Stories & Time
“What does it feel like to lose the plot?”, writes Sophie Strand in a mesmerizing essay on Living Between Stories.
As modern humans, we resist this so strongly. This animal reality, as Strand writes, that “one story does not neatly pour itself into the shape of another.” It flies in the face of post-industrial ideas of productivity and time, the supposedly inexorable necessity of forward motion and upward trajectory.
That sort of relentless linearity is the language of the marketplace. It insists that time is sequential and must be made of use. There is no in-between. There is no pause. There is no utility, value, or meaning to be found in stepping backward, stalling out, or aimlessness.
But if the soul is the spirit embodied, then the soul calls us to a different rhythm that defies such regimented regulation. Nature ebbs and flows, crests and plummets, circles and spirals. Matter doesn’t progress or disappear. It simply transforms again, and again, and again.
The extent to which we humans “see” linear progression over time is based on the template of a single, individual life isolated from the wider scheme. It is an idea, a distortion, like one might get from looking through a telescope backward. True, “I” was born and have become progressively physically bigger and more capable of interacting with my environment without the obvious aid of others. But not only is the necessity of my life-long survival much more communally-based than the narrative of individualism suggests, at some point completely beyond my control or knowing “I” will die. Then my body will go back to dirt, and the vast, endless cycle of which I am simply an infinitesimal part will spiral on.
Strand describes in her essay the movement of the hermit crab from one shell to another. This can entail, it turns out, transition times when the crab is entirely exposed and vulnerable, without a new shell yet to inhabit. It is not inevitably a strict, linear progression where the crab, knowing that its current shell no longer fits, finds a perfectly-sized next shell and nimbly scrambles from one shell to the next. In fact, confronted with the necessity to vacate without a perfectly-sized next shell, the crab will inhabit any space that fits and offers some measure of protection— pieces of wood or stone, tin cans, bottle caps, shell casings.
Even more fascinating, hermit crabs also transition in community, interdependently, in what is called a vacancy chain:
The curious moment occurs when a hermit crab, spilling out of its shell, exceeding its narrative, finds another shell, a little too big. Instead of trying to enter into this spacious shell, it waits patiently, sometimes for up to eight hours, for another, slightly bigger hermit crab to arrive and take the big shell, discarding a protective home more suited to the original hermit crab. Sometimes as many as twenty crabs will congregate and perform a truly amazing ritual called a vacancy chain. When they have finally assembled, the crabs will quickly evacuate and exchange shells, each claiming the new one that best suits their size.
It is not that a direct, linear progression from one shell immediately to the next never happens. It is that it doesn’t always. The hermit crab that occupies an interim space like a rock or scrap of driftwood isn’t “failing” at being an adequately successful hermit crab. Nor is the hermit crab who vacates its’ shell and then waits, exposed and vulnerable until enough other crabs congregate that a new, right-sized home presents itself, some kind of a hero. Both are simply providing us with clues about the many forms transformation can take, and challenging us to expand our view of what it is to be alive.
In recent interviews, writer and psychologist Esther Perel has talked about one of the central challenges of the pandemic for many of us— “enforced presentism”. We lost the external segmenting of our interactions with both time (now is “work time”, now is “playtime”, now is “family time”) and space (moving between workplace, home, and public spaces like grocery stores and restaurants). We also had no clear idea of when we would be able to return to a segmented, linear, forward-moving reality.
As a result, we descended into a foggy and undifferentiated “now” where every possible time and every possible space were inhabited simultaneously. For folks habituated to the illusion of control over space and time, enforced presentism was, understandably, disorienting and anxiety-provoking.
In the midst of that foggy place/time, it is easy to fall prey to the feeling that now is forever, to devolve into primal instincts towards rabid self-protection and tribalism. It is agonizing to simply sit with feeling stagnant, trapped, or powerless without grasping for the past or forcing change indiscriminately to try to control the future.
But what if this enforced presentism that so many of us experienced was also an opportunity to reflect on the integrity of our relationship to time, space, and transformation? What if it was also providing us with the chance to radically rework our economy, communities, and conscious interdependencies?
Strand writes that “for those with illness, for those experiencing dramatic loss and grief, for refugees, for those exiting marriages, for survivors of assault” the loss of the plot is an experience of living between stories. Right now we are having a mass, communal experience of living on the threshold of neither-here-nor-there through this enforced presentism.
What if, instead of rushing to return to our pre-pandemic reality, we honored the potency of submitting to the in-between and made use of it?
To suggest that such experiences can offer deep, embodied soul lessons is not disregarding the shattering that comes with grief, distorting disability as somehow magically heroic, removing the horror of violation, or otherwise downplaying suffering. It is not an exercise in forced positivity.
It is allowing in the reality of being interdependent animals that are part of a vast web of interconnected ecosystems. It is embracing that we are simultaneously finite and infinite. It is finding meaning, integrity, and power that inhabits and embodies the threshold we inherently are.
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