Rector's Ramblings April 22, 2020
It seems there is good news on the horizon during this pandemic. We’re hearing about peaks and an invitation to start returning to a little more normalcy. Such invitations come with caution, however. If we move too quickly, we could find ourselves worse off in a few weeks. The truth is that this virus is still going to be with us for quite some time and we will not go back to pre-pandemic ways of life anytime soon. Vaccines, treatments, and testing can all work together to confirm our relative safety and get us going again, but we’re not there yet. Good news is good news, though, and we’ll take it.
Is it glass half empty or glass half full? We probably don’t want to go too far in assessing its volume, but rather accepting it as the cup that has been passed to us. We are a people of hope but must also be pragmatic at the same time. It’s the only way we’ll get through this with our faith and our health intact. These days contain good and bad news, hope and despair, and somehow, we need to find a way to navigate the path between those competing realities.
Years ago, I encountered a helpful illustration in this regard. In Jim Collin’s book, Good to Great, he shared what is known as the “Stockdale Paradox”. Perhaps you’ve seen it making the rounds in the last few weeks? Named for James Stockdale, a former Vietnam POW, it illustrates that during times of crisis, we need to be hopeful, but no so hopeful that we are crushed when things don’t turn out like we’d hoped. Stockdale was quoted as saying, "You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end — which you can never afford to lose — with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be."
Asked about who didn’t survive the North Vietnamese prison camps, Stockdale suggested that the prisoners who kept establishing overly hopeful and ultimately inaccurate predictions about when they’d be free (next month, Thanksgiving, Christmas, etc.) eventually fell apart because their false hope failed them too many times. Crushed hopes can become too powerful to overcome. We need hope, of course, and as Christians we are people of hope by common definition, but that hope has its bounds, lest we fall into the trap of foolishness. It is not that our faith has bounds, however. On the contrary! I’ll come back to that.
The hope that we’re coming out of this pandemic must be balanced with other realities. There is a high likelihood of more peaks, regional peaks, and an on-again off-again future of social distancing orders. All of this effort in the last month has been to flatten the curve of this virus, not eliminate it. We aren’t beating the virus into submission. We’re merely trying to stall it long enough for vaccines, testing, and treatment to catch up. They haven’t caught up with it yet, although we may have gained some ground. It’s going to be with us for the foreseeable future. Does that sound pessimistic? I hope not. Such predictions are based on the best data available and history of other pandemics. It’s where the reality of what we face meets our hope.
We need to be careful with hope for another reason, too. I have encountered a fair amount of hope masquerading as doubt about this virus. We scour the news for reports that a treatment has been discovered, or that some studies prove it’s not as deadly as we thought it was. That’s natural. We want this to be over, sooner rather than later. We don’t want a lot of people to die and we don’t want the economy to collapse. But hoping those things won’t happen or hoping that this has all been a silly overreaction and it’s all going to be ok soon does not change the reality.
In communities where this virus has taken hold, people are dying. We can count the bodies. In places, there are so many, the morgues and funeral homes have no place to put them. We don’t need to rely on statistics or studies, on headlines or press conferences to interpret that reality. This virus is deadly. Despite all our wishes that it isn’t so, we cannot ignore it. We can and should rejoice that to date, we live in a community that has largely been spared from severe consequences. We can hope that our streak continues in this regard, yet we must not underestimate the potential continued impact of this virus, too. Our hope must be tempered with an appropriate response as we move forward. We will celebrate each return to another bit of normalcy, and the reopening of some businesses, no matter how long it is until we have to make a tough choice about shutting down again.
So, if not in the mirage of an “end in sight,” where should we place our hope? How do we manage without getting lost in despair? After all, no one is really enjoying this. Even the introverts are getting antsy. I am hearing some folks say, “I just want to know when this will be over!” We don’t have an answer to that question, so we can’t just tell ourselves that we just have to make it to September, to Thanksgiving, or to Christmas. here’s a pretty good chance that such arbitrary hopes will be dashed against this particular virus.
My advice in this regard has centered on coming to terms with the new realities we face. We must accept that we won’t be worshipping together in large numbers for a long time. That doesn’t mean we can’t worship. We can find God in our own prayers, by praying on the phone with others, or by worshipping with others online. We may not be able to engage in groups we used to be a part of, but we can still maintain the relationships we have with our friends. We can spread out in some places or sit at opposite ends of the porch for a cup of tea, and that will still be meaningful. Some businesses may not reopen, and many folks will be out of work, yet we can be a part of an outpouring of support for those who need it.
We need to be able to let go of the tomorrow we wanted, so that we can embrace the today we have. I once counseled some parents about a child whose life had not turned out as they had envisioned when they were raising that child. They had ideas of what their child would achieve and how their life would look. The actual path was much different, and at some point, it became so different that the ideal life the parents envisioned had to be let go of and replaced with a new vision and hope. Once they did, they were able to renegotiate relationships and find joy in the life their child was living.
It's the same process we use when we face anything that forever changes our future expectations. We must find a way to accept it as it comes and chart a new course. We must grieve what cannot be and embrace a new opportunity. This pandemic, as I’ve said before, has led us into a grief response. We’ll need to work our way through denial, anger, blaming, and whatever else is ultimately robbing us of joy in the here and now. At some point we need to embrace acceptance and keep going. Fortunatly, there is a tremendous amount of good in the world right now that can help us make the transition. People are creatively choosing to live in new ways. One of my favorites has been actor/director John Krasinski’s “Some Good News” broadcasts from his home.
Krasinski has created a home-based news show that shares nothing but good news; the sort that makes you smile in spite of yourself. Last week, he also worked to host a live, virtual Prom online for all the high school seniors who have seen their once-in-a-lifetime dances cancelled. Thousands and thousands of people tuned in live and danced in their living rooms with their families as famous musicians performed and DJs played music. Was it the Prom every student had dreamed of? No, but it was joyful and meaningful, and I guarantee they will remember it positively for years to come.
All of this is to say, we must remain hopeful and find joy in whatever our circumstances are. There will come a day when things get back to the old normal. Until then, we have to keep living with the new normal. We are a people of life! In this season in which we celebrate Christ’s Resurrection and our share of that triumph over death, we are reminded that we need not fear the shadow of death in any valley we walk through. There will be green pastures and still waters for us, and no pandemic can change that. Resurrection people are called to be fully alive, so get busy living. Do it generously, do it joyously, and do it safely. And do it from home as much as you can.
Our hope may be tempered, but our faith knows no bounds. God loves us and stays close by our side every day, especially during these days. There is always good news on the horizon because our God is the God of good news. We must keep our chins up in hope, our knees down in prayer, and our hands busy with the work of Jesus. All will be well. I promise.
Actually, God promises.
O God our heavenly Father, you have blessed us and given us
dominion over all the earth: Increase our reverence before
the mystery of life; and give us new insight into your purposes
for the human race, and new wisdom and determination in
making provision for its future in accordance with your will;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Collect for the Future of the Human Race, BCP p. 828