COVID Reflections by Emily Nielsen Jones: In the Womb, Together

All of creation is groaning and in pain, like a woman about to give birth.
~ adapted from Romans 8:22

Here where I live outside of Boston, most of us are about one month into our self-isolation during COVID. As the exponential curve of this global pandemic slowly, eerily touches every corner of our planet and every facet of our lives, a collective rug is being pulled out from underneath our settled ways, systems, taken-for-granted institutions, beliefs, and moment-to-moment expectations which shape how we each make our way through a day. 


I am honored to add my voice to this special COVID-19 series hosted by Philanthropy Women, together musing on what implications this global pandemic has for feminist philanthropy and all who are working for justice, human betterment and a more sustainable way of living together on this planet. As every one of these writers describes, though we wish we could banish this virus from our planet, collective change has been unfolding right before our eyes.

Like all natural disasters, there are gendered impacts of this global pandemic which are important to understand. All the authors of this special edition have highlighted different aspects of this gendered impact, pointing to pre-existing conditions of a very ancient disease—an everyday yet normalized pandemic of gender-based violence and oppression—which remind us that all was not well in the old “normal” of our pre-COVID-19 world.

Allow me add a few spiritual musings to the mix here and give a salute to Mama Pacha, aka Mother Earth, the regenerative womb of creation which is groaning and laboring with us in our present sufferings to bring something new into being. As awful and formidable as this creepy virus is, Mother Nature has seen her fair share of plagues, pestilences, and apocalyptic end-times predictions come and go and She’s still standing. The wheel of life is still turning. But She needs us to do our part. She is asking something of us. In our shared grief and vulnerability, as we make our way through this pandemic, we are brought back in touch with the very basics of life, which we too often take for granted, and our collective power to labor with and shape the world in which we live.


All of creation is groaning and in pain with us…

As Patricia Campbell Carlson describes so beautifully, “Grief and gratitude are kindred souls, each pointing to the beauty of what is transient and given to us by grace.” Have you felt this tender rebirth of gratitude within your own corner of pandemic grief and suffering?

How we make our way through this global pandemic, what we do with our fear, our loss, our collective insecurity—and the awakening of gratitude and shared humanity—as the structures of our world feel like they are crumbling, brings us right to the core of what it means to be human. Ironically, it is by touching our vulnerability (which we’d rather avoid) that we tap into our power to recreate the realities of our world which sometimes can seem static and immovable. How will we come out on the other side of this pandemic?

Will we grow and evolve as a human family as we work together to “flatten the curve” and, some how through it all, rebirth a new normal that is more in line with our true, shared nature as human beings here to steward and live together on this planet? Or will we devolve and let our fear enlarge and create more walls and divisions that oppress and tear apart our social fabric? Will we relearn how to be human in some new way(s) which lives in better harmony with one another and with the wisdom hidden within the natural world?

As peacemakers Ken Seidu and Godfrey Okumufrom Nigeria and Dr. Anne Mwangi from Kenya ask in a graphic circulating around social media, Who do I want to be during COVID-19? Who do you want to be during COVID-19? And most importantly, Who do we want to be during COVID-19? How we answer these questions—how we learn, adapt, and evolve together as a human species—will determine not only how each of us survives this crisis individually, but also the kind of world we will live in and pass on to future generations.

Take a moment now to look at this graphic and sit with your own “fear zone” and reflect on your own answers to these questions.

Making Our Way through this “Cloud of Unknowing” during COVID

The circumstances of each of our lives vary dramatically, but advances in technology have helped grow global interconnectivity in ways that generations before us could hardly begin to imagine. To explore where we are I’d like to borrow from an anonymous Middle English work, The Cloud of Unknowing, written in the latter half of the 14th century during the height of European monasticism. As this virus continues its spread across the globe, we individually and collectively find ourselves subsumed by a “cloud of unknowing,” a forced monasticism of sorts for those of us sheltered at home, and a dark time of uncertainty that is humbling our desire to feel in control of our world. Not being in control (and trying to maintain the illusion that we are in control) is part of our shared human condition and is the deepest roots of our collective suffering as a human family.

Unlike other creatures with which we share this planet, we alone have the capacity to reflect on the tenuousness and beauty of our shared existential condition. Only we have the inkling to ponder our place in this world and seek to understand and make meaning out of it all. Today as we weather this pandemic, we have the guidance of scientists who help us understand what is happening while it is happening from a biological and public health point of view. In centuries past, a plague would hit without the foreknowledge that we have today, thanks to the advances of science, and people lived with higher mortality rates as their normal.

Like our forebears who have survived floods, plagues and various forms of pestilences, we all find ourselves grappling to make sense of this pandemic which has hijacked the normalcy of our lives. Whether you consider yourself religious or not, we are all in the same existential boat as we each hunker down and grapple to make sense of and make our way through this tragic, yet globally transformative time. 

Part of what motivates me personally in the philanthropic work that I am privileged to do is a spirit of kindness and mutual regard that I see in the sense of common humanity driving so much good work happening in the world. Philanthropy (from the ancient Greek words “philos” meaning “love” and “anthropos” meaning “human”) means “love of humankind” and is not something reserved for billionaire philanthropists but rather is part of our native endowment as human beings. Philanthropy is not just about giving money but rather connotes a sense of mutuality and solidarity as we each in our own unique ways nourish, heal, develop, and enhance what it is to be human.

We see phil-anthropos all around us right now in the steadfast work of doctors, nurses, and healthcare workers on the frontlines of this crisis. We also see love for humanity in the scientists, reporters, and all who are helping us to understand what is going on so that we can together make the needed collective shifts to slow down the spread of the virus, ameliorate the harms of the disease, and hopefully find a vaccine soon so that we can return to a new and better normal as soon as possible. 

To me, philanthropy in all its forms relies on all of us using whatever advantages we have to work for the good of the larger whole. However one conceives of the Sacred dimension of Life which holds all things together, philanthropy in all its forms involves each of us doing our part to tap into and actualize our highest ideals to “save” ourselves from the suffering and disease we humans have inherited from centuries past and continue to inflict on ourselves through unjust structures. Philanthropy is essential to our humanity and arises in moments like this where we feel our shared vulnerability and rediscover our collective efficacy to change what is not working and evolve together by recovering balance and harmony with the natural world. 

I wish we didn’t need a menacing viral “enemy” to remind us of our shared destiny as a human family, but Mother Nature in her pain and suffering seems to be reminding us of the truth of our interconnectedness, our power to recreate our reality when we work together, and who we truly are as a human family.

Spring Cleaning in COVID

As someone who grew up and spent a lot of time in evangelical Christianity, I am wary of all variants of over-confident God Talk (e.g. so and so is God’s chosen leader, don’t be so politically activated, God’s got this all under control, etc.) and especially God Talk related to natural disasters (God is punishing us for the sin of x, y, or z group, or this is a curse from Satan, etc.) I am cautious about over-spiritualizing this pandemic or too quickly shifting over the mind-numbing devastation it is causing to look for silver-linings.

We are all passing through our own personal and collective grief that feels like a bad movie with no happy ending in immediate sight. The many facets and scale of our individual and collective suffering can feel overwhelming at times. But we need to allow ourselves to feel and be present to our grief as this is an essential part of our humanity. None of us chose to be cloistered in our homes like monks. Yet in this time of enforced seclusion and emotional vulnerability, there is an invitation to slow down, let go of expectations, and find some refuge within one’s own soul and the hushing solace of nature. As we get back in touch with the simple basics of life, this is an opportunity to lean inward and do some needed Spring cleaning to connect more fully with the creative undercurrent of life which is still alive and well breathing life into all things as we see in greening of our backyards and hear in the birds singing outside our windows. What changes might this sheltering down be inviting in you?

Where are you not free? Where might you have lost touch with some part of your very humanity in the rat race of life? Where might you be in need of some sort of reset to live more authentically and reclaim the wheel of your own spiritual agency from things you may never have really chosen or believed? Where might you be participating in, perpetuating, and/or benefitting from some unjust system which you need to more bravely challenge and untangle yourself from? What habits or ways of being might need to fall into the ground to die and be reborn into something new? Where might you direct your particular pandemic angst towards bringing something new into being?

One Egg of Shared Suffering & Hope for Rebirth

It is poignant that as I write this, we are entering the overlapping holy seasons of the Jewish Passover and the Christian Holy Week leading up to Easter. Both of these religious observances point their followers back to this universal human feeling of insecurity, which we are all feeling right now, which has led people groups in every generation to leave the known for an unchosen unknown which reshapes the world and changes the trajectory of history. Whether you hail from either of these traditions, there is timeless and universal meaning we can draw from these holidays as we seek to journey through the bleakness of this still-unfolding pandemic to a new normal on the other side: the unavoidable, yet redemptive role of suffering that connects us with the ongoing cycle of birth/rebirth that fills all of creation. 

A picture speaks a thousand words… The egg is a sacred symbol from nature which speaks this message of birth/rebirth across many cultures and religions and has made its way into both the Passover and Easter rituals. Because of its shape, the egg has been seen as a symbol of the earth we call home. It is a symbol of the fertility that is continuously giving birth to the web of life around us and reminds us of the hope for the new buds and greening of Spring. 

“In the midst of life, we are in death” says the opening line of a medieval Anglican hymn which captures well the impermanence we feel today as we are surrounded by the staggering and still growing death toll taken down by this virus. So too in the midst of death, there are seeds of life. Death hovers in the backdrop of this holy season. In the Passover observance, Jewish people remember the exodus of the Israelites from a series of plagues in Egypt and their journey as a displaced, suffering people, who knew death intimately, to an unknown destination. Across history and the world today, displaced peoples can identify with the exodus journey as a recurring theme. So too, as Christians across the world enter Holy Week, they walk the road of suffering following Jesus carrying their “cross” into the death and darkness of Gethsemane, with the hope of resurrection and rebirth on Easter Sunday. 

Regardless of whether you observe or identify with either of these holidays, as we continue our passage through the dark days of this pandemic, keep your eyes open for the seeds of meaning, rebirth, and dogged hope hidden within your grief and loss which point to a process of transformation happening beneath the soil. As spiritual teacher Andy Crouch recently said at a forum on COVID-19, “Lament is the seed of creativity.” The egg that appearson the Seder plate and hidden around the yard on Easter point to something beyond their religious traditions to a timeless truth that fills the natural world: your suffering and loss are not it vain but rather are part of Nature’s pruning and the ongoing rebirth and growth of all things.

Who knows what kind of new normal awaits us on the other side of the COVID crisis. But we each have our own small plots of the garden to patiently till as we walk through this dark time and long for and await the rebirth of Spring.

Let me close with wise words from the Council of 13 Indigenous Grandmothers which bring us full circle (or oval) back to the title of this post: the darkness and labor of this time is like a womb incubating something new normal into being which honors the balance of masculine and feminine and the wholeness of all things—a reminder of how essential women’s voices and agency is in recreating the post-COVID19 world we all seek for ourselves and our children’s children.

“As you move through these changing times… be easy on yourself and be easy on one another. You are at the beginning of something new. You are learning a new way of being. You will find that you are working less in the yang modes than you are used to.

You will stop working so hard at getting from point A to point B the way you have in the past, but instead, will spend more time experiencing yourself in the whole, and your place in it. 

Instead of traveling to a goal out there, you will voyage deeper into yourself. Your mother’s grandmother knew how to do this. Your ancestors from long ago knew how to do this. They knew the power of the feminine principle… and because you carry their DNA in your body, this wisdom and this way of being is within you. 

Call on it. Call it up. Invite your ancestors in. As the yang based habits and the decaying institutions on our planet begin to crumble, look up. A breeze is stirring. Feel the sun on your wings.”

Another world is laboring with you and with me and is indeed on Her way...

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p.s. If you are struggling to find some way to channel your grief and are seeking some solace, some transformation, and maybe a better balance between the yin and yang modes of your life, consider joining in on this 30 minute meditation Creating an Inner Net of the Heart — Together (password: Unity) which takes place Monday through Saturday at 7 am PST and 10 am EST hosted by Will Keepin and Cynthia Brix, co-directors of Gender Equity & Reconciliation International and created to offer spiritual care during this pandemic.


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Author: Emily Nielsen Jones

Emily is a donor-activist engaged in promoting human equality, justice, and peace around the world. She is particularly passionate and engaged in the nexus of faith, gender, and development and working to mobilize faith traditions to more fully and unambiguously embrace gender equality. In her role at the Imago Dei Fund, Emily has helped the foundation adopt a “gender-lens” in its grantmaking with a particular focus on partnering with inspired female change agents, locally and around the world. Emily is actively engaged in the women-led philanthropy movement, is the author of numerous articles, and is a member of Women Moving Millions, the Women's Donor Network, and a newly forming Refugee Funders Alliance where she is working to create a COVID19 fund focused on getting funding to women’s groups on the front lines of the refugee response. Emily is also a trained spiritual director who enjoys talking with people about their spiritual journeys. Emily serves and has served on the boards of New England International Donor Network, the Boston Women’s Fund, Union Theological School, Nomi Network, Girl Rising, Tostan, and Sojourners Founders’ Circle.

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