Cataclysmic events have a way of exposing us to ourselves.
The questions we ask and try to answer in the frames of previously established worldviews and ideologies reveal both the shortcomings and the strengths of those frames. The feelings that accompany ruptured normality — loss, fear, indifference, relief, calm or some combination — reveal what we value.
Changes and absences in the ways in which we connect with people, society and nature make us aware of both the necessities of those connections and the absurdities of how we sometimes do (or do not) choose to connect. How we choose to view the world, what we decide is valuable within that world and the ways in which we connect to the world are crucial decisions, for individuals and for societies.
As individuals, our answers to these questions characterize our relationships with other people, direct our decisions and define our responses to situations we cannot control. As a society, our answers to these questions determine the degree to which we tolerate inequality and injustice, and how we collectively respond to times of crisis.
So when cataclysmic events force us to ask those questions, we should ask them.
While conversation, art, music and literature often suggest ways of answering these questions, it is only in the solitude of memories and understandings — where we resolve personal realities and therefore where the answers first become relevant — where we begin to find meaningful answers to these questions.
Yet much of what makes our connections to the world more meaningful and purposeful is our ability to respond to those questions beyond what we know from personal realities. If we lack this ability, we will be profoundly limited in our capabilities for empathy. Our relationships with other people won’t be as strong or fulfilling. It is possible that we won’t choose courage and compassion in our responses to crises. Political ideologies will be reductionist and reliant upon narratives that focus on establishing divisions; as a result, we will gravitate towards electing leaders who tell that narrative well enough rather than electing leaders who can unite and strengthen.
So when we ask these questions, we must also form responses in contexts beyond our personal realities. This, too, is done in solitude: In the solitude of unresolvable personal realities; in the solitude of acknowledged desire that lingers despite disappointed expectations; in the solitude of inarticulate restlessness, confusion and the discomfort of uncertainty.
It is only in these places of solitude — these places of humility, honesty and clarity — where there is audible dialogue between innocence and experience. It is only in these places of solitude where innocence, in its moral idealism and persistent assertion of the existence of beauty, purpose and meaning has the power and authority to challenge experience instead of being overwhelmed by it.
This dialogue between innocence and experience is what extends the boundaries of our imaginations — our definitions of possibility beyond our experiences. Within these extended boundaries and beyond experience is space for empathy; space for optimism that is not a myopia of privilege but a reconciliation with reality; space to avoid the cynicism that demeans our encounters with beauty and goodness.
Today, we find ourselves in a season of loss and isolation. This is a cataclysmic event. Humans are not meant to exist in isolation. We desire meaningful connection to our worlds, to the people, landscapes, culture and history that surround us and that we are amidst.
Yet in this season of loss and isolation, we can also find that there is strength in a season of shared solitude — that as we all ask questions in solitude while we all long for connection, we will become more imaginative in our thinking, and more capable of compassion and courage.
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Sharon Spaulding is a contributor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at email@example.com.