reality of moving perfunctorily through the exact same routine every day, and of feeling identical days blur together such that it’s hard to even fathom how long we’ve been in this state. Who would have imagined an apocalypse could be so mundane?

 

Part of this peculiar apathy can be explained by habituation — due to natural neural processes, we get used to whatever is constant in our environment. It’s why locals find their own cities less exciting than do tourists, or why adults are so much more jaded than children. In ordinary life, when we had some baseline level of change and stimulation, moving through new spaces as we visited friends, parks, bars, and so on, habituation played its normal role in blurring out what wasn’t novel, to help highlight what was. Now, living in quarantine, when we spend most of our lives in the exact same room, carrying out the same work (if any) day after day, we’re habituated to everything around us. Through repetition, even high-stimulation activities like Netflix binges or video game marathons have started to lose their appeal. And far more perniciously, the repetition of coronavirus statistics has made the mounting death toll routine.

We need something that works against habituation. We need something to cast off the thick fog of apathy so we can become responsive to the beauty present even in our small homes, as well as to the full tragedy of the pandemic. The opposite of this habituation is wonder. Most of us have felt wonder the first time we travelled to a new country, or saw the ocean for the first time — we were filled with a sense of reverence for the majesty of the world around us. How can we feel this sense of wonder again, even feel it in response to the things that have become mundane in our eyes?

We need something to cast off the thick fog of apathy so we can become responsive to the beauty present even in our small homes, as well as to the full tragedy of the pandemic.

The writer Brian Doyle gives us a lesson on this in his gorgeous poem, “Eulogy For A Northern Short-Tailed Shrew In The Driveway Of A House West Of Chicago, In The Prairie State Of Illinois.” Its very title emphasizes just how apparently uninspiring its subject is. But from the first line, Doyle invites us to wonder what this being might have called himself or herself, which in turn leads him to wonder what language shrews might speak and think in, and from this springs the question of what shrew society might give rise to this particular language, and whether there might be many shrew tribes, and who were their “kings and visionaries, their sagas and nations, their spirits / Measured not by our sense of religion and prayer but by theirs. What a frontier!” In this tiny, ordinary, and slightly grotesque creature, Doyle finds whole worlds and gods and histories, he sparks chains of inquiries that breed questions upon questions with no final answers, and through this he finds wonder.

A northern short-tailed shrew (Gilles Gonthier)

After reading a Brian Doyle poem, it’s hard not to begin asking what objects and beings in our immediate surroundings are being obscured by some insipid name like “northern short-tailed shrew.” The names we give to things are often emblems of a routinized way of looking at them — “northern short-tailed shrew” approaches the small, furry being first as a member of its species, rather than as a unique individual, or as a grandfather or grandmother, daughter or son. A small number of sparrows live in the elderflower tree outside of my apartment building. I’ve always seen them as just birds, but I wonder now what depths exist within them that I don’t see. What poetry do they compose in peeps, chirps, and rasps? And do they hear our speech as song, as we do theirs? And what greater intricacies do I neglect in casting the elderflower tree as just the sparrow’s home? What other creatures might this being harbor? Is it perhaps the living, breathing structure for some great city of creatures? And if it is, what secrets has it accumulated across its life, tucked away in branches and leaves?

 

It is by casting off routinized ways of seeing the world that we can escape the stagnation that has so defined time in quarantine. If habituation is what drains joy away, then wonder is what returns us to it. It draws us into “a world made billions of times / More dense, wild, riveting, astounding, webbed.” Doyle’s wonder can keep us occupied through quarantine because it is occupation, it is a constant practice of seeing even the most commonplace miracles in our lives.

Sunlight in the Blue Room by Anna Ancher

And this same wonder can help us mourn our collective loss. Just as “northern short-tailed shrew” symbolizes a shallow way of seeing a particular creature, coronavirus statistics symbolize a superficial way of seeing this tragedy. Rather than the climbing death ticker present in the right hand corner of almost every cable news channel, we might read something more like the New York Times’Those We’ve Lost” — brief written sketches of who, rather than how many, have died from the coronavirus. It is easy to get used to a number or curve, since it appears in more or less the same form each time. It is far harder to get used to the loss of distinct individuals, since every life is fundamentally singular. We should never get used to it.

 

In our recent interview, the writer Ed Simon noted that there is no single path towards this state of wonder, and even once it’s attained it rarely lasts long. I don’t claim to have really figured out my own path, but in my often bumbling attempts, I’ve found it helpful to spend less time on distractions and more time on practices that draw me into the details of my surroundings.

I’ve found it helpful to spend less time on distractions and more time on practices that draw me into the details of my surroundings.

By distractions I mean escapist addictions, like Netflix or online shopping, that draw us off into some other world that pulses and shimmers and makes our day-to-day lives seem dull by comparison. There’s nothing really wrong with these things — they can provide much needed entertainment during a difficult time. But I find whenever I’ve finished watching, say, Tiger King, or shopping for a better e-reader, the rest of my life seems dimmer. My life has no murder mysteries or exotic animals, and so when I implicitly set that as the bar for excitement, I find less magic around me. My Kindle lacks all the bells and whistles of more expensive devices, and so when I return to it, I end up focusing more on its inadequacies than on the extraordinary works it gives me access to. The quick fix I get gives way to a deeper, and more unsettling alienation from my immediate surroundings.

 

By contrast, some of the most serene and joyful moments I’ve spent in quarantine have been when I’ve just sat and watched the street outside my living room window. When I really look, when I focus every iota of my attention on the space in front of me, the things I see are astounding. I’ve watched the rumbling, explosive power of thunderclouds the size of cities tumble in from places unseen, and cast sheets of water over skyscrapers; I’ve observed the love triangle between three feral cats that spend their days grooming themselves and climbing over the adjacent parking lot; and most of all I’ve seen beautiful moments in the lives of strangers, a mother and daughter running from a storm, the kids that live across from me using empty streets to roller-skate. Before quarantine, this view was just the static background to my more dynamic life. With life stilled, I’ve begun to notice just how dynamic and alive it is. In the rare moments when I turn off my screens and pay attention, I find a universe whose luminosity and glory burst through its most ordinary details.

The Little Street by Johannes Vermeer. Vermeer was famous for depicting ordinary domestic life as if it were just as worthy of attention as any scene in epic story or song.

The writer and theologian Ralph Waldo Emerson believed that there is a spiritual realm or universal soul behind our physical world, and that what we see is just the surface of that deeper reality. But he rejected the idea that this spiritual realm – where God, souls, and divinity exist – is in any way separate from our physical world. Instead, he argued divinity was within our day-to day reality. He argued God is not beyond us, but within each soul, and so can be perceived even in the most mundane human interactions; miracles do not come from otherworldly intervention, they are enacted by the laws and physics of this world. The task is not to see through people or objects to something else; it is to see the sanctity that radiates from within them, to “see the miraculous in the common.” This, to me, is wonder.

To be sure, Emerson’s own particular path to this feeling of the sublime involved wandering through grand expanses of nature, not sitting in tiny cramped apartments. But learning to wonder while trapped inside a small dwelling can be like hiking with a heavy backpack. It’s more difficult, but if we can practice it for even a few moments each day, then when quarantine ends and the weight is lifted, we’ll be in even better shape. If we can see our living rooms anew even after months spent cooped up in them, then imagine what it’ll be like to see our cities anew, through the eyes of a tourist, or a child. Visiting parks or bars or museums, we’ll be awake to the extraordinary things that were always right under our noses. When things go back to normal, whatever that normal may be, it’ll be easy to fall back into the habit of habituation. But if we remember our journey to wonder, we’ll be able to find our way back.