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FOR THE LIVING OF THESE DAYS

April 26, 2020

The current pandemic has required that many of us revise our habits. My brother-in-law said that he had no problem remembering to wash his hands. But, he found it much more difficult to remember not to touch his face. Then, with his typical dry sense of humor, he commented, “I figured out that I can’t touch my face if I hold a glass of wine in each hand.” That is Clare’s brother, and he is definitely not a Southern Baptist.

When I was studying for the ministry, my professor of preaching, Dr. John Claypool, taught a valuable lesson. “To be effective in the pulpit, we must listen to our inner tremors. If a sermon speaks to our own soul, it is more likely to resonate with the people in our congregation.”

Ernest Hemingway offered similar advice to writers. “Write hard and clear about what hurts.”  It is not always easy to be in touch with what is stirring within our hearts. At times it is difficult to discern what and where the hurt is. Such intimate empathy often eludes us. Not so in these days of a global pandemic.

 The outbreak of the coronavirus has made a global impact. This week the number of confirmed cases worldwide surpassed 2.5 million, with more than 170 thousand deaths. In this country, life has changed for almost all of us.

Sheltering in place and social distancing have become the new normal. Many have been quarantined. Many more have experienced uncomfortable isolation.

Boredom has become pervasive.  The French call it ennui, a feeling of listlessness and dissatisfaction arising from a lack of occupation or excitement. In our English language, there are numerous synonyms – tedium, lethargy, restlessness, weariness, sluggishness, malaise, uneasiness, despair, dejection. Apart from the disease itself, these symptoms may be considered side effects of the coronavirus.

Another common reaction to these confining circumstances is increased anxiety. Anxiety is a natural response to stress. It’s a feeling of fear or apprehension about what lies ahead. With the pandemic comes much uncertainty. Will I or a loved one contract the virus? Will I lose my job or have a reduction in income? Will I be able to protect and care for the people I love? The level of uncertainty raises our anxiety exponentially. People who typically have a low anxiety threshold are especially vulnerable during these times.

Grief is normal when we face any loss. Our spiritual and social customs for facing bereavement include human contact, touches, and embraces that are precluded by our protective need for distance.  

A young mother, quarantined and wearing a mask, said to me, “I just wish I could hug and kiss my children. They don’t understand why I have to keep my distance.”

A grandmother confined to her home said, “I thought having to miss my hair appointment was difficult, but celebrating a grandchild’s birthday over ZOOM was much harder. We wished that we could all be together.”

A friend told me about a person in another state who lost both their mother and their father within twelve hours. Both were elderly, and both died from the virus apparently transmitted to them at a funeral for a church member. Imagine the grief within that family!

Anger is a secondary emotion, a normal defense against a perceived threat. Clearly, COVID-19 presents a danger to us all. When anger flares, it may be directed against a group of people whom we hold responsible for the outbreak. Anger may be leveled against medical professionals or politicians, against pharmaceutical companies or employers. I recently witnessed a rant against people who hoard toilet paper.

Boredom, anxiety, grief, and anger are all normal reactions to our limited interaction with family and friends. I recall the soliloquy spoken by Macbeth in William Shakespeare’s tragic drama by the same name. 

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

To the last syllable of recorded time;

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

Life is but a walking shadow, a poor player,

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

            The bard, speaking through the Scottish King, summarizes many of the negative emotions that accompany the pandemic. What is the alternative to this cluster of disquieting feelings?

When I was in seminary, I read Man’s Search for Meaning by Dr. Viktor Frankl. Frankl was a Viennese psychiatrist in the tradition of Sigmund Freud. As a Jew, he faced the same antiSemitism and persecution experienced by other members of the European Jewish community. He was arrested, imprisoned, and transported to the Auschwitz death camp in occupied Poland.

When an inmate in a concentration camp, Frankl took his imprisonment as an opportunity to observe human behavior under the most severe conditions. He concluded that humans are motivated in one of three ways. Some seek pleasure. Some are driven by the need to be productive. A third group are those who search for meaning in life.

In the harsh environment of the concentration camp, the pleasure-seekers quickly discover that there is no pleasure to be had. They are the first to fall into despair and die. Those who find their value in what they can produce soon learn that in the oppressive life in the death camp, their life has no value. They are among the next to give up and die. The people who can find meaning even in suffering are the most likely to survive.

As a physician, Frankl himself felt compelled to offer comfort to his fellow inmates. Without medicine or medical supplies, he would sit by the beds of those who were dying, cooling their fevered brow with wet cloths. For others, Frankl would pick the lice from their bodies. He found meaning in watching a tree outside the fence go through the seasons with the realization that the same God who created and sustained the tree could do the same for him. All the while, he made his observations, recording them on scraps of paper.

After his release, Frankl wrote his book. There he concluded, “Everything can be taken from a (person) but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”    

Did you get that? Attitude is ours to control. We can view tomorrow with despair, as Macbeth did or we can adopt the attitude of Little Orphan Annie,

The sun will come out tomorrow

So ya gotta hang on ‘till tomorrow

Come what may

Tomorrow! Tomorrow!

I love you tomorrow!

You’re always a day away

Better, still, is the attitude of the Psalmist. “This is the day the Lord has made;

We will rejoice and be glad in it.” (Psalm, 118:24)

Even though so much about our routine has changed, we still can find ways to rejoice. Try to make these a part of your new routine each day.

  1. Do something that makes you laugh. Read a book, watch a television program or a movie, or talk to a friend by telephone. Hebrew wisdom affirms that laughter is the best medicine. Humor has no harmful side effects.
  2. Sing, whistle, or make music, even if you can’t carry a tune in a bucket. The goal is to make your heart sing. Take time to listen to your favorite music.
  3. Do something that refreshes your soul. Take a walk, do yoga, cook something delicious, paint a picture, snap a photograph, write a poem, work in the garden, or anything that prompts your creativity.
  4. Do something that encourages another person. Write a note, send an e-mail, make a phone call. Encouraging others has a boomerang effect. It will come back to you as encouragement.
  5. Pray. This is the single most important thing we can do, especially if our prayers are inclusive and offered with thanksgiving.

This week I spent an afternoon on our backporch with our granddaughters. We enjoyed a grilled cheese sandwich for lunch. Then we watched a pair of bluebirds feeding their new fledglings.  We played a simple game identifying birds by their colors, and then by their songs. We listened to the breeze blowing our windchimes.  

When the girls went down from the porch to play, I stayed alone to pray. With a heart filled with gratitude, I interceded for our family, for medical professionals, for decision-makers, and for leaders at all levels of government. I prayed those who are unemployed, those who are sick, and those who are bereaved. I prayed for all you who read these words. I concluded my prayer with words from a favorite hymn written by Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick.

God of grace and God of glory

On Thy people pour Thy power.

                        ….

Fears and doubts too long have bound us

Free our hearts to work and praise

Grant us wisdom

Grant us courage

For the living of these days.

Amen

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