This damn virus has turned the whole world upside down. Like everyone else, I have come to a hard realization: The world has changed, and it is not going back to the way it was any time soon. Now what?
I’m supposed to be a guy with some answers, and I have been tracking COVID-19 for months, warning people it would be worse than expected. My job is security, so I’m supposed to keep an eye on things that could threaten operations or the safety of our people. But it was actually only as I wrestled through my own issues that I remembered a perspective-flipping secret.
I’ve seen an upside-down world before, up close and personal, in ways most of my friends never have. I’ve spent a Siberian winter in the hardships of a disintegrating Soviet Union. I’ve hacked day after day through the chaos of anti-sex trafficking work in Calcutta. I’ve lived among survivors of the rape-for-profit industry in Kathmandu amidst people traumatized by the aftershocks of a huge earthquake. But here I am in what is supposed to be a walk in the park, safe and peaceful Cincinnati, and my mind keeps wandering into dark places as if I were back in the developing world. Where is all this coming from?
Part of it is surely that I no longer have my favorite distractions to hide in. Sports, friends, travel, entertainment, they all skipped town with the NBA when the lockdown came. I tried to replace them with different distractions: Zoom calls, renovation of my house, family board games, trips to the local park. Heck, I’m even growing a garden now. Those things do give temporary respite. But it hasn’t been enough. Inevitably my mind wanders and takes my feelings with it, like the raindrop traveling down my windshield into a well of water below.
In the past five days, both my 80-something, infirm parents seriously injured themselves at home. An ambulance came for my step-mom after she lost her balance and hit the floor, then a few days later, the next-door neighbor checked on my dad because he hadn’t answered the phone. He was lying on the kitchen floor where he had been for four hours with a broken hip. Now they are both in what is at the moment the worst place in the world for elderly people with COPD and heart failure to be: At the hospital. As I write this, I am awaiting news about my dad’s surgery and how he will recover from the mild heart attack he also suffered laying on the floor not knowing if help would come.
That’s what this new COVID-19 life is like—boredom and isolation against a background of worry, punctuated by occasional bouts of real fear.
Some days, I feel hollow in the pit of my stomach from every twist and turn of circumstance as we struggle to adapt to whatever normal is going to be. I find myself at the mercy of the cyclical parade of feelings, memories, and stories carrying my train of thought to places I really don’t like to visit.
What happens if I get sick—or my wife?
Will I lose my job?
Will my parents get home from the hospital without the infection?
How will they be cared for now, with nursing homes being so very dangerous?
Of course, my rehearsal of all that has been, and all that might be never gets me anywhere. I don’t end up with answers to any of these questions. I have worn grooves, or more likely, ruts, in my thought life. My attention lazily winds down the same path of least resistance regardless of whether the final destination is good, bad, true, or false. And I am sick of it.
Which only means I am today more keenly aware of my own heart. Of where I mentally and emotionally go in the minutes and seconds of the day. When sports, groups, office gossip, parties, and restaurants were here—they were anesthesia. Now the novocaine is wearing off, and my sensitivity is returning. And so I notice my fear and doubt which are never far away.
But an odd side effect is happening: Maybe, just maybe, my capacity for joy is returning too.
I went on vacation to South Florida right before the COVID-19 poo hit the fan. We stayed in a condo by the ocean. Just writing that last sentence brings it all back to me. Our family had a week of white sand, azure sea, wind, waves, wildlife, and sun. As I write it, I can feel it. And just how is that possible? How can my feelings suddenly lift from wallowing in depression to thoughts of beauty and peace? How do I go so quickly to such wildly different destinations?
The answer is, of course, so obvious it is kind of embarrassing to put it down on paper. It turns out, my thoughts are chosen by me, not imposed on me. I am not doomed to watch endless episodes of a shabby reality TV show called, “It’s All About Me.” I really can choose. The only question is, what will I choose?
I’m in a place where distractions are almost powerless. I can’t escape from the world of COVID-19 for very long. My circumstances are not going to change anytime soon. What I need is something that can transform my suffering. I need to connect with meaning that comes in spite of, or sometimes because of, suffering.
In the Bible, the apostle Paul, who persevered through great personal suffering, wrote, “Finally brothers, whatever is true, right, noble, and pure, if anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think about these things.” My mental vacation back to Florida reminds me how easy it can be to do, but then why am I so out of practice? Probably because of all my little habits of distraction. They are like fair-weather friends or drinking buddies, always ready to help me numb myself but conspicuously absent during lonely, hard times.
My own internal drama lately has reminded me of the story of one of my favorite authors, Austrian Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl. Frankl survived concentration camps in WWII Germany, recovered, and then with the rest of his life, went on to found a new school of positive psychology.
Frankl made a life-changing discovery in, of all places, Auschwitz, as walking along on a frozen, pre-dawn German road en route to another day’s slave labor. As he trudged along with his fellow concentration camp inmates, Frankl turned his mind to his wife, who the Nazis took from him when he was interned. As he marched, Frankl allowed himself to remember her, to talk with her, to see her “frank and encouraging look” with an uncanny acuteness. He later wrote:
A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life, I saw the truth. The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way—an honorable way—in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. …
Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (1949, Beacon Press Books.)
Humiliated and enfeebled, Frankl had no justifiable hope of escape or survival. Yet he could choose to fix his mind on thoughts of his beloved. It reminds me of another person who knew this secret as well: Jesus.
Jesus knew suffering. He walked down dirty third-world streets, living amongst sickness and oppression. He was insulted, accused, even tortured and executed. Through it all, he remembered his suffering wasn’t a random, meaningless accident. He remembered he was on a mission to save us all. He kept his internal life in touch with his identity, with his mission, with reality. That is why the Bible can say:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer, and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him, he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
This is what I can choose today, right here, right now. I can turn my mind back from the worries that pester me like gnats, that pelt me with thoughts of despair like raindrops on a windshield. I can focus my mind on what is deep and solid. I can turn my mind to the meaning that knowing God imbues in my daily life. Unconditional love, like what God has for each of us, changes everything. It takes the broken, the insignificant, the imperfect, the delayed, and the deprived, and it transforms it. God takes my suffering and imperfection and places it into a world he is making new, even today, even during a pandemic.
That I should allow this time of hardship to force me to harness my mind is what God keeps reinforcing to me these days. God is telling me it matters that I actually spend time and real effort at holding on to reality, even though parts of it are uncomfortable and scary. The truth is no one lives forever in this present world. Neither will my parents. But I can still love them, still show that I am emotionally near. My career ambitions are fine but don’t matter nearly as much as how I walk through the minutes of the day with the people around me.
God is good, and this world is at present broken. God will not change, but this world someday will. Love will win. The world will be made new. I am not rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. The love that I receive and the love that I give are eternal things, precious things.
It turns out that all the virus did was take away a fog of comfortably numb distraction. Where I choose to take my train of thought is left to me. I can focus on the love of God demonstrated in Jesus’ life, death, and his return to life again. Thank you, God.