Life As We’ve Known It Is Canceled… And That May Be Okay

Are you still shocked by how drastically our lives have changed in these past few months? I am. For most of us, confined to our homes, our formerly free and bustling lives are at a screeching halt. For lots of others deemed to be “essential workers,” every day is a perilous encounter with an anxious, volatile public. For a rapidly growing number of folks filing for unemployment benefits, life is spent every day on the phone for hours on-end or navigating a hastily constructed government website on the verge of crashing, desperately striving for the means to put food on the table and pay off a growing stack of overdue bills.

As for me, my “all important” planner which used to be chock-full of meetings, appointments, church events, worship services, my son’s Special Olympics games, and lots of other family happenings is now a loose assortment of Zoom meetings and phone appointments. Meanwhile those once-immovable, sacrosanct functions like Sunday morning worship services, Holy Week services, and an all-important annual conference I am required to attend have all been deleted— canceled, indefinitely postponed, or pre-recorded for live streaming. Simply unreal.

Once in a while, I break from home confinement to venture out to the store for groceries or medications. Every trip feels like a special ops strike force mission. I glove up, mask up, and make my way into a store plastered with signs enforcing social distancing, masks, and product rationing. Grabbing up whatever is left on the shelves, I rush to the checkout line, stand on my socially distanced floor marker, and above all else, avoid getting anywhere near those other masked shoppers who are just as eager to stay away from me. The word “surreal” doesn’t begin to describe all this.

Welcome to life in the midst of a once-in-a-century, global health pandemic. Life as we’ve known it is canceled. And when we begin to slowly emerge from this COVID-19 crisis, our lives will look very different. Again, because it’s worth repeating: life as we once knew it has been permanently canceled. Don’t delude yourself into thinking that one day we’ll all “get back to normal,” whatever that was. While it remains to be seen what life on the other side of COVID-19 will look like, perhaps we can take some cues from what’s happening right now to begin to sketch a picture of it.

But before we get to what the future holds, let’s pause a moment to take stock of how we’re feeling right now. How are you feeling? I would imagine it’s some murky stew of loss, anxiety, boredom, thankfulness, bewilderment, hopefulness, disorientation, sadness, anger, frustration, and dread. All of this is understandable. These are all the common feelings of grief.

After all, we are living through a sudden, traumatic death— the death of life as we had known it. Grief and bereavement always follow death, and the feelings I listed above are very much what grieving people move through. (Notice, I did not list stress. Stress is often a socially convenient cover word for the real feelings we have but can’t or won’t acknowledge.)

So what’s next? What lies beyond the shadows of death?

While fully appreciating that we all hold different spiritual beliefs, I’d like to gently offer a Christian paradigm to our current situation. It’s called life-death-resurrection. We live. We die. God raises us from death into a new life that somewhat resembles the old, but has been radically transformed by death and resurrection into something freer, more powerful, more lively, more loving, more purposeful, and no longer confined to the restrictions and limitations of the old.

You don’t need to be a Christian to see this life-death-resurrection pattern everywhere you look. We see it in the pattern of the seasons. We see it when a seed dies and is buried, sprouting into a new plant that yields lots of new seeds (see John 12:33-36). We see life-death-resurrection when a person is transformed by trauma into a new person, recognizable but radiantly different, too.

Yet we Christians take this a giant leap further. We believe that life-death-resurrection is best understood within the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In our Eucharistic celebrations, we call this the Paschal Mystery and “the great mystery of faith”: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. We adore the Christ as the perfect icon and the perpetual, divine flow within every incarnation of life-death-resurrection. This incarnate, resurrected Christ openly calls each of us to share in his own life, death, and resurrection by taking up his cross and following him through life into death and resurrection, which happens partly now and completely fulfilled in the life to come.

But again, even if you don’t embrace Christian faith as I do, I would invite you to see what’s happening in our lives and world as a significant incarnation of life-death-resurrection. The life we lived just a few months ago has died. We’re now living in a Good Friday-Holy Saturday mode of sitting quietly in the tomb of what used to be. We have every reason to hope for an Easter Sunday-like resurrection into a new life of freedom, wisdom, compassion towards suffering, and a greater capacity to absorb and give unconditional love.

So what might resurrection from the COVID-19 crisis look like, assuming that we’ve fully died to the life we used to live, grieved it, and are ready to rise up into something new?

I’d like to propose seven things:

  • We would see time very differently. Time would no longer be a commodity to be used up, but a gift to enjoy. For most of us, how we’re spending our time now is remarkably different. Our pace is slower, scattered and less predictable. This dramatic deceleration of pace encourages us to focus more on being than doing. Living in slower motion, operating from a sense of being, we can then become far more aware and present to ourselves, to others, and to God. We could become more engaged, understanding, and empathetic listeners who cultivate healthier relationships.
  • We can live with far less. Disastrous economic upheaval and scarcer resources naturally force people to live frugally, conscientiously, and gratefully. The Builder generation, those who lived through the Great Depression and World War II, learned these lessons well. Perhaps it’s time for us to learn them, too. Living with less and unburdened by the compulsion for more and more has consistently proven to make people happier, balanced, freer, and more generous.
  • We can become emotionally and spiritually mature. In our old pattern of life before COVID-19, most all of us lived as worker-consumers which kept us far too busy, overly stimulated, addicted to all kinds of things, and quite frankly, spiritually and emotionally immature. Too many adults do not emotionally mature much past middle-school development. That may sound harsh, but it’s no exaggeration. I would define a majority of today’s adults as self-absorbed, image-conscious, politically, religiously, and culturally cliquish while hostile to people outside of their cliques, erratic, largely self-unaware, compulsive, and relationally insecure and stunted. Furthermore, we applaud this kind of immaturity in media celebrities, entertainment, in politics, and in the people we elect for public office. We award them with money and votes. Yet now, with most of us confined to our homes with a whole lot more time on our hands and with significant, life-altering challenges we cannot ignore, we can finally dig down deeper within ourselves, and come to grips with the wounds, pains and fears we have been carrying but unable to confront and process. In this healing, we can unearth love and strength we never knew we had. In the midst of all this, we can re-discover and develop a more lasting, significant relationship with God. Through reading, prayer, contemplation and meditation, therapy, and spiritual direction, we can finally grow up to become the mature, happy, and wise people God has created us to be.
  • Health care can become more community-centered. Up until now, health care has been hyper-individualized. We’ve been primarily concerned with our own immediate health and the health of our families. But like anything else, when we move from I/me to us/we, we only become stronger together. Because of our new normal of social distancing, extra sanitation practices, and greater health awareness in general, COVID-19 is inviting our society to better value and protect the health and wellbeing of the whole community, not just our own. The results of this new consciousness in terms of practice, policy, and law could be staggering. We could accelerate the availability and excellence of health care for all of our neighbors, especially if we can take extra measures now to protect primary medical care practices who are suffering.
  • We can make far better use of communication technology. For years now, we’ve been moving at a buggy’s pace towards telecommuting and teleworking which we know would significantly reduce the time and energy resources we consume, while greatly decreasing our impact on an overly-burdened transportation infrastructure and the environment. COVID-19 has quickly completed that shift. Have you seen the pictures of major cities with less smog and emptier roads? There’s no reason we couldn’t continue to vastly shrink our commuter footprint by taking advantage of the telecommunication capacity we have in place now. And if we could lessen our reliance on fossil fuels to do much less traveling, all the better.
  • Public schooling can become both home and classroom-based. In recent decades public schooling has become largely test-driven and teacher-centered, all aimed at meeting national and state education standards. That has left parents and families increasingly sidelined in their children’s education. (If you don’t believe me, ask anyone over the age of 25 to explain Common Core math.) Very suddenly now, we are discovering a new partnership between school administrations, faculty, parents, and families. If students could do more learning at home, if parents could keep a more flexible work schedule by telecommuting, and if public schools could retain parents and families as co-educators through online instruction, imagine the tremendous burden we could lift from cash-strapped school systems, overly crowded school buildings and school transportation systems.
  • Faith communities can become more nimble, authentic, and community-based. Before COVID-19, the name of the game for most faith communities had been “attract people to our religious buildings, consume our religious products, and help us pay for it.” It’s admittedly self-centered and very expensive. Community presence and service has always played second fiddle to our frenzied efforts to attract people to buy up our religious wares. Well, those unholy games are over. COVID-19 has quickly morphed faith communities into nimble, local community and home-based service stations that make use of every bit of available technology and practical strategies to connect to the wider world. More faith communities are responding to the needs of the poor with food drives, financial assistance, and justice work. They are re-framing their new online worship services to be more timely, relevant, honest, and intimately personal amongst a vast, more interactive population than they’ve ever had before. Speaking for the church, we’re finally learning that the church is a people, not a building. (We used to say that before, but only half-heartedly. Now we’re living it.)

I may be wrong about some of these things, or even many of them, but I sure hope not. Let’s put it this way: we have every opportunity to grow into these new ways of life which are right in front of us, unfolding into a significant, life-giving transformation of our old lives. If we can work through the discomfort of the liminal space we’re in now– as in a new, uncertain, painful, messy, and disjointed interim time between old and new– then God can certainly raise us up into a powerful, new life that dwarfs the old by comparison.

In the meantime, let us all give ourselves plenty of time and space to be, to explore, to grieve, to struggle, to learn, to create, to discover, to experiment, to fail, dust ourselves off, and try again, and to dream, not in a nostalgic longing of our old way of life, but in hopeful expectancy of life to become, in the midst of and on the other side of COVID-19.

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