As one who identifies with the label “writer” more than with any other category, I feel pressure to find words for the experience of living in a pandemic. As a deeply spiritual person, I expect I should be able to wrench some meaningful, theological perspective – something that comforts or inspires. As a person in long-term recovery, I believe I should at least have experience, strength, and hope to share.
I can’t. I don’t. I’m sorry.
I know that when faced with a crisis or some big loss or obstacle, I rise to the challenge. I thrive on the adrenaline of the issue, as painful as it may be. I connect best with God from the depths of sorrow. In desperation, I receive the grace to respond, even if it is only by embracing my powerlessness (not an act to be dismissed as easy). The tears fall freely; the wails escape my throat when I’m alone. Both bring some relief, some solace, some fuel for the soul.
This pandemic is probably the most impactful crisis our globe has experienced, certainly in my lifetime. And in response, I mostly feel . . . hollow. Numb. Or (expletive!) angry.
I breathe with an undercurrent of guilt. Personally, I am remarkably unaffected by COVID-19. I can work from home, I wasn’t one to be out and about much anyway, and I and those I love are healthy and financially secure. I don’t even know anyone who has been directly affected, except for one niece who tested positive but wasn’t desperately ill.
Bethesda Workshops is adjusting to the new worldscape and moving our core programs online. We’re able to continue helping hurting people, and online workshops will provide the income required to survive. We hear from people who have lost their jobs, and the ministry is blessed to be able to offer them help at a greatly reduced fee and extended payment terms.
My privileged status generates as much shame as gratitude. It’s a weird kind of survivor guilt. Why am I so lucky to be healthy, have a good job, and to enjoy access (albeit remotely) to all that I need? It feels silly and unspeakably selfish to realize that my biggest losses from coronavirus are from touch deprivation (dear God, I miss the hugs from my dear ones!) and a chronic back and shoulder ache from sitting for hours in a non-ergonomic chair. It sounds pathetic when I type it out loud.
And yet . . . As a mental health professional, I know that loss is loss and grief is grief. Recently, I read a wonderful article that described the differences in types of crises and humans’ responses. The drama of war is terrible, but also energizing. It typically creates a fight or flight response, which pumps adrenaline and cortisol throughout the system. In contrast, this virus enemy is completely insidious, stealthy, invisible. Most of us don’t see, feel, touch it, and are untouched by it. Yet it’s out there, we know – chronically, unendingly (it seems) out there. In the face of a chronic, especially largely unseen stressor, many of us tend to freeze.
We can’t get our hands around it, only to wash them incessantly. We can barely get our minds around it, at least those of us fortunate enough to be spared personal witness to the war zones of hospitals or nursing homes. So we shut down, because to let in the horror, both human and economic, is too much, especially if there is precious little we can do to abate these consequences.
How then do we cope? My best offering is to look for the simple assurances that all will be well. Most days I’m blessed to find them, although it’s harder than it used to be. I notice hopeful witnesses mostly in nature, which hasn’t been an option lately in the way I’ve come to depend on. I walk miles in my neighborhood because the parks where I hike are closed or the one that remained open is too crowded on narrow trails. I’m outdoors, but the experience isn’t the same. I tap on my favorite picture from my favorite trail and look at it often as I walk, which definitely isn’t the same, either, but hey, I’m trying. Still, I am delighted by birds in the trees and blooming flowers bent by the recent storms, but not broken.
I read from scientific sources I trust and try to discipline myself to avoid clicking on the crazy stuff. That’s what makes my anger boil, which isn’t helpful since anger is already my default reaction to lots about life. It does feel energizing, to be honest, but it comes with a nasty crash. Instead, I watch videos of the helpers, the pieces about the creative kindness of strangers and friends. I listen to music that soothes or sometimes jazzes me up, like Motown.
I actually picked up my Bible this morning, my real Bible, not the version I have on my phone. It’s the one I’ve had for almost 30 years, filled with scores of papers tucked between its thin pages, and protected by a well-worn zippered leather cover. It’s full of highlights and notes to myself and dried flowers that unexpectedly brought tears. Just the weight of it in my hand is comforting, vastly different from reading the same passages on a tiny screen. I think I’ll hold a physical Bible more often.
I see the pictures of how our Mother Earth is repairing herself when unmolested by humans’ intrusion and marvel at her possibility of healing when given a chance. I watch the signs of spring unfolding and remember that year after year rebirth happens, even in the time of coronavirus.
I’ve been concerned about my beloved oak tree in the garden at Bethesda Workshops, which was planted as a sapling this time last year. Despite the early, warm spring, it hadn’t developed buds by the last time I was there. My master-gardener friend kept assuring me it would leaf in due time, but I admit I was beginning to doubt.
Then yesterday, when I went to our building and looked out the huge paned windows at our garden, not only had the slender oak tree budded, but it was full of brilliant green leaves. I went outside to touch them and they were soft, but strong. In the moment, it was enough – even in the days of coronavirus.
Maybe that’s the best response: Watch for, or better yet, create something positive, no matter how mundane.
Marnie C. Ferree