In various mythologies there is a recurring theme. Someone has gone to sleep in one world and somehow awoken in another. I’m not thinking of a particularly traditional definition of myth, but rather the stories that we tell ourselves that help to form us and shape our culture. These stories are filled with archetypal situations, characters, and events.
For example, in The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy gets knocked out in Kansas and wakes up in Oz. Rip Van Winkle, in The Legend of Rip Van Winkle, falls asleep in English Colonial America and somehow, twenty years later, awakens in a post-revolutionary upstate New York, USA, a nation born after he fell asleep. Ebeneezer Scrooge falls asleep for a restless night on Christmas Eve and awakens the next morning – really and truly awakens. Has he been to different worlds in his sleep? Who knows, but he wakes to a changed world because he is a changed person. This notion of awakening to a different world has all sorts of symbolic meaning. And better still, it’s a great plot device. Some may resist identifying these stories as mythology, but these are stories that have a significant place in shaping our identity.
The story these days is not a fantasy. It’s all too real. COVID-19 is working its way through the planet and wreaking havoc on our health care systems, our social systems, our religious systems and our economic systems. (I’m tempted to digress into a discussion of why our economic and religious systems are, in significant ways, the same systems… but that is a thought for another time). The scale and scope of the tragedy are beyond our comprehension. When things exceed our rational capacity, it’s time to look to our mythology.
In order to slow the spread of COVID-19, our world, dominated by Post-Industrial Finance Capitalism and especially our social and financial systems, has effectively been placed in an induced coma. Social distancing is our new way of life – we are, in a sense, collectively asleep. Like Dorothy, Rip, Ebeneezer, and countless others, we will collectively wake up – the important question is how we will do that.
Things have been, we’d like to think, a certain way for a long time. We believe it is normal. We live in a world of permanence. Big and important institutions build massive edifices to assure us of their permanence. This is true of religious institutions, government institutions, financial institutions, and commercial institutions.
Some of us will remember the Pan Am building that towers over Grand
Central Terminal in New York – these two monuments assure us of two vital, powerful, fabulously wealthy, permanent commercial institutions – Pan Am and the New York Central Railroad. The only thing is, while the buildings are still here, both Pan AM and NY Central are long gone. We have a near-infinite assortment of permanent monuments to things that are not permanent… things long outlasted by their monuments. Our notions of permanence are illusion.
Our marvelous, highly advance pinnacle of human achievement that we call modern civilization is no more permanent than any other created thing. Permanence and stability are dreams and illusions. When we awake from the dream, do we awake to a better reality, or deeper reality, or grim reality? Do we arise to Utopia or Dystopia? Or do we just go back to sleep? It’s worth considering this now because COVID-19 is highly likely to show us just how impermanent and unstable our society is. Ready or not, we are being awakened from our illusionary sleep.
The Great Awakening
What we wake up to will, in part, be driven by what we have been sleeping through before the arrival of COVID-19. That is ominous. We were comfortably sleeping through a society that choose to let many people go hungry while
there was plenty. We were sleeping through a society that recognized that our consumption of fossil fuels was pushing the very environment that we depend on to breath to the breaking point, yet we took no significant action. We were sleeping though a society that was willing to write off large blocks of people as somehow not valuable – perhaps because of their race, or color of their skin, or sexual identity, or age, or where they were born, or even for their political views. We were sleeping through dystopia, so that will certainly be something we have to wake up to.
We were also sleeping through a world that produced art of unspeakable beauty;
a world that found inventive ways to treat diseases of every sort; a world where, as The Rev Dr Martin Luther King dreamed, all God’s children could play together, maybe not all the time, but at least some of the time. This utopia through which we were sleeping is also something we will wake up to.
There are no instruction manuals to tell us the best way to awaken, but we might look at the formative myths of our society. What do they have to tell us?
I mentioned three myth-like works of fiction. While not exactly contemporary, these stories are written within a social context not too different from our present one and they have stood the test of time.
Washington Irving’s Legend of Rip Van Winkle appears to have little to say about waking up. Van Winkle falls asleep and then, twenty years later, awakes. Upon awakening, he makes his way back to town. The Revolutionary War has taken place. His house has been abandoned and fallen into ruin. Eventually he finds a few people who remember him. His story becomes clear and, unlikelihood of the story notwithstanding, becomes accepted as true. His daughter takes him and the story ends. Irving, for all his imaginative genius, doesn’t seem to address any of the obvious elephants in the room, such as how Rip adjust to a post-revolutionary world. Washington Irving does all the work of setting up a marvelous opportunity and then walks away. Nothing changes in the story except the accidents of society. The essentials are as they were. This is one way to wake up in a myth – to effectively go back to sleep.
The Wizard of Oz (the movie, not the book) is more expansive in its story telling. But there is an interesting set of circumstances in the narrative. Dorothy is living a drab life in a drab house with a drab family in a drab corner of Kansas. Then a terrible tornado strikes and Dorothy, who has not made it to the safety of the storm cellar, is knocked unconscious. She “awakens” in Oz – a blazingly Techni–colorful world. But of course, this is not waking Dorothy. This is dreaming Dorothy. Eventually Dorothy is ready to return home – to wake up. The movie ends with Dorothy having chosen to go back to the black and white world she knew before. Is she transformed? Is anything changed? It appears that what Dorothy learned is that she should be happy with her world the way it is, not to want something more. This would be another way of waking from a myth – to revert.
Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol provides a different sort of outcome. Like Oz, most of A Christmas Carol takes place in the context of dreams. Ebeneezer is visited by three spirits and asked to truly look at his past, his present, and his future. When he awakens on Christmas morning, he is in the same world he has always known. He is a wealthy and miserly man living in a big, comfortable home. He has no friends, just employees. But having truly looked at his life and the world he has shaped, he is transformed. He cannot go back to his old world because he is a new person. The world doesn’t change, he does. He flings open windows. He reaches out to employees. He helps those in need. He rekindles relationships with family. He becomes a beacon of hope and caring to all who know him. This is yet another way of waking within the mythological context.
I believe that these three stories point us to three possible options for awakening. Dorothy chooses to go back to the way things were. Rip chooses, essentially, to stay asleep. And Ebeneezer moves in the direction of transformation.
Br Don Bisson, FMS, describes three decision-making paradigms that are prominent in religious communities. The community looks at the challenge and what needs to be done and a) agrees to do it and does it, or b) agrees not to take action, or c) agrees to do what needs to be done, but does not do it. Of course, these three modes are not unique to religious communities. They are, apparently, hard-wired into the human person.
It looks to me like Ebeneezer Scrooge takes option one – he looks at what needs to be done and does it. Dorothy, it seems, takes option two – she looks at what it would take to continue living in the Oz paradigm and she chooses to go back to the way things were. And Rip Van Winkle effectively chooses option three – a chaotic option that provides the illusion of change without any real change.
What path will our awakening from our COVID-19 coma follow?
Christian tradition has much to say about awakening. Starting in the early parts of Hebrew Scripture it is an important concept. Let’s consider the Prophet Isaiah. We can only guess at the cultural context of Isaiah. The actual dates and authorship are not certain, but for this purpose it is enough to know that the Nation of Israel had been held captive in Babylon for a long time and Isaiah, in the section we’re looking at, is writing around the time of the end of that exile. We might think of the exile/captivity as a coma of sorts and the end of that period as a collective awakening.
Isaiah 51: 1 “Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness, you who seek the Lord! Look to the rock from which you were cut, to the quarry from which you were hewn. […] 4 “Pay attention to me, my people! Listen to me, my nation! For instruction will go out from me, and my justice will become a light for the nations. [...] 7 Listen to me, you who know righteousness, you people who have my instruction in their hearts. […] 9 “Awake! Awake! Clothe yourself with strength, you arm of the Lord! Awake, as in days gone by, as in generations of long ago.
Isaiah 52: 1 Awake, awake! Clothe yourself with strength, O Zion! Put on your beautiful garments, O Jerusalem, the holy city, for the [heathen] won’t enter you. 2 Shake yourself from the dust and arise, and sit on your throne, O Jerusalem! Loosen the bonds from your neck, O captive daughter of Zion.
Isaiah provides a powerful set of instructions for awakening. First, look at who you are and who you are called to be. Look where you came from (the rock from which you were cut) and your identity (God’s nation and God’s people). You know righteousness and
God’s instructions. So awake. Clothe yourself in strength. Take control. And live in in God’s ways.
We might also consider Ezekiel and the valley of dry bones. The bones in the valley are not just sleeping, not just in a coma, but undeniably dead. Yet Ezekiel, at God’s direction, calls them to life, to wakefulness.
Ezekiel, like Isaiah, was at work around the time of the Babylonian exile of Israel. This was a tumultuous time, to say the least. Everything about being Jewish had come into question during the exile – identity was being lost. The people of Israel could simply have faded away, folded into the people of Babylon. In a sense, the nation of Israel was being placed in a coma. It is from this deep sleep that the prophets are calling the people to wakefulness.
The prophets call the people to remember their identity and their heritage as people of God. This is never a call to turn back time, to restore things to the old days. It is a call to bring Godly justice into a new world.
In the Christian New Testament, there are also instances of people being called to
wakefulness. Joseph, in Mathew’s telling of the Gospel, is awakened twice by angels. First, he is told to marry Mary, even though she is already pregnant. And then he is awakened and told to flee with Mary and Jesus to Egypt. These could be literal awakenings, but there is a certain symbolic layer as well.
Joseph is resistant to marrying Mary because it goes against custom and tradition. The “right and decent” thing would be to quietly cut off the relationship. But Joseph is called to a radically different action. He is awakened from “right and decent” to Godly. The flight to Egypt was also a radical choice. He was protecting his family and fleeing a predicted danger, but he was also making a risky and complicated journey, made even more so because Mary has just given birth and Jesus was a fully dependent infant. This notion of awakening is not a safe one.
The Epistles also have instances of us being called from sleep.
Ephesians 5: 8 For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light— 9 for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. 10 Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. 11 Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. […], 14 for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore […] “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” 15 Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, 16 making the most of the time…”
This letter – whoever and whenever it was written – gives remarkable advice on how we may wake up from our present crisis. Open our eyes and see what is good and just. Live with care and make the most of our time. Stand in the light of Christ.
It is hard to hear a phrase like “Sleepers Awake” without an echo of Bach’s Cantata 140 sounding in our ears (at least for me and my “choral” friends this is true). The text is not scriptural, but rather a hymn text by Philip Nicholai.
Wachet auf, ruft uns die stimme is most directly translated into English as “Wake up, the voice calls us.” Is that the voice of God? Could there be other, ungodly voices calling? Obviously, the answer is yes to both.
As we look to awake in the aftermath of COVID-19 we will have options, just as Dorothy, Rip, and Ebeneezer had options. We can listen and hear what voices call us – and know that God’s voice will be there, but that it won’t be the only voice. The choices we make, individually and collectively, will likely determine the shape and future of our lives and of our world.
Things to do
I’m drawn to Joseph. He is awakened twice with things to do – and he does them. Does he act in love? In faith? Does he just do what he is told without question? We don’t get many details on Joseph’s process. For whatever reasons, his actions are ultimately not only faithful, they change the world. His part may seem minimal – all he does is wake up. But the impact is magnificent. And in some sense, all we will have to do is wake up.
After our COVID COMA we will have opportunities, minimal and massive, for action. We need to have a sense of who we are and where we come from. We need to have a clear understanding of what God calls us to do – I’d say keep the Beatitudes in mind. And we need to have some sort of vision of where and how we want to live. The world may seem changed, but it will, for the most part, be the same world. We must be the transformed and transforming element.
Ebeneezer in his dreams already understood how he wanted to awaken. And in those confused awakening moments he clarified that vision. He applied himself with vigor and conviction. He set aside his pride and arrogance, making amends and embracing other people. Fear was certainly part of Ebeneezer’s transformation, but it is not his primary motivator once he is awake. The part of Ebeneezer that is most awake is the loving part.
My reflection has been from my perspective as a faithful Christian, but I certainly don’t believe that awakening to a transformation will be limited to the followers of Jesus, or the Abrahamic religions. We can play a catalyzing role in this process for folks of all traditions. I suspect that it may be easier to work with folks of other traditions or no tradition than to work with some parts of the Christian tradition. If we believe, as some Christians clearly do, that God is on our side, rather than that we are on God’s side, then the ability to truly awaken is greatly inhibited. The vision we need for a better world is not our own vision. It must be larger and more collective and inclusive. All of humanity has something to bring to the table.
The Dystopian Alternative
In the last few decades, a new form of dystopian fiction has taken shape. While dystopian visions (the opposite of Utopian) are nothing new (the apocalyptic writing that makes an exciting contribution to Scripture is arguably dystopian, as is Dante’s Inferno), there is a new twist on dystopian thinking in my view. Dystopian material used to serve a cautionary function – live properly or face consequences like this. Modern dystopian fantasy does not seem to be warning us against terrible consequences. It seems to be assuring us that this dystopian future is inevitable.
In Mad Max or The Hunger Games we are stuck in this terrible world without escape not as a consequence of previous choices, but, more or less, as a given world condition. As in Job, where the kindly neighbors all wonder what evil thing Job has done to earn his terrible, dystopian lot, the answer is its random – just God and Satan having a lark at Job’s expense.
The thing lacking from this current dystopian material is any sort of lesson or learning. Survival is the best you can hope for. For example, in The 100 the chosen lot (100 youthful prisoners from a space station circling the ruined Earth) are sent to the ground in order to reduce the overpopulation of the dying station. They are expected to die. On the bright side they don’t die. But they do learn that the ruined earth extremely hostile. Survival is a constant and thankless struggle. “Abandon hope” seems to be posted over the door…
One exploration of this genre that I think is worth exploring here is 28 Days Later by filmmaker Danny Boyle. The story explores life in the UK after a deadly virus have been released from a lab at Cambridge University. A group of well intention but misguided animal rights activists break into a lab to free the animals. In this act they also release a virus that is extremely contagious and fast acting – people are infected instantly and turned into rage-filled killing machines.
Meanwhile, just before the virus is set free, a mild-mannered bicycle messenger, Jim, is knocked unconscious in an accident and taken to the hospital. Before he wakes up some 28 days later (hence the title), society is destroyed and nearly everyone is infected by the released virus. When he awakes, Jim finds himself in a deserted hospital in a deserted London. He finds his way into a church that appears to be quite full of dead bodies. But not everyone is dead. To Jim’s horror he attracts the attention of the few remaining living beings – all infected. He escapes the church and, thankfully, meets two people who are not infected. They rush him to safety and the plot unfolds from there.
A little gang of four survivors manages to form and, for the sake of survival, they set off to a destination near Manchester, lured by the promise of safety in the form of the military, and of the answer to infection. By answer our little cluster (now down to three) is expecting a cure, but what they learn is that the answer is to wait until the infected have all died and then start society over. This is when dystopian reality really comes crashing down – this military unit is all male and so, to have any hope of starting over, they need women. Two of our band of three are women (well – one is just a schoolgirl). Forcible rape will be the price of safety.
Our band of three decide this is not a price they will pay and so escape is the only option – from this protected but hostile world to the larger, unsafe and hostile world. They do escape, but in that process, Jim is once again knocked unconscious. He awakens again, another 28 days later. This time the three have managed to escape to a secluded little croft in the Lake District. It is bucolic and secluded. Here the dystopian adventure ends when they are discovered by a military aircraft flying over. It is hard to fashion a happy ending when seemingly all of the UK has been depopulated, but that is what happens.
So, what might this tell us about waking up after COVID-19? There is a somewhat friendly moment soon after the three have arrived at the military location – before the evil has been unmasked. Everyone is gathered, soldiers and civilians, and are sharing a meal of sorts. The question comes up (as it does in the present crisis as well): when will things return to normal? Some of the diners believe that normal is not far away, that there is a government or military waiting to sweep in. Others believe that they will not live to see normal as clearly the only solution to the infection is to hold the UK in quarantine until all have died. But the commanding officer observes that in the 28 days since infection he has observed people killing people. And in the 28 days before that he observed people killing people. And before that and before that… He concludes that the world IS back to normal.
This sort of waking up means coming to grips with the reality that we live in a dystopian world – it’s as good as it gets. We went to sleep in a dystopia and that is exactly where we will awaken.
Modern dystopian writing can be quite fatalistic. Nonetheless, 28 Days Later seems to
hold the hope that we can awake to a different world. In this instance the world has been irreparably changed – but more importantly so have our three main characters. They are not visionaries at the start. Jim is a nice, if unambitious guy. Selina (the adult female) is interested in her own survival – she believes that is as good as it gets. And Hannah is a schoolgirl, interested in seeing her family, however changed it is, stay together. By the end of the movie they have developed a much greater vision which includes a new knowledge of the power of love.
One fact cannot be escaped. There is no way to look at our path through COVID-19 without the realization that a horrible tragedy has occurred. By now already tens of thousands have died and that number is rising quickly. So, no matter what else happens, we will awaken in a very broken and wounded world. Comfort and healing emotionally will be extremely important.
Dorothy could afford the “go back to the way things were” option because she was not really living in a dystopia. This is a bit ironic because the world that first watched this movie was dystopic. The Dustbowl was raging in the plains, including Kansas. The Depression was raging across the world. And World War II was coming up over the horizon. In that context escapist fantasy was wanted – and that’s what The Wizard of Oz provides. We live in a world with strongly dystopian and utopian elements. But if we choose escapist fantasy an truly ignore the dystopian elements, the dystopian elements will become our world. Diseases like COVID-19 will likely emerge from an ever more crowded and degraded planet. Should we choose escape, we will in fact be condemning ourselves.
Carl Jung said “Who looks outside dreams. Who looks inside awakens.” This is exactly what Ebeneezer Scrooge does. The specters in his dreams cause him to look at his history, his present, and consider his future – he looks within. When he can’t bear what he sees, he resolves to change. And this is what he does when he truly awakens. In this paused time of COVID-19 control, we have the chance to look within – and with fewer distractions than normal.
There is a notion of inevitability to all this – that this virus appeared, and we have just gone along for a powerless ride. That is not true. Choices that we have made collectively and individually have all helped in the setting up of this great calamity. Profligate waste of resources and pollution clearly play a part in fueling this. The astounding poverty that we tolerate in our world clearly creates a context in which a virus such as COVID-19 can develop and flourish. We live with the values of nationalism, which may have made some sense a long time ago, but when international travel means anyone can get just about anywhere in a day, national boundaries are a sentimental fiction and ordering our world as though this were not true creates a very fertile field for a virus, such as COVID-19, since viruses, like all of nature, has no sentimentality. We are not like Job. We are not here as innocents. Repentance, in the proper sense of that word, is certainly in order.
We must be conscious of our process. Keeping in mind Br Don’s observation that looking at what needs to be done, agreeing to do it, and then failing to take action is a very likely human approach, we have to either do what we say we will, or simply give up. Either is a valid choice, but the dishonesty of promised action followed by inaction is an invalid and deadly choice.
As faithful people (and I consider this a very broad category – surely Secular Humanists, Muslims, Jews, Buddhist, whatever, can be faithful just as devout Christians can) we must model behavior and speak truth. Some would have that as speak truth to power, but I think that doesn’t go far enough. We must simply speak the truth when we can and to whom we can in ways that can be heard.
Finally – I think we must coach ourselves and others to wake up – truly wake up. Introspection, repentance, and amendment of life are what Ebeneezerr Scrooge models. We must model them too. And, like Ebeneezer, we must do so in love, not in judgement.