Is the language we use every day, enough to cope with the world we’re about to enter?
As we move through the different stages of life, from babies’ low-pitched contented sounds to barely muted sales pitches at conventions, we soak up words and phrases. What happens when our lexis fails us?
Most of us stopped commuting a year ago, traded the local panini-serving café for a homemade sandwich eaten in front of our laptop and all but gave up on hugs, kisses and handshakes. We didn’t just lose habits. We also lost part of our language.
Together with our language we’ve also lost part of our human connection. A recent article by the former NME pop journalist turned-current-affairs-and-politics columnist John Harris reminded me of the immensity of the task ahead.
John’s article came out in the context of the latest British census, which took place a fortnight ago. In his case, he and his partner thought nothing of ticking the “no religion” box when they got to the faith section. This eventually triggered off an honest reflection on what the last twelve months have meant to everybody, both those (like me) who don’t have any religious beliefs and those who do.
Whilst I can understand John’s conundrum, I do have to disagree with his conclusions. We do have a narrative to project on to: that which unites us all as human beings. We have a real — and ever-increasing — vocabulary with which to talk about the profundities of life and death: it’s the lexicon we use to attempt to describe the complexities of both the inner life we’re born with and the outside life that contains us.
But that lexicon has been in troubled waters for too long now.
My answer to John’s quandary on how to make sense of this Covid-afflicted period is to unlock the power of spirituality we all have inside. The irony of my statement won’t escape you. I’m using a term more commonly associated with religion, and yet, I wear my atheism on my sleeves. There’s no contradiction in what I’m saying, though. In order to reconnect to our surroundings we need to work with the incomplete picture of what’s around us. That’s always been the case.
The almost irrational nature of spirituality lends itself to this incomplete picture. For starters, spirituality doesn’t obey conventions. That’s why it is so hard to categorise. Also, you don’t go seeking spirituality. You don’t find spirituality, spirituality finds you. Spiritual moments arrive unbidden and unannounced. That’s the magic of it.
At the same time, spirituality is that most human trait that we’re so privileged to have. It’s our reaction to the disparate patterns we come across in the world. It’s also a response to our subconscious and its various stimuli.
The crisis we’re undergoing now has not just been caused by Covid. Our current predicament is one I recognise well from my late teens. As the Berlin Wall collapsed in 1989, those of us who lived in socialist countries suddenly felt as if the rug had been pulled from under our feet. The world as we’d known it up to then ceased to exist almost overnight. In its place came uncertainty.
The rug this time is the various tenets we’ve allowed ourselves to be duped by. A blind belief in a growth-led economy, a shift to a silo mentality and a consumer-driven society. When people ask me if I want things to go back to normal, my reply is: “What? Go back to buying more useless tat?”
John alludes to this phenomenon in his article. But he dresses it in an either/or way. Either you have the rituals and rites of passage that many religious groups have or you end up with a shopaholic polity, more interested in making merry than in intellectual pursuits. It seems as if there’s no other way out.
It should be neither. A year ago we discovered birdsong for the first time in ages. For this city boy that was a highly spiritual moment, even if I’m still none the wiser when it comes to telling a chaffinch from a blue tit. We became better acquainted with our parks and woods, even if we still performed the same zig-zag dance around each other.
On Muswell Hill Broadway, north London, last December, post-Christmas, I had the sort of spiritual experience that is usually followed by the word “epiphany”. I’d gone out for my usual run and had just got to the top of Colney Hatch Lane. I was about to turn right to carry on towards Highgate when “it” hit me.
All around me I could see that the sun-slacking winter days were suddenly retreating. Minute by minute the evenings were beginning to draw out. The silhouetted figures in Muswell Hill and Highgate looked more defined, more fleshed out, more human.
Winter was starting its annual withdrawl. Spring was slowly inching in. We’d just come out of a second lockdown (and unknown to me at the time, we were about to be plunged into a third one), my landlord had recently had coronavirus and consequently I’d had to self-isolate. And yet, here I was, caught off guard by a yearly change of guard.
For me that’s the beauty of spirituality. How unpredictable it is. On the other hand I know that in our money-driven society, spirituality is often reduced to being yet another commodity. It’s the unmentioned element of what I call the “bundle” (yoga, meditation and mindfulness), usually delivered in life coaching sessions. It’s the overpriced Gwyneth Paltrow’s vagina-scented candle. It is the essential oil, costing more than your mortgage and sourced from God knows where with the promise of making you feel better about your life.
There’s very little we can do about this. The wellness industry is the new gold rush. Words like “healing” come accompanied nowadays by a familiar sound: Kerching!
Still, I throw my weight behind spirituality. A more spiritual world is a richer one. A world in which we’re not afraid to sing out of tune because we’ve just happened to hear a well-known song blasting out of a stereo in the street. A world in which we improvise a little dance in the middle of a supermarket aisle with a friend we haven’t seen since well before lockdown. A world in which we finally crack the difference between the songs of a chaffinch and a blue tit.
That’s the kind of world I want to enter. Bring it on.
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