Same Storm, Different Boats
I suppose we all mark the beginning of the pandemic that we’ve all been living through by the date that we first felt its effects in a way that altered the patterns of our lives. For me, today marks the beginning of month 3 of the pandemic. On March 16, I sat in Spencer's Coffee Shop in front of my laptop working on the piece of writing that I’ve been occupied with over the past year, a cup of dark roast with extra ½ and ½ beside me. The next day, Spencer’s was closed for indoor dining as were Starbucks and the Barnes & Noble Café, my other trusty writing spots. Suddenly, the world was different.
I’m sure we all have our own stories. For some, it was the day we were first told to wear face masks at our work sites. For some, it’s when they first asked a neighbor “How do I get a face mask?” For others, it might have been a far more serious question: “Can I visit my mother now that she’s been hospitalized?” Or, “How can I arrange for child care now that my children have been released from school and I still have to go to work?” It’s been suggested that “We’re all in the same boat,” but as a perspicacious Facebook meme has it, “We’re all in the same storm, but in different boats.” The question I think we should consider today is “What can we do to both survive and to thrive during this very difficult time?” The challenge I feel today can be summarized in a version of the quote from Jesus in Matthew, Chapter 28, verse 11: “Come to me all who are heavily burdened and I will do my best to refresh you.”
What is the boat you find yourself in as we enter the third month of this storm? For some, the release from the usual spate of activities has provided a welcome respite, an opportunity to spend time with family members, especially children, and a time to pursue personal interests that are usually relegated to the sidelines by responsibilities. Some friends of mine have been able to work from home-- that’s been a pleasant change. Some have had work hours reduced drastically, but still have their full paycheck coming in. They are living in a different storm than those who are out of work and waiting for their unemployment insurance to come through. Some small business owners continue to pay staff, though many of those staff members have been laid off; they know that they can’t do this forever. Businesses in Tennessee have reopened; employees can no longer collect unemployment benefits if they feel their health will be endangered by going back to work. They’re forced to choose between their health and a paycheck. The injustice that lies at the heart of a heartless economic system has been laid bare. Some of us are furious. Others just feel defeated. Some of us bounce between those two extremes and experience a range of other emotions, as well.
I invite us all to take a breath and think of how this pandemic is affecting various classes of folks.
People living alone.
People suffering from anxiety and depression.
People living in nursing homes.
People housed in jails or prisons.
People in high risk categories for severe disease and death: those over age 60, those dealing with hypertension, cardiac disease, lung disease, cancer, diabetes, and obesity.
People working on the front lines of the battle in hospitals: doctors, nurses, certified nurses’ assistants, nurse practitioners, first responders.
People in “essential” positions-- grocery store clerks, people stocking the shelves, store managers, department managers, cooks, drive-through restaurant servers, care providers in nursing homes, public transportation personnel, delivery truck drivers, meat processing plant workers. Think, especially, of those working in those positions without adequate personal protection equipment or those who only recently got such equipment.
Now, think of those who got laid off, more than thirty-six million of them, who are trying to make ends meet on half the income they are used to.
And think of those whose positions were abruptly terminated with no financial compensation at all.
Think of those whose living situations have been radically altered, who are forced to move in with relatives in quarters that are far from ideal.
One of my responses when I think of people in such circumstances is an upwelling of compassion for them in their struggle. Another response is to feel gratitude that I don’t have such a difficult circumstance confronting me. My social security check continues to come in, my living expenses have probably decreased as I stay at home more, eat out less, buy coffee at coffee shops not at all. I feel a greater sense of peace and being centered when I realize how much worse it could be. Actually, I feel a greater sense of solidarity with others now when so many people have adopted my stay-at-home lifestyle! I call this “relativizing” my pain, recognizing that, compared to others, I don’t have it all that bad-- though I desperately miss opportunities to socialize with friends.
And yet, this “relativizing” does not work for everybody. When I spoke to a family member about framing my experience this way, she took offense. Though I was only reporting my own experience, she viewed such a perspective as minimizing her own pain and anguish. And here is a place to stop and reflect on something that we need to stop and reflect on more often than we do. People are different. We have different constitutions, different metabolisms, different upbringings, different philosophies, different ways of adjusting to what life throws at us. What works for me does not work for everyone.
When asked what is the worst grief one can suffer, a wise person once said “Your own.” We all have our own griefs and comparing our grief to another’s will not be profitable, though comparing how we are situated may be helpful. We are not all well equipped to deal with grief. And, we should be clear, it is grief that we are all feeling, though that grief may be at different levels for each of us. Grief, as we’ve learned from Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s work on death and dying, has stages. The emotional turmoil we may find ourselves going through during this time reflects the stages of grief we are making our way through. In a way, though it may be difficult to see it, what we are going through is an opportunity for growth, though so baldly put, that might seem presumptuous and glib. Think about it, though. If we don’t learn to adapt to a situation beyond our control, we won’t survive, we won’t thrive, we won’t grow. Finding the resources that help us make our way through the seeming morass is, by definition, a sign of growth.
Last Sunday marked the eleventh anniversary of my first time speaking from the pulpit to this congregation. Charlie Pickle was the chair of the search committee that decided to nominate me as your minister. During the first year or two of my ministry, as I struggled sometimes to make sense of the challenges I was presented with, I would meet from time to time with Charlie to seek his advice and wisdom. As we sat down together, his first question to me was always the same: “What are you up against?” It was a caring and supportive way to begin a conversation. And that’s our question today, a broader question, though-- one that asks both “What are we up against?” as individuals and “What are we up against?” as a society. It will take compassion to answer each question, compassion for ourselves as individuals and compassion with how others respond, others living under different conditions than we are, others facing different levels of challenge, others making different choices.
I wish I could find the box that popped up on Facebook a week or two ago. Since I can’t, I’ll just have to approximate what it said. It listed four categories of behavior which, essentially, correlated to varying levels of tolerance for risk.
Level “0” includes those persons who are responding to the threat of infection during this pandemic by strictly sheltering in place. They never leave the home. Grocery orders are placed with delivery services. Friends can drop things off, but they won’t come to the door. They don’t go outside.
Level “1” includes folks who stay sheltered in place most of the time, but go out at quiet times for a walk or other form of exercise or just to enjoy the weather. They wear a face mask at all times.
Level “2” includes folks who go out for exercise and who shop once or twice a week, wearing a face mask.
Level “3” includes people who do the Level “2” things and also feel comfortable taking walks with friends while wearing a face mask and keeping a physical distance of 6 feet or more.
Level “4” includes people who carry on with whatever activities are still available in the same way they did before the pandemic forced governments to impose restrictions on what we had come to think of as “normal” activities.
I think it’s helpful for us, first of all, to determine what level we find ourselves in. I have at least one friend who is clearly in Level 0. The people I interact with most often in social media are in Level 2 (some say “2.5”). I’m probably in Level 3, though I can think of only 4 times I’ve engaged in this kind of “masked and distant” socializing. I see a good number of people in Level 4-- young people hanging out on the WKU campus, others taking walks and shopping in groups. I’m comfortable with the choices that people in the first four levels are making. I’m impatient and sometimes angry with the people living at Level 4.
We all have a tendency to pass judgment. We all feel that our choices are responsible and that other choices are either too restrictive or irresponsible. It’s human to pass judgment. But, I encourage us to be careful about this. There is a culture war going on as well as a “war against the coronavirus.” It’s been going on for a long time and the sides have become more polarized as the years have gone on. It boils down to a clash between individual liberty and social responsibility which some, unfortunately, translate to “freedom vs. tyranny.” We’ve all seen it play out on social media and on more traditional media of communication.
I have little doubt that most of us here broadly condemn the behavior of people acting as if there is no danger in going about in the world as if no pandemic existed. I expect that I, myself, am judged for some of the choices I make. But calling people “idiots” does not help. Shaming does not help. If anything, it may make things worse by causing people to be less visible in their violation of the new social norms, thus providing false reassurance to the rest of us.
Emotions are high. We’ve lost the anchor of normality. Uncertainty is the condition of the day and uncertainty leads to emotional instability and, often, emotional volatility.
The government has failed to respond in a timely way. There’s been a failure of national leadership. The responsibility for leadership has been passed to state and local governments. States have been forced to bid against one another for testing equipment and personal protective equipment. The federal government, it seems, has bid against states and secured equipment that is then distributed as a form of political favoritism. The President issues guidelines and then encourages protests against those very same guidelines. The governing functions are in chaos. (Aaron Blake’s April 21 article in the Washington Post is a good timeline resource.) We have a right to be angry.
The most pronounced effect that I’ve felt during the past two months has not been anxiety about the effects of the COVID-19 disease, but my fury at the government’s response. Regularly, I awake at 3 am or 3:30 am, unable to get back to sleep because of the level of emotional turmoil I feel. It’s very difficult to know what to do in the face of these emotional disruptions. You may be feeling these same symptoms either from the same cause or from something else.
On thing I’ve learned is to take a deep breath. And then another. And then, another. To just breathe deeply till I feel connected with that sense of peace that lies inside if we are patient enough to take that voyage inward. You might call this the peace of God. You might call this a self-regulating biological coping mechanism. It doesn’t really matter. It’s a free and readily available way to work through emotional turmoil. Especially, at 3 o’clock in the morning.
None of us have lived through a pandemic before. All of us are learning. I would like to think that all of us are learning together, but if that’s true, it’s only in a limited sense. To the extent that we are listening, watching and reading from the same founts of information, we are learning together. To the extent that we are exposed to the same editorials, the same opinionated political coverage, the same official challenges, we are learning together. We all know, though, that there is little overlap between what is offered from the right and left wings of the political spectrum. We are learning together in pockets, which greatly increases the challenges we’re facing, greatly increases the amount of social and political conflict we can expect and which greatly increases the need for community groups and social service networks to work together.
You may have heard the term “quarantine fatigue” circulating through your news feeds and your social media feeds. Even if you haven’t heard of it, I expect you’ve suffered from it. Personally, I felt I was handling the various fluctuations in my life caused by the pandemic pretty well for the first six weeks. Week 7 was a struggle. Week 8 began to feel like a subtle kind of torture. Quarantine fatigue is a real thing. The novelty of this new way of life has worn off. Meetings on Zoom or Skype are a far cry from in-person meetings. Interacting in 2 dimensions is a faint shadow of 3-dimensional interaction. All of us are feeling deprived of many of the things we most value about life, including the laughter and camaraderie that’s shared when spending time with friends, the social stimulus of being around others even if we’re not interacting with them much. And the lack of personal contact, skin to skin, body to body, human being to human being. Another term most of us never heard before has floated to the social surface: skin hunger.
Here’s the beginning of an April 29 (2020) article from the online magazine Wired:
Alice*, a 31-year-old director from London, has been breaking the coronavirus lockdown rules. “I almost don’t want to tell you this,” she says, lowering her voice. Her violation? Once a week, Alice, who lives alone, walks to the end of her garden to meet her best friend Lucy*. There, with the furtiveness of a street drug deal, Lucy hugs her tightly. Alice struggles to let her go. “You just get that rush of feeling better,” Alice says. “Like it’s all okay.”
Aside from Lucy’s hugs, Alice hasn’t been touched by another person since March 15, which is when she went into a self-imposed lockdown, a week before the official government advice to self-isolate. “I’ve found it really hard,” she says. “I am a huggy person. You start to notice it after a while. I miss it.” She feels guilty about her surreptitious hugs. “I feel like I can’t tell my other friends about it,” Alice says. “There’s a lot of shaming going on. I know we aren’t meant to. But I am so grateful to her [Lucy] for checking in on me. It gives me such a lift.”
The need for physical touch. The need to obey official guidelines so that everyone remains safe. The fear of being shamed. It will be a challenge for us to find the narrow path that allows us to meet our needs and we need to be patient with one another as we struggle to find balance in our lives. Of necessity, we won’t be able to do everything. People suffering from depression and anxiety disorders have different needs than those who are not. We need to trust them to do what they need to do to meet their needs. Shaming and sitting in judgment will not improve the situation. We need to be gentle with ourselves and we need to be gentle with one another. Isolation is the breeding ground for loneliness. Loneliness is the breeding ground for depression. Uncertainty is the land where anxiety makes its home. Some of us are more vulnerable than others. We all are entitled to do what is necessary to meet our needs. And we all are obliged to act in a way that that respects the needs of our neighbors, the society at large. Our country has not found a way to balance the competing needs of individual liberty and social responsibility, but we, as individuals, need to take on the challenge of finding that balance in our own lives.
We in Kentucky have been fortunate in the leadership we’ve gotten from our statehouse. National polls have consistently rated the response led by Governor Andy Beshear as the best or near the top of that of any state in the nation. This is because he has been successful in the steps that he has taken to mitigate transmission of the virus, the promptness and decisiveness of his action, but also because of the calm and measured approach that he has taken. He has struck a tone that some have called pastoral, meaning that he has demonstrated compassion for those individuals killed by the virus and the families and communities dealing with those losses, and compassion for those still struggling with its effects in nursing homes, assisted living facilities, jails, and prisons. At the center of his response has been compassion. We’ve all heard about green lights being a symbol of compassion and of ringing bells as an acknowledgment that we are thinking of those who’ve lost their lives. Such compassion starts with us for ourselves and then for those close to us and then for those we don’t even know, compassion for the state of all humanity as all humanity goes through this trying time together.
Compassion for ourselves: how do we practice that? One place to start is to recognize that there is much these days that is out of our control. To acknowledge that is to begin to come to terms with it. Once we’ve done that (and we need to do it as a continuing practice), we have the opportunity to name those things that are within our control and to take the steps we can to make order out of disorder.
If we see making our bed in the morning as a chore, we are likely to avoid doing it. If we see it as an opportunity to create a place of order and peace, we might find a way to enjoy it. I confess that I usually see bed-making as tiresome. What’s the point? The bed’s going to get messed up again anyway and I’m not expecting company. But, recently, as I’ve viewed making the bed as an opportunity for feeling the sheets between my fingers, feeling the heft and softness of the blanket, the pleasing embroidered pattern of the white bedspread settling down into place, I experience something gentle and sensual and the feeling of peace that comes with orderliness. The same goes for washing the dishes in the morning as the water boils for coffee. Even sweeping the house has rewards of rhythm in the movement of the broom and the body. There is something like a Buddhist meditative quality in doing things for the sake of doing them rather than for the sake of getting them done.
Also helpful for me is keeping a daily list of activities. Making breakfast, lopping off branches from an overhanging tree, mowing the lawn, watering the newly planted lilac bushes, reading, listening to music, talking on the phone with a friend, paying bills, even resting, are activities that are meaningful when they find a meaningful place in the journal of our days.
And having a project. I mentioned earlier that I’ve been working on a writing project for the past year or so. Devoting a couple of hours a day to an activity you value helps to provide structure for your day, brings order to your thoughts, and helps provide a purpose and purpose is central to peace of mind and happiness.
Finally, I’ve found that focusing on the things I’m grateful for encourages me to shift my thinking to a more positive mode. It places me in a more satisfying place. Keeping a gratitude journal where I list these things is one way I do that. And the church now also has a “gratitude” page via Slack. We have Michele Steiner and Roxanne Spencer to thank for that.
Have compassion for yourself during this difficult time. Keep a gratitude journal. Make a list of your accomplishments each day. See your chores not as duties, but as opportunities for living in a way that’s peaceful and rewarding. Keep in touch with friends on a regular basis whether by phone or video. Spend an hour at 4 o’clock in the afternoon with Pastor Andy. Balance your need for personal freedom with the need for a healthy society. And remember that the opportunity to breathe each day is not granted to all. When you feel the world closing in or your heart beating fast or things slipping out of control, take a deep breath. And another. And another. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Breathe. You are alive!”
Presented by the Rev. Peter Connolly
at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green
on May 17, 2020