I’m feeling really good these days, despite the fact that the news is getting worse, not better. Maybe my husband is a prophet (or a pessimist), but he saw all this coming. Two months ago, he was listening to the medical advisors’ and the economic advisors’ contradictory advice, and it seemed to boil down to this: shut everything down to save lives, keep everything open to save lives. If we keep vectors for the novel coronavirus apart from each other (issue shelter-at-home orders), fewer people will die and we won’t overwhelm the medical system. Alternately, if we open the economy after a short quarantine, we may be able to prevent the collapse of our economy and social breakdown, thus saving lives. And while it is easy to criticize a leader who comes off as a buffoon, without the benefit of omniscience, we can’t really say what the correct approach to this thing is. Unprecedented means we’ve never done this before. With such disparate viewpoints and polarization over something as simple as whether to wear a mask in the grocery store, we are left each to himself to decide what it means to “do the right thing.” And once we’ve decided, we take sides and begin to tear each other apart, right? My goodness, how quickly we lose our humanity and resemble wild dogs!
So, yes, we may be facing the “end of the world as we know it,” and someday we may be able to look back and see what we should have done, hindsight being 20/20 (no pun intended). But that doesn’t necessarily help us decide what to do now, where to put our mental and emotional (and sometimes physical) energy—if we should respond with sadness, fear, anger, apathy, compassion, joy. Yes, I said joy. How you respond to this crisis might become your coping mechanism, so choose carefully. And study your history books: it’s always a slippery slope from labeling people (or hanging an auction number around the neck or pinning gold stars to a sleeve) to annihilation. If we forget what makes us human, if we forget to look at our enemy as a wayward brother, if we choose competition over cooperation, we are going to create the thing we are afraid of: complete breakdown, in which we all lose, but some lose more than others.
I choose joy. Do not confuse this with happiness, or naivete, or delusion. It is a deep-down, smile-no-matter what, focus on something good kind of joy. Joy stands in an attitude of defiance: “no matter what happens, I will continue to demonstrate love. I will continue to dance, sing, create, help others, feed my soul, and laugh at absurdity.” Where ephemeral happiness disappears with the rain cloud, joy goes under cover and concentrates on remembering the sunny days of yore and hoping for sunny days ahead. Joy can co-exist with sadness and anger, but it prevents one from slipping into hatred, apathy, fear, and self-destruction.
I am a slow learner, and joy does not always come easily for me. I am capable of doom-and-gloom, stinginess of love, taking things too seriously, snappishness, trying to control things and then whining when I don’t get my way. These things tend to send joy running. Maybe you can find joy another way, but the way I find it is in the context of faith.
For many, Christianity looks like a vast self-deception, one in direct opposition to scientific thinking. To others, it is a social construct to keep people under control. I have heard it said that it is merely a crutch for the weak, who are uncomfortable with the unknown and need a God-is-in-control narrative. To me, it is a life-raft: I am in the middle of a dark ocean, defeated as much by my own negative thoughts and behaviors as the various horrors I see in the world, my boat is sinking, and though I can swim, I can’t do it long enough to save myself—and then a bright-yellow self-inflating raft pops to the surface, someone extends a hand and I climb in—so relieved that I can’t help but whoop and holler. This is what God did—and does for me. Call me delusional and weak-minded if you like, but I heard God’s voice, and I am undeniably afloat instead of at the bottom of the ocean. We can discuss endlessly the complicated details of divisive theology, abuse done in God’s name, seeming contradictions in the Bible or in the fossil record—I am not ignorant of these things. But most of the problems with religion are man-made (big surprise there). Maybe we could discuss these things inside the rubber raft instead of while treading water in a sea full of circling sharks.
Here is some advice from the first century, from a letter written to a church suffering persecution in the Greek coastal city Thessaloniki. It is encouragement to the believers there to live lives worthy of their calling. “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. Do not put out the Spirit’s fire; do not treat prophecies with contempt. Test everything. Hold onto the good. Avoid every kind of evil” (Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians 5:16-22, NIV Bible).
I don’t know what else to do right now. Maybe I will be called to act or to resist action. Maybe I will soon be in survival mode myself. While I wait, watch, and take care of daily tasks, I am also playing my ukulele, writing songs, editing my book (which feels like it will never be done), playing with my kids, making delicious meals, homeschooling, writing down my thoughts, reading good books, walking and biking and kayaking, talking to friends on the phone, listening to music, praying—both alone and with a group of faithful sisters (via Zoom), and occasionally adding my two-cents-worth to the wide-ranging virtual discussions.
Whatever the circumstances, we have the freedom to choose our responses. We can choose joy, if not happiness. If the Titanic of our “normal life” is sinking, we can emulate the musicians playing on the slanting deck. We may fall down, have a bad day, backslide, but we can get back up, remember that we are loved and are capable of love. If people’s fear, arrogance, or hatred reduces them to snitching on their neighbors (may we never forget Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia), it may make it hard to freely do the things that bring us joy, but for now, we must continue to dance like no one is watching.