As news reports about COVID-19 continue coming at the same torrential pace and shelter-in-place orders become something of a new normal, I’ve found myself returning often to a passage from East Coker, one of T.S. Eliot’s four quartets:
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting
I don’t know how to put what Eliot is saying into plain speech, but something about those words rings profoundly true to me right now even though I can’t quite articulate why. I suppose that’s the beauty of poetry. Something here defies our formations of logic, it resists fitting into our clean categories of thought.
All I know is that I feel these words as a prophetic call, a timely word in a moment of distress not unlike the global moment in 1940 when Eliot originally wrote this poem. The words stop me in my tracks. Everything superfluous falls out of focus. Wait without hope. Wait without love. Something in me wants to scream. What the hell man? How can you say that? How dare you say that? We’re hanging on by a thread here.
The words settle, however, like a bar of gold dropped into a running stream, and I discern that not all hope is created equal. In the Apostle John’s account of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, there’s a fascinating exchange between Jesus and Martha as soon as Jesus arrives on the scene.
Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”
Look at Martha’s response to Jesus’ claim that her brother would rise again. She holds a form of hope, that Lazarus will rise again in the resurrection on the last day. But something about it feels distant and abstract, much like the way Christians today talk about the heavenly hope they have. It’s a way of disconnecting from the present suffering, pain, and loss in this world in the here and now, perhaps even a way of hiding our own lack of faith. It can become an escape from one’s present reality, a way of dismissing the agony of death or loss of any kind.
Not so with Jesus, who for his part clearly has something more present, immediate, and concrete in mind: the literal, embodied resurrection of Martha’s brother…today.
I wonder if this dismissive, sentimental hope is what Eliot is telling his soul to cast aside. It’s an abandoning of hope to surrender to the true unknown of the situation, to the fact that people will suffer and die before this is over, to the knowledge that we have no knowledge about how, exactly, this will be brought to an end. It’s about looking to the horizon and seeing only war—or disease—in sight.
Wait without thought, for you are not yet ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning
The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry,
The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy
Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony
Of death and birth.
Echoes of life and liveliness linger in the dark recesses of our hearts, no more than a whisper. Our memories have not lost the garden, the ecstatic changing of the seasons, Eliot says, but there is an agony that must be undergone, a death to die in the darkness, a place of stillness from which the dance begins.
This is the place of loss, before we see what comes with a new beginning. “In my beginning is my end,” says the first line of the poem. It concludes with an inversion of its opening: “In my end is my beginning.”
When I read East Coker I mumble these lines under my breath like a chant, turning them back and forth on my tongue until some sort of clarity begins to emerge. “In my beginning is my end. In my end is my beginning.” What does it mean?
What does it mean? It means what my pastor told his daughter after the 9/11 attacks when she asked the same question: The world as you know it is gone. Let’s start there. And for now let’s end there, because right now there is nothing else to say. There is no concrete hope to offer. Scientists are working on a vaccine, yes. Some states are reopening their economies. The rate of new cases is on the decline in many areas. But we do not know if another wave of infection is ahead. We don’t know how long it will take to develop a vaccine. We don’t know why so many people who carry the disease are asymptomatic. We’re living the dark.
What is the way forward? Again, the poetry says it best:
In order to arrive there,
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know.
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.
“It’s a hard thing to ask of someone, to wait without hope,” I told my therapist through tears last week. “It’s so much to ask.” But as this story continues, and as our weirdly passive and active battle against COVID-19 drags on with no end in sight, I find myself returning to this heavy feeling. We must find a way to wait without hope, to go by a way of unknowing, a way of lack, a dead way of no ecstasy.
It won’t do to give people false hope. Rumors and anecdotal reports of effective treatments that are not actually effective (such as the ones alluded to by our president) only make matters worse and threaten to cast us into depths of anger and despair that are even harder, nigh impossible, to recover from.
There is a way, Eliot reminds us, that death leads to birth rather than nothingness and despair. But we must be willing to let the world turn upside down, where darkness can become light, and stillness become the dancing. In voicing my sorrow over the difficulty of waiting without hope, I found that what I need right now isn’t happiness or relief so much as a friend to listen to me share my unwellness, to be willing to not look on the bright side for a moment and simply attend to my loss (and trust me enough to do the same for him in his pain).
Curt Thompson, a psychiatrist who knows a thing or two about these feelings, explains how this process works on a relational level:
(W)e must be willing to name our sadnesses, both great and small. And we must name them to another who is able to validate our emotion. It is in this action that our minds realize they are not alone, and our grief is shared. In sensing that someone else also shares the load of our grief, we no longer have to burn the energy we have been consuming in our attempt to contain it. And with the lightening of our load, we are freed that much more to care for others, receiving their grief, and to begin the process of creating goodness and beauty around us.
This journey to redemption takes time. It is exhausting. But it is no less than the way of the Christ. Before Jesus raises Lazarus from the grave, he sees Mary weeping, he goes to the grave and weeps. He knew he was about to raise Lazarus from the dead, but first he mourned because he loved Lazarus and those who mourned over him. He felt their sadness with them.
Near the end of his life Jesus would weep again in Gethsemane, begging the Father for some way—any way—other than the god-awful road of bearing our griefs, carrying our sorrows, and suffering the crushing blow of our iniquities. But through this road of death, the darkness in the tomb became light, the stillness turned to dancing, and the faint, ecstatic echoes of how life was meant to be found their full voice in humanity once again.
There was—and is—no other way, “just death into life, over and over until all things are right.”