Every day this week, my bus has been on time and I’ve arrived to work early. Only a pandemic like COVID19 could ease the Seattle traffic to pleasant levels. It’s a silver lining that I’ve held onto given the strange quarantine which has gripped the city. My bus has been deserted. I suspect that the only people on board at 6am are healthcare workers. My route: to the Veterans Administration of Puget Sound. I am a chaplain.
It seems all the dystopian literature I’ve consumed over the years has prepared me for these times. Compared to the nightmare scenarios of 1984 and 12 Monkeys, the current reality is difficult and not unmanageable. In my community, with school and library closures, event cancellations and struggling small businesses, neighbors are offering childcare, meal and medication delivery, and resource sharing. Local businesses are stepping up through free meals, services and hiring temp workers. It’s like Fred Rogers said, “Look for the helpers.”
As a chaplain it’s my vocation to offer psychospiritual triage in every crisis. This morning at two different coffee shops filled with tech workers, exasperated parents with school aged children, and college students studying for finals, I asked baristas and patrons how they were holding up. I received wide eyes. Glances at the floor. Frustration at the disruption of life. And a begrudging acceptance of reality. In all the conversations was fear. In response I acknowledged their fear and offered solidarity. “I see you. You’re not alone. We’re in this together.” For a few the words brought tears. For most, a smile and a nod.
Chaplains are strange creatures. We’re a blend of mentor, councilor, therapist, spiritual advisor and preacher. Most of us are public theologians. As such, I wonder how to respond to quarantine and social distancing with creativity and the unexpected. The sacred always resists boxes. In conversation with my peers at the Veterans Administration, my supervisor shared this quote from CS Lewis (On Living in an Atomic Age, 1948):
In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. “How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty. This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.
Yes, we are afraid. And it is possible to hope even while experiencing fear. So much in life can and will break our bodies. Every time I get behind the wheel of a car I invite destruction. I minister to too many accident casualties to truly feel “safe” on the road. And yet I choose to live life, perhaps more mindful of the need to be, as I tell my son, “kind, loving and listening.” I buckle my seatbelt. I put my phone down. I pay attention. I try not to speed. I commit to kindness on the road. Because we’re all in this together.
I am reminded of a story in the Christian scriptures (Mark 4: 35-41):
That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side.” Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm. He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”
Jesus’ friends wonder (and are more than annoyed) at his apparent calm in the face of certain destruction. For Christ’s sake, how can somebody sleep at a time like this!? (I imagine many in our moment are losing sleep) As a prophet Jesus knows the reality; that storms run their course. What is important is that they were together in the boat. Perhaps the disciples missed the point. It wasn’t about the power of control and domination over the elements. It is the faith that together we weather the storm. Siblings, where is your faith? What grounds you in this moment against the storm?
Every day of this outbreak I have woken up, gone to the gym, and come into the hospital. Because there are people alone in their hospital rooms, with cancer and infections and injuries and illness, who are better when we are together. COVID19 is dangerous and precautions are followed. There is a long road ahead. Yes I am afraid. I’ve read this story; I know the potential endings. I just believe in my ability to choose how to respond to the fear. And my choice is to show up. Because what dominates my mind is not to hoard toilet paper and hand sanitizer. It is knowing that I can make a difference. We all can. Every day.
Siblings of Seattle and around the world, I see you. You’re not alone. We’re in this together. You all woke up this morning already enough for this day. You were created with inherent dignity and worth. Today is an opportunity to live. And as St. Mary Oliver wrote in The Summer Day: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”