by Jacob Sims
The baby turned six months Monday. Thanks to a series of small-scale bureaucratic miracles, she now counts two-thirds of her life overseas. It passed in but a moment for this young US passport holder. She laughed and cried and ate and slept, basking in the ephemerality of each moment as the sunlight fell softly through her nursery window.
Though it is only four months since our arrival, I too feel a bit as if I’ve spent the majority of my conscious life in this foreign metropolis.
Some poisonous concoction of humidity and smog and strange smells and COVID lock-downs and longings for connection and crisp mornings conspire to effect a dramatic slowing of time as I grind to the nadir of my cultural adjustment and pandemic fatigue bell curve here in the dead of hot season in Southeast Asia.
In another year, I might take advantage of cheap, regional flights and jet off to an island or drive up a windy mountain pass, or get out of this city, out of my apartment for goodness sakes, anywhere, just go.
In another year, I’d pass the time with play dates and happy hours and other meaningless outings around town.
In another year, I’d be normal again.
But, it is not another year. It is this one, this in-between time. And here I languish alongside the rest of the world.
I wait in absentia with America as my people, my nation, finds it is no longer willing to wait. In fact, we no longer can wait, not for the future good of ourselves or our families, certainly not for the theoretical good of nameless others who might live if we can wait just a few more months before resuming our petty, violent lives.
I wait in my new nation of residence as this people has no choice in these matters, where the state says when to fear and what and how high to jump when you’re afraid and where no one asks why or how long anymore.
I wait with the millions and perhaps billions fighting rising anxiety and depression. I wait as we all wrestle with the emotional stressors of a global in-between time; waiting to know if we are going to be okay. We each wait our turn to join the growing ranks of the mentally ill, wondering if, perhaps, we already have. We wait not knowing when this will end or what to do with the unvalued moments here within our grasp.
What are we to do with these in-between times? What of the days spent waiting? How do we reckon with the weeks and months lost and slipping away even now at the speed of molasses in the winter?
Mostly, we don’t wait at all. Mostly, we merely long after an ethereal normalcy. We do not know when we will return to normal or even if such a normal exists on our horizons. Yet, it is on that abstract horizon that we hang unfounded hope. We long for our nostalgic conception of that which was and its even more idealized form what could yet be again.
Sure, our status quo was overly busy and, somehow, at the same time, saw us too often idle, bored or overwhelmed into stasis at the sheer meaninglessness of it all. Sure, it was violent and unjust and careless of its impact on others and overly deferential to systems of power seen and unseen. Sure, these systems and their various, insidious techniques have “modified man’s very essence” as Jacques Ellul poignantly describes in his phenomenological masterpiece, A Technological Society:
“He was made to go six kilometers an hour, and he goes a thousand. He was made to eat when he was hungry and to sleep when he was sleepy; instead, he obeys a clock. He was made to have contact with nature and he lives in a world of stone. He was created with a certain essential unity, and he is fragmented by all the forces of the modern world.”
In other words, even pre-pandemic normal wasn’t normal. It wasn’t really normal or true or worthy of being wished back into being as we now wish these in-between times into the dustbin of our distracted, fragmented memories. In essence, our normal then was dominated by the same thing which dominates our in-between time today.
We longed and long with every fiber of our being towards a misdirected hope. We yearned for freedom or we pined after security — knowing but not fully accepting that both were illusions in a world which offers no true ability fully grasp either. We hoped our carefully laid plans and totalizing systems, our reified rationality or “techniques” as Ellul names them, would save us from the meaningless which had become our existence.
What we were really longing after was meaning, belonging, significance — love. What we really wanted was someone to hold; someone to laugh and cry with; someone to know and in that knowing catch a glimpse of what it means to be truly known apart from our marginal utility or social striving.
And now, many of those someones are gone. Some are lost to the virus; many more to the stress of this in-between time; almost all to the semi-permanent social distance which erects further the walls separating our longing, searching, empty souls.
We now lament in unison the easier access to those people in our lives which brought such beautiful, painful, messy hopeful glimpses of love — or even less transcendent forms of human interaction for that matter.
What then of the here and now? What of the costly precious moments we have left while the global system is still down on its knees? What now while we’re still stuck inside with limited access to our relationships or material distractions or new destinations to see and conquer and post about, hoping others might notice? How might we become, in this in-between time, something different, something healthier, something better postured towards our true longings?
Instead of another Netflix show, maybe now is the time to ponder the questions we were always afraid to ask. We miss easy access to people, but do we miss them as humans to be known, to hold, to long for, to be loved? Or do we miss them as props in our own selfish pursuits of transcendence, members of the rapt audience to the grand performances we believe our lives to be?
Instead of another bottle or more pills or another angry rant on social media or whatever poison numbs our pain most acutely, maybe now is the time to lean into that suffering. Maybe the in-between time is our opportunity to recognize that there is a plane of perseverance which we would otherwise never know were we not to live in a time and place which evokes such pain. If it does not break us, if it does not truly end us or cause irreparable damage, if it does not kill us, it may yet make us stronger. It might even offer glimpses of hope if we approach it with dignity and an eye for it.
Instead of ruminating on opportunities lost or goals left collecting dust or a life’s momentum totally killed by an unexpected global and personal tragedy, maybe now is the time to lean down and kiss that baby who is smiling there, naïve to the world burning around her as the sunlight falls softly on her head. For once, there is no pressure to be elsewhere. Indeed, there is nowhere else to be but here in this in-between moment with her.
Maybe now is the time to live and lean into those blessings of this in-between time which — like the ones of our now idealized pre-COVID world — we also likely won’t appreciate until they vanish. By only looking forward to a future which may or may not ever come to exist, we risk missing out on those moments which certainly do and are all around us if only we have the eyes to see.
Maybe now is the time to summon those last vestiges of perseverance and bits of character we thought left us long ago. Making the seemingly trivial yet eternally important choices will not come easy. This moment, these in-between times are undeniably difficult, but we might just survive if only we can find and remember a purpose worthy of our endurance.
Maybe now is the time to lean on our Emmanuel. Our ‘God with us’ once became human and remains in solidarity with our late-stage pandemic dregs. Indeed, He is with us in this and all unique and trying times of fatigue and weariness and sickness and eagerness to move beyond the challenge at-hand. He beckons us even now into His arms, into the grand adventure of practicing our faith and hope and love amidst life’s in-between times, these sacred moments of expectation.
Jacob Sims serves as International Justice Mission’s (IJM) National Director in Cambodia where he leads a team of investigators, lawyers, social workers, and others in the fight against labor exploitation. From 2015-2020 he led an international development consulting practice and served as adjunct faculty at the College of William & Mary—lecturing in courses on Education, Human Rights, Migration, and Global Health. Jacob previously led humanitarian programs in northern Myanmar and co-founded a social justice organization in eastern Uganda. He is currently preparing to publish his first book, WanderLOST: stories from the winding road to significance.