Writer Bruce Feiler On Using Rituals To Navigate Times Of Turmoil

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(Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images)
(Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images)

Spring is a time for new beginnings in both the spiritual and natural sense. But this year, many Americans are transitioning to an entirely new reality amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Social distancing, isolation and economic hardship are putting a strain on people’s emotional and mental well-being. Writer Bruce Feiler, who wrote "Walking the Bible" among other books, says we are in the middle of what he calls a “lifequake.”

Lifequakes are “these forceful bursts of change in one's life that lead to periods of upheaval, transition, renewal,” he says. “Lifequakes are events that change you, and I think that we all are coming to grips with the fact that this is going to change all of us.”

Feiler says it’s difficult to cope with the uncertainty and fear of this moment because these lifequakes trigger humility in our worldviews.

“The word I keep coming back to is humility, because if you haven't had any of your bedrock beliefs challenged by this, then really you're not paying attention,” he says. “This is a virus of the body, but it's also a virus of the mind.”

Interview Highlights 

On how this moment is challenging our beliefs

“I've spent the last few years traveling across the country, interviewing people, collecting life stories of people who went through experiences like my cancer — lifequakes of any kind. And I asked them, like, what is the big storyline in your life? Is it work or love, identity, body, beliefs? And this experience now, it affects all of those. It affects our work, our relationships, our identity.

“I mean, think about it. If you're an activist liberal, well, guess what? Government has failed us on many levels. If you're a free-market conservative, corporations have failed us. If you're a techno-utopian, technology has failed. So to me, no matter where you look, there is something in this experience that shatters your beliefs. And that's why I think we should all approach it, especially in this season of meaning that we're entering as a time to rethink our most basic values.”

On the importance of ritual in times of turmoil 

“I think we go back to ritual. That's what is grounding to us. So we kind of sacrifice these moments when things change. So my thought would be what ritual is most meaningful to your family? Is it ritual food? Is a ritual music? Is it church? Is it a Seder? Is it cleaning closets? Is it playing with puzzles? Whatever it might be. And look at what's gone viral on the internet in recent days. Group singing Beethoven's 9th. People baking sourdough bread. New ways of celebrating birthdays. So here we are at the beginning of spring. Passover and Easter, there's no evidence that it happened at this time of year. They were put there by these traditions because we know this transition moment from winter to spring demands ritual. So find something that will give you structure in this unstructured time and turn to that. I think people will find it grounding.”

On how to embrace the transition 

“To me, this phase, like the first phase of these transitions is saying goodbye. The second phase is this kind of messy middle. And the first thing that it does involve is a period of shedding. And as he says, all great faith traditions have this. So for the Hindus, it's forest dwelling and for, you know, the Buddha went off into the wilderness himself. The Abrahamic traditions have this kind of desert period, 40 days in the case of Jesus, 40 years in the case of the Israelites. And we go into this openness, and what do we have to do? We have to shed what came before it. It might be comfort. It might be complacency. It may be habits. It may be who's my friend and who's my enemy? Sort of old kind of patterns of conflict that we have that we need to reconsider now that we're inside the home. So I think a way to embrace the sabbatical, the openness, this period in the wilderness is to identify something that maybe we didn't particularly like about ourselves that say, 'Oh, we don't have time to deal with that,' and shed. That's sort of the first step of getting rid of the old and then opening the way for what's going to come next.”

On how creativity emerges during uncertain times

“One of the ways that we can contribute to the global healing is by turning to creativity, which is I think the next thing. You shed, but then there is sort of this act of creativity. If you think about, again, the biblical stories, the great breakthroughs are when Abraham goes forth into the wilderness, when the Israelites go into the desert and have the Ten Commandments. When Israel gets kicked out of Jerusalem, they invent Shabbat. And the same thing happens with Christianity in those early vulnerable years. So, again, now is a time to be creative, and that's a way to contribute to the global healing that we all need.”

On deciding how to write this story 

“We all have to write the story of how we are getting through this and how we are going to get through this. Passover and Easter are the great narrative events of the sacred calendar. We are asked to relive those stories, re-experience those stories, and those stories can have two different endings. People have looked at personal stories. You can have redemptive narratives or you can have contamination narratives. We know in the past that people have used the black death to blame Jews or lepers. We know with HIV people were blamed and the same with Ebola.

“So we have a choice now. How are we going to write this story? Is it going to be one of hatred and division and blame or is it going to be one of unity and togetherness? And to me, that is the lesson of these great religious narratives as we come into this season, is that the great narratives, family, religious, personal, they find hope in the midst of despair. And we may not be there yet. We may be still in the early phases of this when we're saying goodbye and shedding and finding our creativity. But the story is not over, and we're gonna get to write the ending. And the greatest ending to any story is to go back to where it began and say once upon a time. It's to start another story. We just have to imagine the better ending.”

Read excerpts of Feiler's books and hear previous interviews here

Alex Ashlock produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku Ray. Samantha Raphelson adapted it for the web.  

This segment aired on April 2, 2020.


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