As the coronavirus spreads around the earth, we may teeter on the brink of despair. Despair that there’s nothing we can do, or despair that things are not going to get better, or despair that the good things may be gone forever. I’d like to wallow in this despair for a few moments—even though I’m aware that there are things we can do—and to step back from that sense of urgent action and reflect on the feeling of despair itself. The feeling of deep helplessness and grief over what is being lost or changed forever.
I often wonder how our very ancient ancestors—the first peoples that we might call “humans”—dealt with and understood the powers of the world over which they had no control or very very little control. I like to think that they did not despair. Rather they developed a worldview that saw themselves embedded in a huge Universe of living beings in which they were just another grouping. (Grouping may be the best word here, for they most likely did not have the strong sense of individuality that we modern people do.) I fantasize that they did not despair but simply saw themselves as small.
There was value in acknowledging their smallness in the face of the Great Universe on which they depended for life, for it was, after all, realistic. They must have talked or even prayed to that Universe, maybe saw it divided into various, distinct powers, may have even attributed spirit and consciousness to those powers. May have even called those powers “gods” or “God.” But even if “religion” or “spirituality” as we know these terms had not evolved within them yet, they still knew that outside of their small individual and collective selves, there was another immense Being, a Being with power that can leave one awestruck.
It is good to be awestruck.
But in the midst of the current crisis, we may not feel this sense of awe. We do not like to feel small, living as we do in a century where so much of the world is under human control, or at least strong human influence. We have grown accustomed to having our world—our food, shelter, clothing, necessities—at our fingertips. We feel big in our current times, with our strong individual egos. But those of us in the shamanic communities might also experience a kind of gratitude when that small and helpless feeling rises in our guts. Not because we enjoy watching disasters or seeing people suffer and die, but because disasters lead us back to that primordial consciousness out of which shamanism emerged, that consciousness of being small before a grand and frightening Universe before which we stand in awe.
I hope we do not despair. And certainly there are things to do to help, heal, relieve suffering, tend and rebuild the world. But I am grateful for moments when something awful in the Universe causes me to snap back into that humble feeling of smallness and to acknowledge it as our essential relationship to the Universe, to the Power that determines things and sustains the world that we love.