Listen: Serenity Now

As the virus continues to spread, how do we reckon with the reality of ongoing death and disruption?

On the latest episode of the podcast Social Distance, staff writer James Hamblin and executive producer Katherine Wells are joined by the public theologian Ekemini Uwan, who explains the idea of “radical acceptance.”

Listen to the episode here:

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What follows is an edited and condensed transcript of their conversation.

Katherine Wells: I want to talk to you about this idea you wrote about in your piece. It’s one thing to realize how the system works: This is how this country is working right now, these are the failures, these are the people being harmed. Once you do that, what is the next step? What does that look like?

Ekemini Uwan: It looks like: We begin to change our lives in service, not only to our loved ones, but also in service to our neighbors. Accepting reality would mean that I’m going to go to the grocery store only when I need to do that, because I’m considering the needs of somebody else. What about the grocery-store clerk that’s checking out my groceries? What does that mean to to look out for somebody that you do not know? That person is your neighbor. We are connected. And so what that person does impacts me.

Wells: So radical acceptance is about action?

Uwan: Yeah. Or even take another instance: We have over 100,000 people who have died from COVID-19. We’re gonna be barreling toward 200,000. My goodness—think about the grief that comes with that. Even grief is an act of radical acceptance, because accepting reality for what it is is hard. People are suffering. People are dealing with so many compounding issues. But denial just exacerbates our suffering. I think we see a lot of that on a macro level with the government.

Wells: Yeah. It feels like we don’t have a lot of good models for acceptance right now in the public. What I feel like I’m seeing is denial. A lot of it. Jim, what do you think?

James Hamblin: Well, I think when a person in your life dies or when there’s been a big natural disaster or an attack on a city and buildings are crumbled, then there’s this hard reality in front of you. We don’t have the physical evidence in front of us, and [the pandemic is] playing out on a timescale that makes it harder to grasp. In a situation like this one, how do you know when you’re at the point where you need to do radical acceptance?

Uwan: Yeah, I think in some ways it was well forced upon us. This pandemic really caused people to really ask some serious existential questions, like, Is this the end? At what point do we realize that losing over 100,000 people to a virus is not normal and it didn’t have to be this way? That has not been the case in South Korea. That hasn’t been the case in New Zealand. I think we really have got to reckon with this reality.

Wells: Right. At least at the federal level, we’re not having leaders model grief in a way that we’re used to seeing. So it sounds like we have to do this for ourselves, because there’s not someone showing you how we come together.

Hamblin: When I think of the role of religion in American life, it’s especially involved at life transitions—births and marriages and deaths—even for people who aren’t regularly religious. I’m wondering if we maybe need something now to mark a transition, a national radical-acceptance process.

Uwan: Yes. America is long overdue for a truth commission, a reconciliation—or conciliation, let’s say conciliation. Reconciliation implies that there was a time that we were together, or there was a time that we were unified, but there’s not really ever been a time. Even with this whole COVID-19, “we’re all in this together”—we’re not. It’s clear that we’re not in this together. And that [conciliation] would be freeing not only to black and brown people, but to white people as well. There are real chains of bondage here, and that’s because of the foundation. I’d also say that we do need something to mark the lives lost, some sort of memorial. That’s good for our souls. That’s good for our mental health, to be able to mark that and in some ways bring [us] closure. Something that marks a closure to the before so that we can move into this new future.

Wells: Something that I want to make sure we make clear is that sometimes when you just hear the word acceptance, that can feel pretty close to complacency or inaction. Can you explain the difference between radical acceptance and complacency?

Uwan: Yes. So you’re seeing [the world] for what it is in this moment but it doesn’t mean that you can’t try to change the next moment. I think that’s what we’re seeing now with the protests. I think generation upon generation of black people in this country have always been working to change the next moment. We’ve never had the privilege of denying our reality. We’ve never had the privilege of denying white supremacy. We’ve never had the privilege of denying racism. It’s so intrusive. It follows us into our homes. Breonna Taylor was shot eight times while she was asleep. Aiyana Stanley-Jones was killed years ago in Detroit in her sleep. Atatiana Jefferson. The list goes on and on. So, what do you do? You can’t escape that reality.

Hamblin: You mentioned South Korea. And I think about the difference in radical acceptance there versus here with regard to the virus. The last coronavirus hit South Korea hard and it did not hit us hard. We’ve been pretty much spared by a lot of recent outbreaks, and we had this exceptionalism of, well, somehow America is going to be okay.

Uwan: Well, I actually think that what we need as a nation is to confess and to reject American exceptionalism. And it’s so pervasive. I even alluded to it in the piece. I thought it would blow over. I thought, you know, a month or two and we’d move on, that it would be like some of the other viruses. I didn’t even realize that I had that American exceptionalism within me. That’s not okay. That’s wrong. I should care that the virus is claiming lives in China and in Italy even if it never reaches American shores. It did, but I should’ve cared even then. But that exceptionalism can harden us to the humanity of other people and to their concerns. None of us are really exempt from that. And it took this pandemic for me to even see how that ideology had crept into my own psyche.