Imagined Shared Experience

Our pastor in her sermon Sunday shared the observation that “this has been the Lentiest Lent we have ever Lented.”

But just as Lent differs for different people, so people are having vastly different experiences of these separated, staying at home for the sake of the pandemic times.

The connections we maintain these days – with our comments on the Facebook Live service and our images on Zoom and our phone calls and cards and texts and replies to [eww, but oh, well] posts on social media – underscore the differences for me.

People send up signal flares of anxiety, or frustration, or anger, or concern, picking their adjectives for the kinds of times “these times” are. Uncertain. Difficult. Fearful. Challenging. Whatever: those words say something about the person writing them, the experience they are having, the experience they describe as one “we all” share.

I think: perhaps not ALL of us are that anxious … frustrated … challenged.

I think, ashamed it has taken me this long to think of it: this would be a bad time to have problems with the people you live with.

I think: maybe “these times” are less different from all other times than we imagine, when it comes to this thing we call “shared experience.”

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Being all together in the same place with other people, tangibly and visibly participating in a shared ritual, creates a powerful sense that all the other people who are there together with me are having the same experience I’m having, right there and then. Not identical, I know that; when my mind wanders off to some memory triggered by some random word in the middle of the sermon, I don’t imagine everyone else wanders along with me. Not everyone is in the choir loft or the sound booth or the pulpit. But mostly, largely, “the same” experience.

I should know better, but I don’t. I feel accepted at church, so I’m always shocked to find out that someone else didn’t, no matter how often that happens. I think the order of service is meaningful, so hearing that someone doesn’t enjoy that music or respond to that scripture or see why we bother with the whole liturgical colors thing surprises me every time.

I forget – or don’t ask to be reminded – that our individual experiences are much more separate and distinct, even when we are all together in one place, than we usually acknowledge.

Shared ritual lets us imagine, without ever recognizing it as something we imagine, that we’ve shared an experience with others – however distinct, diverse and un-shared our actual individual experiences may be.[*]

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Communication, conversation, can disrupt that sense. Listening to people, to what they think and feel, to what they are going through. Hearing them say shocking, surprising things that you didn’t expect to hear.

These days, what we’ve been able to reconstruct of our shared ritual, our being all together in one place, has less shared ritual and more conversation in it. Maybe that’s because we’ve had to reconstruct it in space designed for conversation, using tools designed for making conversation happen to do that.

Or maybe not. Whatever the reason, I know that I’m noticing the absence of that unifying ritual surface more. I’m aware of the people who aren’t “there,” because the technology isn’t working for them. I’m aware of the ways my own pandemic experience differs or seems to differ from others’. I’m acutely aware that the price of admission to our shared “space” is exposure to the conversational miasma on email and [eww, but oh, well] Facebook. My mental ppe is frayed.

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Our pastor preached this Sunday on “doubting Thomas,” the annual gospel reading for the Second Sunday of Easter. We call him “doubting,” she said, but maybe he’s really more “demanding” – he just wants to have the same experience the other disciples share.

He just wants his own experience of the risen Christ.

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[*] This isn’t an original insight of mine. It’s Catherine Bell’s, in Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice (Oxford, 2009).

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Duccio_di_Buoninsegna Resurrection Appearance

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