I’ve confessed to you in the past that I’m a chronic planner. My natural orientation is toward the future, readying and planning and strategizing my way into some new reality.
This past weekend, I read a wonderful piece by Elizabeth Weil that introduced me to some new language for the present time, and the challenge of being “native to now.” (Pastoral content advisory: the article focuses on wildfire, and includes reflections on the Oakland, Wine Country, Camp, Tamarack, and Caldor Fires.)
In this present moment, as a series of ongoing and interconnected crises, we humans are doing what we humans do. We tend toward two impulses. One of them is looking forward as through a rearview mirror. We look to the future as a restoration of the past. It’s simple: we can recognize our past. It is all that we have known. Our tools and strategies we used in the past are what we use to make sense of our present. When we are overwhelmed in that present, we create an image of the future that is familiar to our past.
That impulse only works when there is enough familiarity in our present to envision the future. When the pangs of recognition that the present has broken too much from the past, that a new chapter is being written, instead we can be pulled toward a sense of futility. It, too, is somewhat simple at its core: when the present is too dissimilar to the past and we envision no path of return, moving forward at all seems pointless.
These are the kinds of times I really resonate with the ancient Israelites in the desert and the verse from Exodus 16:3, “Oh, how we wish that the Lord had just put us to death while we were still in the land of Egypt. There we could sit by the pots cooking meat and eat our fill of bread.”
Weil introduces a term, from a Berkeley climate futurist, “trans-apocalyptic.” It’s the time between these two impulses, acknowledging that we are not, in fact, at the end of times – yet we have completely broken with enough of the norms that are in continuity with our past for us to effectively navigate our present.
I’ve been catching myself short-handing the eventual transition of covid from pandemic to endemicity as “return to normal.” When I use those words, what I mean is the return to the norms and continuity of what I experienced as on January 1, 2020.
This is similar to the use of “return to normal” as meaning the norms and continuity of U.S. political life as that which I experienced on November 1, 2020 November 1, 2016 January 5, 2021.
That continuity is broken. That chapter has been written and completed. The publisher has printed, the books shipped, and there won’t be a subsequent printing to revisit.
Like the Israelites, it’s not that the past was perfect. It was just normal. Continuous. Recognized. Understandable. Something to anchor in the midst of endless overwhelming volatility and unpredictability.
What must we do to become fully “native to now?” To live with our full beings in the present, aware of the fullness of our break with the past?
It’s a challenge as old as our faith. You might recognize the Exodus verse as part of the pericope where God provides bread (manna) to the Israelites in the desert. The food is provided in the morning, enough for each person and the instruction that no one should collect more than their need for that specific day.
This is hard, heavy work, and it is a challenge to our internal wiring. It requires humility and compassion, courage, and open, bold hearts. It requires rest in the midst of the present, because we are just guests in this particular moment and place, and our chapter is part of an eternal narrative of which we will never know the ending.
At the end of her writing, Weil paints images of giant sequoias and the ecological challenges (both of fire and bark beetles) in their existence. “There is beauty in the sequoia scars,” she writes. “And there’s beauty in the sequoias when they have none.”