We’re All In This Together
This past week I went to one of my favorite mountain destinations south of Charlottesville, Virginia: Wintergreen Resort on top of Afton Mountain. Filled with skiers in wintertime ... but in the summer, you name it! Hiking, tennis, swimming, ziplining ... and, of course, lots of restaurants to enjoy up and down the mountain. I have gone there for years, both for family reunions (the purpose of this trip, for at least part of my family), and as a place of retreat for me — a place for spiritual renewal, a time apart from my busy life. And so while there, I had lots of time for reading while my youngest son and granddaughter hit the tennis courts and my grandson and his girlfriend hiked and relaxed. On their own.
One day while sitting on my balcony overlooking mountaintops and the unoccupied ski trail and snow-making machines — cold in June, but not that cold! — I thumbed through an old copy of The Atlantic. I never throw away my copies of this magazine until I’ve studied them thoroughly, and this was the June 2020 issue. A featured article, “The Fellowship of Suffering” by Vivian Gornick (web version titled, “Why Some of Us Thrive in a Crisis,”) caught my eye.
Gornick opened her piece with the story of a friend she called Stella who had lived for years as a solitary recluse, chronically depressed and in perpetual psychotherapy. Her therapist apparently had succeeded in persuading her that she alone had to be the one to break her lonely isolation, but seemed to be unable to act on what she had come to see as the truth of her life — until the Covid pandemic hit and all of us became housebound for fear of disease and possible death. Gornick writes that “a few weeks ago, as everyone everywhere was being put under house arrest, I called to see how she was doing. And, in a voice clear as a bell, she said, 'Fine, I’m fine.' Startled I asked, “How come?” Equally startled, she said, “Because we’re all in this together.”
That last phrase — “because we’re all in this together” — really struck me as profoundly true. Not only because I was up on a mountain retreat with loved members of my own family, or because of what I’ve written about in my past blogs and books, but also because this is the truth that I’ve lived during my whole life.
I mulled that bit of wisdom over and over. And, as I wrote above, I’ve always used this Wintergreen experience as a sort-of spiritual retreat time, so I brought along books to look into during breakfast and various down times during the days there, when I wasn’t hiking (see lead photo) — which is what I do at least once if not twice a day between meals as family outings. One of the books I turned to at the breakfast table was Clay Routledge’s Supernatural: Death, Meaning, and the Power of the Invisible World (Oxford University Press, 2018 — see second photo below). In tune with my mulling theme, Routledge writes the following:
Our connection to others is powerful. Humans are inherently social animals. We need relationships to thrive. The close bonds we have with romantic partners, family, and our dearest friends are vital for our psychological and physical health. In fact, studies show that loneliness is as deadly as abusing alcohol, smoking, and obesity. Not surprisingly then, a good portion of our time and energy is spent seeking and maintaining close relationships. (p. 52)
I also had brought along Wayne Muller’s How, Then, Shall We Live? (Bantam Books, 1997, photo below.) Along the same mulling lines, I looked at his section he called “What Do I Love?” and found this:
Being in community with others is an inescapable part of a full and meaningful life. Gathering to observe ritual, ceremony, parade, pilgrimage, festival, these are the ways we remember the rhythm of things, the triumph of the spirit, the cycle of birth and death, the deepening of a life together. ... We live in our body and we live in the presence of the bodies of others. ... We need to see one another, to touch and be touched, to exchange some gift, some energy, some knowing that can be transmitted only in the physical body, from one to another. It is tangible, yet mystical; physical, yet immeasurable, invisible. (pp. 134-135)
Let me end this possibly hopeful blog with a cautionary note, one that came to the fore when I read a recent op-ed in The New York Times by Timothy Denevi. His op-ed was about Joan Didion — a writer and essayist of major note. Didion lived through the horrors of the 1960s, e.g. the Vietnam tragedy and street protests, the assassination of the Kennedy brothers, the murders of civil rights activists, and so on. In a interview with Didion at the time of Robert Kennedy’s murder she writes “it was like something snapping.”
Denevi offers this troubling thought: He points out that in the past, times of national trauma gave an opportunity for “unity and cohesion.” Think of the aftermath of 9/11 when we all came together to mourn our nation’s dead and the communal grief that poured out from all corners of our country. He writes, “But Ms. Didion found herself confronted wish a fractured version of America that’s not too different from the one we’ve come to recognize today. Millions of people are dead from the Covid pandemic. Thousands take to the streets in protest and thousands more gather in the national capital to storm the seat of government.”
We are at a continual deficit of unity or cohesion. And in the wake of each new cataclysm, we’ve found ourselves farther apart. ... No matter what your political feelings are, if you’re attached to the idea of the nation as a community — if you feel yourself to be part of that community — then obviously something has happened to that community. ... [Didion said in a past interview that] it seemed as if these people did not count themselves as part of the community. That they came from another America.
Sorry to end on such a dark note, but it very well may be that something has truly snapped — not just at the end of the 1960s but right before our eyes in 2023. So what can each of us do to counter this fracture? I don’t know. Check on your neighbor. Make sandwiches for the homeless shelter, maybe contribute toward the construction of affordable housing I don’t have the answer, folks, but this is our community that needs repairing ... before the snap is permanent.