It may seem like the end of the world if you watch the news extensively, hearing stories about how the pandemic is spreading. But it is crucial to step back and see that fear and isolation do not have to equal loneliness and despair.
A friend forwarded a poem by an Irish priest, Richard Hendrick, "Lockdown," which reminds us that in Italy, people sing to each other through open windows so that those living alone hear family sounds and that elsewhere churches and temples are opening to help the homeless and sick, and people are learning to turn inward to read, be quiet, create, and contact one another.
We are forming a community of hope. People everywhere, writes Fr. Hendrick, are slowing down and reflecting, seeing how connected we all are despite the quarantine. "There is sickness, but there does not have to be disease of the soul... .There is panic buying, but there does not have to be meanness," he writes.
It seems to me essential to limit our exposure to the media and take one day at a time, doing everything "quietly and in a calm manner," as St. Francis de Sales wrote in the 17th century. His advice: "Do not lose your inner peace for anything whatsoever, even if your whole world seems upset." Right now, the whole world does seem upset, until we reflect on what Fr. Hendrick's poem says.
The present crisis also reminds me of the words of the Jewish writer Etty Hillesum, writing in her Amsterdam apartment as the Holocaust was about to carry her off to Auschwitz. "I am not alone in my sickness and fears, but at one with millions of others...it is all part of life." She knew, as Richard Rohr recently wrote, that when we see our suffering as part of humanity's "one universal longing for deep union," it helps prevent selfishness and loneliness. We are all in this together. We know that most people are undergoing the same hardship, or worse, and this "makes it hard to be cruel to anyone." (Rohr)
Suffering has the capacity to teach us many things, mainly that we are all part of one reality--and that compassion and love are the only ways to deal with this crisis. We realize in these difficult times that we are not really alone but connected--and that we have great inner resources.
Of course, we can distract ourselves with reading, music, and entertainment, but deep down, we are aware that we are not in control. For believers, this means we turn to God, who, says Rohr, is with us in suffering. Etty Hillesum knew this in 1942. She writes (in An Interrupted Life), speaking to God, "there doesn't seem to be much you can do about our lives. Neither do I hold you responsible. You cannot help us, but we must help You and defend Your dwelling place inside us to the last."
How do we help God? By loving others, reaching out to those living alone, doing whatever chores we can for the elderly, offering hope--and by being grateful for each day as we move toward a solution of the pandemic, since we know it will end. When it does, I believe many people will be spiritually stronger.