As a young child, I was terrified of World War III. When I heard “world war”, I pictured soldiers, tanks, and bombs on every street, in every city—more like civil war, though I wasn’t yet familiar with the term. That my parents had lived through such an event horrified me, though they never spoke of it. Why would they? World War II had unfolded across the ocean, far from their Canadian prairie city, while they lived quiet lives, immersed in their teenage triumphs and tragedies. No one in their families sent a young man overseas, or knew anyone sent to a death camp. The war had been a sober backdrop, but a backdrop, nonetheless.
I watched The Grapes of Wrath and was equally horrified. Was this what my parents had suffered as they lived through the Great Depression? But such deprivations were never mentioned. Instead, they spoke of events seemingly unrelated to the economic ruin sweeping the world: my grandfather’s sudden death when my mother was ten, my paternal grandfather’s hard work as he not only taught high school, but also flipped homes to augment the family income. My mother’s enduring grief. My father’s resentment at having to move every two years, and being forced to hammer and paint while his friends played outside. My parents shared happier memories, too: the neighborhood gang of friends my mother ran with, my father’s favorite subjects at school—memories that remained crystal clear even in their 80s. But with the dust-bowl imagery of Steinbeck’s Depression seared on my brain, it was difficult to imagine their childhood as normal, or to picture them with washed faces, wearing clean clothes, having full bellies.
A year or two later, I read On the Beach, and the harrowing tale of doomed nuclear war survivors, hunkering in Australia as radiation smothers the world, seared another layer of horror on my developing brain. This became my greatest fear, amplified by the close call of the Cuban Missile Crisis—something my parents DID discuss—and stoked again in the ‘80s with a spate of nuclear extinction movies I should have never watched. To this day, when my sleeping brain searches for a fear-and-anxiety outlet, these are often the dreams it concocts, roiling in primal fear.
My closest brush with real life mass extinction was 9-11, when I lived in Norfolk, site of the world’s largest naval base, and we hurried our children home under clear blue skies, fearful we’d be the next target. I had friends who worked in the Pentagon, another who worked in the Twin Towers, mercifully away from work that day. But my friend knew many who died, and all of us who watched felt ourselves in New York that week, breathing the sickening air and collectively tasting death.
And then there were the anthrax scares. My nuclear annihilation dreams were replaced by dreams of being trapped in an elevator with a bearded terrorist, about to unleash the deadly powder. Nightmares of impending death, worse than death itself.
And now this. A global pandemic. Though I’d heard of the Spanish Flu and wondered how it felt to live through a plague, this was never something I imagined happening in my lifetime. But according to many commentators, this shared experience will be the eclipsing event of our lives. And I wonder exactly how I’m supposed to feel.
Facebook has been my virtual catalog of options. I scroll through my feed and assess the various camps. Because I am a Christian, with many like-minded friends, there are frequent messages of faith and injunctions to pray. Scriptures are shared to remind us of God’s faithfulness and mercy, His promise to answer prayer. I know this. I feel God’s presence and know that the prayers of a righteous man—or woman or child–are powerful and effective. Elijah, working with God, stopped the heavens from raining for two years, and restarted the rain with a single prayer. Can our prayers bring an end to this pandemic? Or at least mitigate its horrors? I believe they can, and are already doing so.
We’re stumped to see God’s plan in this. For reasons beyond our understanding, He’s allowed it to circle the globe, changing lives through countless permutations of outcomes and responses, most of which we’re yet to experience. But already we glimpse the good and the awful, the tragic and the hopeful, the many ways this disaster is also a blessing—at least for some.
I worry over prayer. Am I praying right? Is it selfish to pray for the protection of those I love, excluding the billions I don’t know and will never meet? If I pray for everyone, does this dilute the power of specific, personalized prayer? I feel like a child at bedtime: God bless everyone and keep the whole world safe. Amen. It seems the safest prayer, and also the laziest.
And even my Christian friends lack consensus in what constitutes a faithful response. Is this a time to mourn, or a time to “rejoice always, and give thanks in all circumstances”? Given the choice, I gladly choose the latter. I’ve lived through long seasons of depression, more than I care to revisit. I’ve finally learned the secret of contentment, living in the moment and finding joy in these: faith, hope, and love. Do I display a lack of empathy if I choose to rejoice during these troubled times?
I’m losing track of days but counting my blessings, noting every gift that quickens my heart, from the jasmine green tea that kick-starts my day, to the nestle of our king-sized bed as I settle in to read myself to sleep. Instead of bemoaning the books I didn’t check out before all the libraries closed, I’m thankful for the forgotten books I’m unexpectedly re-reading. I’m thankful for my office chair, for this keyboard that helps me explore my contradictions, for the pesky cats who jump on my desk and vie for my attention. I’m thankful for every episode of whatever Netflix series we’re watching this week. For every bright sign of spring’s arrival. For going through this time when my kids are no longer children, stuck at home and missing the things they love.
Yet I’d be lying if I said I haven’t struggled. On the flip side of joy are washes of ennui and sadness, and that hollow plunge of waking to a cloudy day with nothing planned, and nothing but small, self-imposed goals to get me out of bed. There’s staring at a blank page and wondering if words will ever flow again. There’s fear of looking back on these days, however they end, and wishing I’d tried harder, accomplished more. Days when all I want to do is crawl back into bed. To keep myself from sloth or slavery, I’ve granted myself that indulgence—or need—on a once-a-week permit, and every week I’ve taken it.
I see other strugglers on Facebook. I follow friends in New York, once again in the thick of disaster, closer than I can imagine. I see them mourning and creating, finding community in their plight. I have friends in Nigeria, forced into lock-down with less than a day to prepare and no government assistance. I’m glad, in a guilty way, that I don’t know how this feels.
A Christian friend blogged her distress over those who post messages that begin “I finally have time to….” How she finds their positive-spin attitude inappropriate for the times. I’m struck by her reaction. She’s frightened, worried about the pandemic’s impact on the economy and her family business, and anguished by stories of the sickened and bereaved. She has every right to feel this way. What troubles me is the implied judgement on those who are muddling through by seeking silver linings, and the inference that the only godly response is to mourn our way through the months ahead. More of us will surely mourn as the pandemic’s impact gets more personal. But I think of the besieged Londoners, carrying on and keeping calm through the nightly air raids of World War II, and I can’t condone a universal spirit of despair. Faith, hope, and love are essential; shared personal victories, however small, and humor—even gallows humor– refresh the weary soul.
Yes, the Scriptures teach there’s a time to mourn and a time to rejoice. But I also think of these verses from Philippians:
Rejoice in the Lord always.
Give thanks in all circumstances.
Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think about such things.
And the accompanying promise: The God of peace will be with you.
I think about my parents’ generation, living through several worldwide disasters, and about my German in-laws, living in the heart of darkness as Hitler terrorized the world. My father-in-law was a child in Dresden, cowering in a train station the night it was fire-bombed. I think of what they chose to remember and how they chose to live. How they didn’t focus on the trauma, but on the lives they built as the world fell apart. And I wonder: if Facebook had existed then, what would they have posted?
I choose hope and good cheer. I choose to rejoice in every good thing, in every act of kindness and each renewed patch of earth and atmosphere; in every useful bit of self-discovery and spiritual insight gleaned through isolation; in every creative meme and video sparked by our shared experience, ensuring we get our medicinal laughter; in every hour of unscripted time I’ve been granted as a non-essential worker. I’ll commend the essential workers and consider myself an essential human being, whether or not I’m able to work. I’ll do what I can to splash positivity on our worldwide canvas, this mural we’re creating as these special days unfold.
I’m not sure I’m doing this right. None of us has been here before. But here we are.