One of the stranger concepts, now defunct, in Catholic theology is the idea of limbo, a place somewhere between heaven and hell where unbaptized babies, among others, went after they died. They were supposedly stuck there for all eternity, the unfairness of which caused quite an uproar when I was in second grade. “But, what if...” our little eight-year-old hands went up with all sorts of gyrations and circumstances for how and why the unbaptized babies should go to heaven anyway. This was to the consternation of our teacher, a Dominican nun, who didn’t have very good answers and even though we were young, we were not much fooled. Limbo was and is unsettling.
In our modern vernacular, limbo connotes uncertainty and waiting, the uncomfortable place we find ourselves in today. It is also a time of reckoning, with an urgent spotlight on racism in this country that has brought many of us to task, shaken us out of our complacency, and our smug assessment of who we think we really are. As we wait for a cure or a vaccine for Covid-19, we long for the peace and justice that should have come long ago. We wait and we hope, somewhere between heaven and hell. Our country seems to be hanging in the balance, with many of us feeling like we have too much time on our hands and yet no time to lose.
Heaven is a place we might imagine differently through the prism of the pandemic. The small, ordinary daily occurrences we may have taken for granted: a walk in the park with a friend, freedom to celebrate life’s milestones, take a vacation anywhere in the world, or hold a new grandchild. Hell is also a place we can imagine differently, especially if we close our eyes and set the timer for 8 minutes and 46 seconds.
You might say, we could use a few miracles right about now. Personally, I believe God, by whatever name, has given us the gifts of goodness and compassion, fairness and faith, and love, above all, to harness the winds of change and fate in the best ways we know how, and that hope is more than a pipe dream. That perhaps, for all of us, there is an escape from limbo after all. (Katie)
Every morning as I wake I take inventory. First things first, so I make sure my fingers and toes still wiggle and then I say a quick prayer of gratefulness that I am fortunate to be able to rise and face another day. Like many mothers, I do a mental check in on my three children and their loved ones spread across the country. One on the front lines of COVID working as an emergency physician in Chicago, another ensconced in mid-town Manhattan following governmental orders not to leave, and one in CA able to enjoy the fresh air and arrival of a new puppy. I think of my mother fortunately still at home and the caregivers who attend her. And, I think of my socially active mother-in-law whose world has contracted to her neighborhood walks. I count my blessings that they are all well.
This time of the coronavirus is a defining moment in our lives as each of us is reduced to our lowest common denominator. How we procure food, paper products, and the staples of our livelihood. How we stay sane, between homeschooling, cooking, if we are lucky - working from home, if we are not, venturing out and trusting that others have our backs. None of us can escape the pandemic. What we can do is appreciate the small things we can still enjoy. I hope my daily walk is as helpful to me as it is to those I pray for along the way. Right now the problems in the world seem so overwhelming it is hard to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Sometimes, I wonder if it really matters. But it does. Giving in to this devastating tragedy will only stop us in our tracks, it won’t make it disappear.
When thinking about tragedy I also think about resilience and how closely the two are tied together. Resilience is personal to each of us. For me, Paolo Coelho’s message of falling down seven times and getting up eight is a motto to live by (I just wish I didn’t take it so literally!). We are weighed down by events we have no control over, but that doesn’t mean we have to cede all control and be overpowered by them. In the some of the darkest days the world has ever known, even Anne Frank had her diary.
So how do we find this resilience, this ability to recover from difficulty? There are a multitude of techniques (shown in italics) that can help us build resilience of our own. One is to allow ourselves to accept our own feelings and try not to fear them. I strive to remember this as I think about my son in his PPE, funny to see him on Face-time without his usual millennial scruffy beard, now gone to facilitate a tighter fit of the mask he wears for hours on end. Letting go of judgment and blame is another recommended technique. With my years spent in the medical field it is hard not to become frustrated with our shortcomings from PPE scarcity to a lack of coordinated response. And yet, there is hope. Treatments, vaccines and new tests are all being developed at warp speed around the globe with an unprecedented level of cooperation and sharing. Another recommendation is to nurture a sense of humor. From late night TV to home videos, comic graphics, and soundbites, we now have permission to open these messages and take time to smile. Humor touches our core, feeds our soul, and keeps us human.
While Zoom and other web based apps facilitate working from home, they also allow us to reach out to others for sharing and support, which is another resilience technique. Many of us are getting creative in our online family time, playing games, doing puzzles, or in my family scheduling a virtual coast-to-coast wine tasting. Finding meaning in our personal challenges can be looking for the silver lining when it is not intuitively obvious. I see this resilience in my daughter as her wedding date approaches and will pass without the festivities she worked so hard to plan. But love is far more than a celebration and connecting to something greater helps to uncover the strength within us. Helping others whether through a donation, a kind word or deed, or volunteering to take over a task for someone in need are examples of seizing control over what we can.
One of my favorite quotes that Katie has shared with me over the years is from Henry Ford. “If you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right.” To be resilient we must believe in ourselves and in our ability to cope…not every minute, or even every hour, but in the end. It helps to think of other issues we have overcome. When I was first injured back in early February, thinking the pain would never end, the words of a friend that I was a great “heal-er” helped get me over the hump of self-doubt. Since then, and especially now, a gratitude journal or even taking just a few moments to think about what we are thankful for is helpful to identify our own good news (check out SGN with John Krasinski) and not be overcome by the bad news that surrounds us.
This time out forced upon the world has held many of us hostage, and its effects will be felt for years to come. Like everyone else, I need to be strong, help where I can, and find hope.
Most of us know the Serenity Prayer, perpetually popular after being adopted by AA some 75 years ago. First penned one New England summer in the middle years of WWII by Reinhold Neibuhr, his words express both helplessness at the world's predicament, and hopefulness at the same time. He had faith in our ability to find our way "home" in spite of what we are up against. Neibuhr was a close friend of both Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Paul Tillich, all three Christian theologians and Germans, fiercely opposed to Nazism from the beginning, each with different answers to the inherent question of how do we know what we can change or control that the original prayer contemplates:
God give us the grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.
Coronavirus has given all of us the experience of the sometimes hard reality of having to accept feeling out of control. Confronting isolation, scavenging for groceries and necessities, scrambling to find the supplies to make our own masks are experiences not from a world most of us recognize. Worries compound about loved ones and friends on the front lines, or whose jobs have been lost. Disappointments pile up as weddings and graduations are cancelled, places of worship are shuttered, and even a walk in the park, especially on a beautiful spring day, becomes hazardous to your health. My own situation includes a growing desperation to get home to NYC after being waylaid in Denver for a medical emergency.
Aside from the fact that none of us is ever really in control, we have the distinct advantage right now to find the courage to focus on what we do have, not what we don't, to see that glass as half full, to take advantage of extra time, and unique ways to connect. To survive well, we need to take a deep breath each morning, find more resilience than we thought we had, and muster up some initiative to be worthy of living the gift of today. Maybe we can even get reacquainted with ourselves and what makes our own heart beat, allowing us to reset the rhythm of our lives going forward. The answer to what we can control, how we face adversity, and what we are able to change is different for each of us.
Having safely emigrated to the U.S., lives at risk as members of the resistance, Paul Tillich tried to affect change from afar in 112 secret addresses to Germans over the course of the war, broadcast through Voice of America. Dietrich Bonhoeffer felt he had to go back to Germany and continue his resistance from there. He was executed in April, 1945 for his role in an assassination attempt on Hitler. With the survival of civilization at stake, their stories should give us both perspective and inspiration. We still have so many freedoms to create, to appreciate, to be. Practicing serenity, discovering courage, cultivating a bit of wisdom along the way, I've found it's one way to find your home away from home.
Consider this: Over the last six weeks, Joan, Katie and I were down for the count, although there is no comparison between what Joan experienced with her bike accident, Katie's emergency surgery and my walking pneumonia. How quickly life can turn upside down, and how grateful I am that our outcomes were not worse.
The very act of staying prone in bed during the day forced a certain type of reverie that is uncommon for me. One thing led to another and when I could literally breathe again I also found myself looking at life in a slightly different way.
During my "pneumonia pause," it occurred to me that when we take a time out from our busy lives, new ideas and ways of being can germinate. From author Hope Jahren, I learn that most seeds wait for at least a year before starting to grow. Some, like the cherry seed can wait for hundreds of years. What are they waiting for I wonder? Do seeds have a second sense that says "this is the year?" How are we humans the same, or different?
I think about what is ready to burst forth in me. Do I have latent dreams or wishes in my heart, parts of me I've held back, hoping for just the right conditions to be born into the world? People say that as long as you are alive, there is always potential; now this message has greater meaning. Like that seed that doesn't look alive, its energy contained within an outer shell, I think about what I've hidden, even from myself.
A couple of years ago I became a Master Gardener, though one would never guess it given the current state of my garden. Strangely, I am in no hurry to remedy the situation. Underneath those leaves and downed limbs from winter storms lies a magical world just waiting for warmer weather to start an explosion of new life. I trust this new life is there; in fact, I count on it. Just below the surface, every seed is waiting for just the right conditions to burst open.
Our world community is being forced to pause. Resilient solutions are clearly beyond what is available in our self-help books, personal growth seminars or any individual packet of "Secret" sauce. We are being asked to acknowledge our interdependence like never before. Like many of you, I am experiencing what it is like to be living in a kind of "underground" state, in unfamiliar terrain.
I think there is power in this pause.
Just like what is happening in my garden, there are little bits of green dreams lying under the surface in each of us that can be born into our world, even under these less than optimal conditions. What wishes for beauty have been hidden, like my seeds, just waiting to burst open in the light? What new ways of connecting, collaborating and working with, instead of against, one another are possible? What can this time of hardship, of tragedy, teach us about ourselves, about our communities, about who and what is important?
There is grace and there are miracles present in the hundreds of selfless every day and heroic acts that put the good of the world above the good of the one. They are beautiful and deserve to be celebrated.
My garden, the world garden, looks like a mess right now, it's true. But I believe in miracles, and as surely as I know anything, Spring will come. (Meb)
They say there are no atheists in foxholes. At the time of great danger, fear, or pain, one hopes there is Something of Someone greater that has your back. It's a comforting thought when you are at the end of your rope. It is certainly a feeling I've experienced as I've faced some of the medical challenges in my life. But how to stay constant to that feeling has always been my struggle. It is not a question of doubt in a Greater Being, but more a question like the sainted Mother Teresa posed of discerning God's voice in our own life.
These lofty questions become grounded when life hands us a wake-up call. For me, this month it was a serious bike accident. Emergency back surgery in a new city, uncertainty about the outcome and my motherly desire to dance at our daughter's wedding this May put me right back in that foxhole.
I knew what I had to do. In addition to listening to the doctors through my pain and drug-induced fog, signing authorizations and consents, I knew I needed to call on my prayer warriors for assistance. As a mere mortal, even with the best husband in the world by my side, I couldn't get through this with only earthy efforts. I needed help. And hard as it is for me to ask for assistance, once requested, help came in droves.
I know heaven was barraged with prayers, the surgery went well, I can walk, and the light at the end of this tunnel is not a train! The flowers, cards and letters (and chocolates) I have received have revived my spirit helping me to accept this new reality and make plans for my next steps, literally. The Daily Good email arrived with words of inspiration about acceptance and the fact that it "doesn't inherently imply inaction, stagnation passivity, or cowardice...acceptance can open us up to a sense of possibility..." I experienced this when instead of bemoaning my latest calamity, the occupational therapist shared a remarkable miracle story. Soothing my spirit was more important than learning to put on my socks.
For some of us, it is important to be reminded of the power of prayer, the knowledge that we are not alone in the foxhole of life. Prayers from my family and friends and their prayer groups keep me from feeling isolated and shower me with their protection and goodwill. Not only is it a way of feeling a closer connection with the Divine, but it is a way of being the miracle for each other by a kind word, a smile, a card, a remembrance, and a prayer.
Yes, I have had my wake up call. Please don't let it take an accident for you to have yours. It shouldn't take a Super Bowl or a Super Tuesday for us to realize our connection with each other and with the Divine. It happens every day: with the hopes we harbor in our hearts, in the joy we can bring to others, and in our ability to accept our limitations with grace, putting one foot ahead of the other and moving forward, together.