Thursday, April 30, 2020

Are We "Tired of Being Stuck in the House?"

Dear dear people. I know, this is not easy. I'm an old hand at this lifestyle.

In many ways the pandemic that has brought the entire planet to a screeching halt — forcing everyone to stay at home, suspending much face-to-face interaction with others, and limiting people's ability to go places — has thus far had little impact on what has been my daily routine for more than a decade.

In a sense, I feel like saying, "Hey everybody, welcome to my world!"

Certainly, I have had ups and downs in recent years. There were periods of time when I had more (even daily) direct interaction outside the house (especially the years when I had an "office" at my wife's school), and I usually have opportunities to "go out" once in a while, or at least every Sunday. But staying-at-home has been a major feature of my life since my own persistent (non-contagious but debilitating) illness led to my quite premature "retirement" from active teaching in 2008. So when we were all told to stay-at-home in March, for me it was just like, "okay, sure." Many people's worlds have been turned upside down by just the quarantine itself, whereas I'm used to being at home.

On the other hand, some of this has been new for me too, obviously.

I never really noticed how "reassuring" it was that — even while I was staying/stuck-at-home — the rest of the world was humming along more or less the same as ever. Sometimes I struggled with feelings of envy toward all of you busy, energetic people, especially after I became a bit healthier and more stable after a few years but still had long-standing issues that precluded any possibility of returning to "normal" life. Nevertheless, the bustle of the Global Village remained an enveloping environment that I was accustomed to living in, even if my own activity was reigned in at a necessarily slower pace and constrained by unusual limits. The kids grew up over this decade, while Eileen taught at a growing and thriving Montessori school. I was able to participate in some of these events, like high school graduations (and our first college graduation), attending some sports events, school plays, etc. Above all, I was always reliably at home — not that I was able to run the household, but I did in a sense "anchor it."

Meanwhile, lots of stuff was happening in the bigger world. While I could have easily spent ten years buried in my hard-copy books and carrying on what was always a wide and extensive written correspondence, the growth of new communications technology generated new ways to engage with current events and people "in real time," which I could do even when I was laid up in bed. While well aware of the ambivalence of the new media, I think at least some sick and homebound people would agree with me in tending to regard all this virtual accessibility as "a glass half full." It uses up a lot of energy, nevertheless, which means I can only take so much of it before it poops me out.  I still have plenty of time (and need) for no-tech old fashioned books, research, and just... thinking.

So what has changed for me in these past two world-shattering months? Nothing? On the contrary!

This whole experience is above all tragic for all those suffering because of the COVID-19 event, whether it's from the devastating effects of the sickness itself or from other consequences (economic, social, cultural, etc. which are still unfolding) that are affecting people as a result of the need to slam the brakes on the entire world. I am immensely sorry for all these people. They and their families and their incredibly overstretched medical caregivers are in my heart and my prayers. I salute all of our heroes: medical workers who are fighting so hard as well as the great variety of other essential workers. This time has been an awakening to gratitude for how much we really depend on all of you to keep the connections going for our radically interconnected and interdependent ways of accessing and obtaining even the most basic things that we are accustomed to having in our lives.

But the impact on me of these days is more than just a matter of empathy and gratitude. A public health emergency is a dreadfully serious thing in any circumstances, and there has never been anything like this in my lifetime. It is, moreover, of particular concern for someone like me who is already immuno-compromised and therefore in the "high risk" category for developing the more dangerous complications from the COVID-19 infection. I would probably not fare well in a personal battle with this virus. Therefore, it will continue to be necessary for me to "stay safe" in the strictest sense long after the gradual phases of "opening up" have begun.

I don't know what that will entail for me once the rest of the family is back in public circulation, but here in Virginia that process is still weeks away. We'll assess it when the time comes and I'll try to proceed in a prudent and reasonable way, which may end up being weird and scary anyway (but what else can I do?) — we can only hope and pray that a responsible opening up process will work.

Meanwhile, sharing my home-bound status with the rest of humanity for the past two months has been strange, even bizarre, and often worrying, while also being surprisingly "nice" in some ways, and — for a student of media and culture like me — quite "interesting" (which is different from saying it's "good" or "bad," much less that I feel comfortable living through it and facing its possible implications).

It has been very strange, that the streets of the cities of the world are empty, and that everybody else is not bopping around through their regular routines even as I remain stationary. Suddenly, it's gone BANG for everybody, that total life-shift, like you've been transported to another planet and you're trying to get back to your "normal lives" or wondering what that even means. I know how this feels. I went through all of this. I wrote about it in my book ten years ago [check out the book, Never Give Up: My Life and God's Mercy (Servant, 2010) which is still in print and on Kindle]. After two months of the "post-pandemic" world, people might find that they relate to my book in new ways.

Of course, the big difference is that I was very sick. Most of you have been home-sitting and you feel fine. I think in some respects it must be easier to be stuck in a place when one is literally stuck — whereas if you are raring to go, physically and psychologically, but there's no place to go, it adds a different kind of frustration into the mix. In any case, it takes a long time to adjust to such a sudden drastic... change! Don't be hard on yourselves if you've been out of sorts during these weeks.

There is another difference, at least for many of you: right now you are counting on all of this being temporary. This is a weird phase of your otherwise normal life. Soon it will be over and you'll be back to work, school, or wherever you want to be. It may not be quite so easy — not as easy as everyone hopes it will be — but you have expectations for a different kind of future than being stuck in the house.

Most of you will be out of quarantine pretty soon. You won't be stuck in the house anymore. What will happen next is harder to predict. I really don't know. Your lives and mine might well be in for further upheavals and instability. There is much palpable uncertainty, and though we'd understandably rather not think about that, it may be overwhelming for some people.

Perhaps you have already lost your job, or maybe you will in the future. I have been through that, and I know it's terribly hard. It's hard to remember that you really are worth immeasurably more than anything you make or do, any social role, honors, or riches.

Of course, we need basic provisions for living. Ordinarily these should come in relation to the fruits of our work (though often we don't get enough to meet our needs in this world of tragedy and greed, injustice and inequity). Moreover, work accords with and expresses our dignity, and we grow through work. We also grow through endurance and suffering in circumstances beyond our control. Unemployment is a very profound source of human suffering. But no matter how hard it gets, please don't give up on life. Don't lose yourself.

I did say earlier that some good has come out of our recent confinement.

Right now, one of the positive things about my being-at-home is that Eileen and my four daughters are here too. (John Paul has his own place, where Emily will join him in August after they get married.) In recent years, I have grown used to the people of our household coming in and out and being very busy. Though everybody is still pretty busy (school goes on via gadgetry) and it has been some strain on the girls, we have also had some good family time. A lot of people have remarked about this part of the experience being something positive, and I hope we can remember the value of it (and the strength of it) as circumstances move on.

My Catholic friends have had a hard time adjusting to the video Mass and making "spiritual communions." I had already learned to appreciate the value of such possibilities as options for weekdays and special celebrations. But one thing I have always done through the years is go out to the real live Sunday Mass. I feel the absence of those outings (and there were times in the past when Sunday Mass was the only outing of my week). I miss being in church; I miss the nourishing foundation of the whole of life which is the Sunday Mass. Sundays are precious, and the Mass and the Eucharist are gifts of immeasurable value.

But we are doing what we can in faith and charity. Meanwhile the clergy have made tremendous efforts to give whatever measure of accessibility is possible under the circumstances, and there have been many creative initiatives of prayer and mutual support on the "digital continent." Of course, we always have the Scriptures, the Rosary, the liturgical texts, our brothers and sisters the saints, the treasury of spiritual wisdom to ponder, and the concreteness of so many signs of our connection with Jesus in the sacramentals (blessed objects), the crucifix, icons and images. There has been much to engage us during Lent and Easter. The Lord is working within these unusual limits, perhaps also helping us to be more aware of the profound solidarity we share in Christ's "mystical body" and opening us up to what Pope Francis referred to as "the creativity of love" that finds ways through hardships to stand together in Christ and reach other people through paths of witness they we might not otherwise have traveled.

To all my dear people, here we are at the end of April. I don't know how things will unfold, how hard it will be, how long we'll be stuck in the house (or in who-knows-what other places we never imagined we'd be), how COVID-19 may change or have further impact on us, or whether we'll have a depression or a war, or perhaps a lovely Summer. What I know is that God is good, and He loves us — He leads us on mysterious ways to a destiny that is beyond our understanding but that also corresponds to the cry of our hearts, to our longing for happiness. We want happiness because we were made for it.

In my life, and in all the strangeness of the past two months, and in all the uncertainty of the future, I am still convinced that God is always good. I also know that it's not always easy to see the signs of His providence and His tremendous care for each one of us, but that He will enable us to keep going, to persevere, to walk step by step even in the dark. Whatever we are called to endure, we will find the love of God "within" those circumstances. I'm a wreck of a human being and I'm not "good at" any of this spirituality stuff, but His love is there and that is what matters. We may be scared, we may be angry, we may scream at the walls in frustration and agony, but let's keep praying, begging, searching, crying out to God — never giving up.