We are now several weeks into a strange and bizarre new way of living as the novel coronavirus approaches what will hopefully be its apex. During this time my thoughts and prayers have returned often to the question of how I, Andrew Collins, can flourish during a time like this. As I’ve leaned into this question, I’ve noticed three streams of response emerge in my heart as I journey through this strange new world that has happened to us.
The first, and most obvious to me, is that of mortality, death, limitation. I think of the weighty, prescient timing of the outbreak in light of the church calendar observed by many Christian in liturgical traditions. On February 26 the season of Lent began. Those who attended Ash Wednesday services had ash marked on their foreheads and the following words spoken over their bodies: “Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.”
I have no doubt that our society, and in fact the entire world, is collectively more in touch with this reality right now than we have been in a long time—perhaps not since World War II. We are facing a threat that is both seen and unseen. We know it exists and the harm that it causes, but it is invisible to the naked eye. Disease could catch us anywhere. It could lie within us, symptom free, and spread through us into the body of another. The world is suddenly a dangerous place.
But the world has always been a dangerous place. Our bodies have always been fragile and finite, vulnerable to the whims of a distracted bus driver, a cancer diagnosis, a stray bullet, a heart attack striking out of thin air.
Beyond the short span of years we have on this earth, we are limited in other ways. Shelter in place orders have brought this truth to the forefront of our awareness. We cannot do many of the things that we love, that we once had the freedom to do. We cannot gather to pray together at the church down the street. We cannot get on an airplane, fly across an ocean, and feel the thrill of exploring strange new lands and cultures. We cannot step into our therapist’s office to weep. We cannot meet strangers in the park over a friendly pickup game of basketball.
Yes, we are not so free and autonomous, the possibilities not so endless, as they once seemed.
I do not think it is such a bad thing to see this and feel the check in our gut from this—the stifling lonliness as we sit alone in our apartment, the sense of being trapped in a handful of bedrooms with our family with no relief in the near future. In fact it can be, if we are willing to face it, the place where we begin to live life with greater fullness and sincerity.
I like how Annie Dillard puts it in An American Childhood:
Knowing you are alive is feeling the planet buck under you, rear, kick, and try to throw you; you hang on to the ring. It is riding the planet like a log downstream, whooping. Or, conversely, you step aside from the dreaming fast loud routine and feel time as a stillness about you, and hear the silent air asking in so thin a voice, Have you noticed yet that you will die? Do you remember, remember, remember? Then you feel your life as a weekend, a weekend you cannot extend, a weekend in the country.
We have been forced out of the “dreaming fast loud routine” that is the modern world. That much is true enough. Why not, then, pay attention to the stillness, and find ways to enter more deeply into this country weekend before the hours tick away?
In the past I might have concluded this essay here and let the existential message of death and finiteness be the last word. But I think there’s room in this space for more movement, for a dance of feelings and experiences. I think there’s room for us to let the highs and lows show up and speak their piece.
Have recognized that life is short, many of us feel that we now, thanks to shelter-in-place orders, have time to pursue things that we have long put off. Now, we tell ourselves, is the time to learn to play the piano, to get out our canvas and paints again, to become penpals with that friend from high school we lost touch with, to write the novel that’s been percolating for the last decade, to fan the fading embers of a once-vibrant marriage.
But the harsh, awful fact is that this epidemic is a traumatic event. The planet has bucked under us. We’re not living on the same earth that we were on two months ago. We’ve lost our footing. The rythms and liturgies of life have cut out. I am not a psychologist or the son of a psychologist, but I know that trauma does not bring out the best in us. It tends to have a regressive effect, resurfacing old wounds and old survival tactics.
An acquaintance of mine expressed this well in a Facebook post last month:
Go easy on yourself today. You’re not supposed to know how to do this. You’re not supposed to have all the answers or be totally peaceful and calm. This is new and uncertain and scary…
Your old patterns are gonna flare up. The ones you don’t like. The ones you wish would just go away already. The ways you avoid and escape and abandon yourself.
It’s enough right now just to notice them.
I see my old patterns flare up these days. I feel my existence sucked back into the orbit of glowing smartphone screens and self-aware Facebook posts and I hate it. As I scroll aimlessly, frictionlessly through social media, I feel the same restless impulses that I used to feel in my early twenties, always itching for another red notification, another blue dot, another buzz heralding the arrival of a new text message. I stay up past midnight playing a computer version of Axis and Allies against crappy AIs until I can hardly keep my eyes open, and then go to bed with that dull feeling of nothingness inside that lingers after wasted time. All the while a vertiable treasure trove of unread books sits within arms reach. I berate myself for wasting precious quarantine time, yet still the cycle goes on.
I have worked hard the past four years to pull away from this digital orbit but now it feels like I don’t have a choice. Better to Facetime a good friend than not speak to him at all, right? Better to ramp up my freelance work a bit and remain in decent financial shape so I’ll be okay as the economy slumps into a recession for who-knows-how-long, right?
Yes, I think so, but I still don’t like it.
I’ve often sung the refrain with Switchfoot: “I want to thrive, not just survive.” I sing it still, trying to stave off the old feelings of shame and self-loathing creeping up in my heart. In these moments I try to remember that sometimes our journey to thriving begins with naming that it’s okay to just survive, that our feelings and bodies are serving us and in some cases quite literally keeping us alive.
I recently rewatched Dunkirk, the World War II film about the miraculous evaculation of hundreds of thousands of British and French troops who would otherwise have been captured or killed by advancing Nazi armies. At the end of the film, as the soldiers return to the safe shores of England, an old blind man affirms them as he hands out blankets.
“Well done lads, well done,” he says as the soldiers pass by. “Well done lads.”
“All we did is survive,” one soldier replies, still reeling, no doubt, from memories of torpedoed navy vessels sinking into the sea, screaming dive bombers overhead, and body bags lining the beaches of Dunkirk. Surely he feels pathetic, impotent, cowardly. But the blind man’s response is as profound as it is simple.
“That’s enough,” he says. “Well done.”
Last week UN Secretary General António Guterres said the coronavirus outbreak is the biggest challenge facing the world since World War II. To use biblical language, the world is entering a time of trials and tribulations. There will be many moments, more for some of us than others, where it feels like we’re just getting by, just surviving.
I’m with the old man handing out blankets: that’s enough.
The third stream involves claiming and living into my own dignity, worth, and power as a human being. In the face of encroaching limitations and disruptive trauma, this takes me into a paradoxical space because I see myself and those around me being humbled and exalted at the same time. Yes, we are finite and limited, but that does not mean we need to throw up our hands in surrender and give up the power and volition that we do possess. Quite the opposite. Even though we’re isolated and separated from each other, our humanity is still on full display in profound, unique ways.
A remarkable thing happens when we name our own mortality. I like how Marilynne Robinson articulates this in her essay Proofs, where she considers a passage from 1 Peter:
All flesh is grass, and the beauty of it is like the flower of the field. In feeling the truth of such words we are seeing the world from a perspective like God’s. In feeling our unlikeness to the eternal we are experienceing the very height of our humanity—experiencing, that is, our ability to know far beyond our needs, our immediate circumstance, and to ponder existence itself. As we humble ourselves we are exalted.
Sit with that a moment. Read it again.
In the midst of much tragedy and death, this is a remarkable thing to consider. It underscores the reality that I can find new ways to seek out and experience life during this season, that I can choose to be in the world in a way that is both more human and somehow more divine even as the knawing anxiety betrays my vulnerability and the stay-at-home orders shock body and soul with the cold brevity of my finitness.
In this hour of loss and disconnection I see my own indomitable human spirit rise up and surface despite the tumultuous sea of overwhelmed hospitals, global upheaval, and economic recession that surrounds me. It rises as I dance alone in the kitchen to the beat of an indie pop song while making scrambled eggs for lunch. It rises when I leave an 80% tip on a to-go order at my local coffee shop—something I would rarely, if ever, do under “normal” circumstances. It rises when I bring home firewood, chopped up from damaged framing lumber at the lumber yard where I work, so that my roommates can have fires in the living room on cold, cloudy days as they work from home. It rises when I pray aloud a liturgy for medical providers, weeping in the car as I beg Jesus to reach out hands of healing and comfort to those suffering in isolation from COVID-19, cut off from friends and family.
In all of these moments I step into my own human dignity. Rather than shrink back in the face of a crisis that is outside of my control, I continue to make my own choices. I find new ways to live and move and have my being in the world. I exercise the power that I do have—power bestowed on me as an image bearer of God—to actually impact and change the universe, to play a part in someone else’s story, to catch the eye of God himself.
The coronavirus may be bringing about the end of life as we know it in many ways, but it is far from the end of life. Like a seed that falls to the earth and dies before it sprouts, perhaps there is a time to die before we live. Wouldn’t that be something?
To despair and numb ourselves to the weight of the world’s brokenness is a very human response. To hope defiantly that “all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well” is also human. We do both all the time. I for one intend to ride these waves as they come, trusting that I am, in fact, living out a story, for to be alive is to be in motion, a tender shoot unfurling and reaching recklessly up towards the sky.