I am always trying to figure out myself and life itself. My goal has always been to be like an old folk song we used to sing in church: “To be alive and feeling free, to have everyone in our family; to be alive in every way, oh how great it is, to be alive!” And there have been many moments I have felt fully alive and in other moments it’s been a struggle.
Pain, frustration, discouragement, depression, suffering, pandemics like COVID-19 – all of these human experiences are what make up the whole range of difficult moments, from a passing cloud of the blues to the dark night of the soul. I truly believe that the most creative, healing and human way for us to reckon with pressures is by living in the present with others, borrowing light from the past and hope from the future.
We laughingly speak of those who enjoy ill health. I’ll always remember being on an elevator with an elderly nun in a nursing home who said to me, “Ask me how I am.” I took the bait and said, “How are you doing, Sister?” “Worse” was her reply.
Whether our problems and pressures are short-range or long range, whether they are unconsciously self-caused or otherwise, what are some practical techniques that can help us make the best of them, help us to solve them, or at least endure them?
The first thing we can do is try to see whether our distress signals are trying to teach us something. Are we attempting to do too much, or to be something we are not cut out to be? I think many Americans suffer special conflicts because we belong to a culture which simultaneously idealizes those who care about their brothers and sisters and those who climb the rungs of success, even over other people’s bodies. Maybe the greatest lesson of the COVID-19 pandemic is slowing us down to see the truest values of life.
At times the recipe for outwitting a cloudy mood is to just dig in and wait it out. These are times when the best way “out” is “through.” The outwaiting isn’t easy to do. In fact, doing nothing can be the hardest thing of all to do. I think that’s one of the hardest realities of COVID-19 – practicing masterful inactivity.
Another art which I’ve had to cultivate is that of knowing how “to care” and “how not to care.” St. Ignatius called this the virtue of “detachment” which literally means “unstuckedness.” We need to get involved in what we’re doing, to be attached to the projects in our lives, but we should avoid getting “stuck” in any paralyzing or dead-ending way. Sufficient for the day is the evil thereof, and the grace we need to master the evil.
I have taken great comfort in the words of Thomas Merton during this current COVID-19 pandemic crisis:
“Anxiety is inevitable in an age of crisis like ours. Don’t make it worse by deceiving yourself and acting as if you were immune to all inner trepidation. God does not ask you not to feel anxious – but to trust Him no matter how you feel.”