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We Have Been in a Trance

Updated: Mar 14, 2023

Everyday life was escapism — until now

By Malaika Cheney-Coker

Verisimilitude is an ungainly Latin-derived word that describes an elegant concept: it means having the appearance of being true and describes the willing acceptance of what is contrived, as real. This is what happens when we enter into the sensorily textured experience of a movie or novel. In fact, this singular ability of fiction to draw us into an imaginary world and hold us there in a trance-like state, is one of its appeals, particularly when the harshness of the real world sends us fleeing into the arms of fantasy.

But the epic misfortunes of recent months — both the pandemic and the compounding crimes of racism and violence — offer a reverse proposition: that we were already in a trance-like state, an extended escapism from the structural ills that plague our society. In a sense, our day-to-day reality is the real illusion if it dulls our consciousness and conscience.

To some extent, living in a psychically blunted, illusory state might be inevitable. After all, the rigors of the day-to-day do require a certain level of auto-piloting. Mindfulness masters and spiritual savants among us aside, who can endure the daily grind, the struggles to make a living and to battle traffic (remember that?), not to mention stay abreast of the relentlessly depressing news, while also maintaining mountain-top-experience levels of mental clarity. Over time, this auto-piloting becomes ossified in the roles we play, the beliefs we hold. Says the poet and philosopher John O’Donohue in Anam Cara, “Your persona, beliefs, and role are in reality a technique or strategy for getting through the daily routine. When you are on your own, when you wake in the middle of the night, the real knowing can surface (p. 104).”

When we wake up in the middle of this metaphoric night, when tragedy breaks the trance, naturally, our inclination is to grieve — both that which has been lost and that which never was. And grief, if it is anything, is feeling more intensely, cutting through the surface to that place where the blood flows. Through grief, we move into a deeper dimension of our humanity. In a sense, we are most fully alive, most thoroughly conscious, most wise, when things have been upended, when the world is topsy turvy.

Indeed, spiritual leaders, rationalists and philosophers alike have throughout the ages described an augmented sense of consciousness and understanding as an awakening or enlightenment — words that have stamped historical period and movements. Social movements theories offer some insights on how pivotal events can lead to the construction of new knowledge. In Why Social Movements Occur, Anindya Sen and Ömer Avci note that “participating [in] or even just watching the operating of a social movement can raise a critical consciousness in the mind of a person regarding complex societal issues.”

When we grieve together and join forces in a movement, we reclaim our collective humanity. Shared pain forces us to re-examine the aberrations and injustices into which we were torqued. Like a broken bone that was improperly set, a fresh breaking, despite the pain, can offer the chance to mend in a way that can restore proper function.

If we remain passive in a time of disruption, we will become a cliché — that of letting a crisis go to waste. A new trance will take over. The bone will set crooked; the moral of the story will be bad. In the words of the poet Kwesi Brew, “And the waters rolled on/And what was old was new/And what was new never came to stay./But to skim the gates of change; Forever new; forever old and new; (Poems of Black Africa, p. 334).”

Though collective action is necessary, the shape of each act is exquisitely individual and cannot be dictated. Yes, we can vote, protest, fight, pray, gather, create, kneel. We will probably have to do several things and more, but the first step can be to simply feel, to simply be, and to understand the extent to which we had been blinkered and tamed. Next, more than a list of linear steps to follow, perhaps most important is to find a new rhythm for a give and take of discovery with the world, a new work of imagination. Here too, the Anam Cara offers wisdom: “The imagination is the great friend of possibility. Where the imagination is awake and alive, fact never hardens or closes but remains open, inviting you to new thresholds of possibility and creativity (p 145).”

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