Monday, May 4, 2020

Reaching Out with Hope

I have been pleasantly surprised at the reaction to a recent article I wrote.  I  had nearly 40 positive responses to a short piece in the Orlando Sentinel, an OpEd reflection on how we might find strength amid, and after, the current pandemic.  This reaction surprised me because I am used to receiving little feedback from whatever I write.

But people are worried, but have more time to read and reflect, and are drawn to positive messages. It's possible, as a recent article in the Guardian noted about a survey in Britain, that many people, not affected by unemployment or illness, are reacting to the self-quarantine and the general uncertainty with a surprising degree of inner peace.  Many are finding rest from stress, relief from not going into public, joy in cooking and in spending more time with loved short, after an initial decline in happiness, the survey found an overall increase in well-being.

We are stronger, more patient and resilient than we often think.

 I am pleased that the article itself has been a means of connecting me to two cousins I rarely hear from, and  to an old college friend, who forwarded the article to another old friend, not heard from in 25 years, whose response was gratifying.  A local friend emailed my article to his daughter in New York, who wrote to me that she was uplifted by my noting that our lives are not really about ourselves but about relationships.  So I've been unusually busy responding to emails and sharing mutual good wishes with former students, neighbors, and many friends, in an expanded web of interconnections, a community of hope.

One of my cousins, Patrick Fleming, a psychotherapist in St. Louis, responded by sending me a reflection on fear and the way it can make us self-centered and selfish (consider the panic hoarding of paper products).  The antidote to such fear, he says, is stay connected to others, to act from the heart, not the panic. He said my article and his were on the same wave length.

I avoided specifically religious language in my piece, but the message came directly from my Catholic background: We are never really in control of our lives, as the current crisis is forcing many people to realize. We can turn inward and find peace in simple things; that is, we can become contemplatives. For many people, being cloistered brings a kind of freedom.

And we are being forced to see our connection with the natural world and with everyone else. We see that we are not isolated individuals, despite our narcissistic society with its emphasis on comfort, pleasure and success. My life is not just about me, but about me in relationship to God through others.  It is about service and our obligation now to reach out to those who are lonely, frightened, and feeling unloved.

As Richard Rohr recently wrote, when we face our own vulnerability and reach out to those who are feeling vulnerable, we are forming a kind of community, which is essential to those who feel isolated and cut off from human contact.

It remains a challenging time, not aided by a White House that deceives the public with phony information while urging that businesses open up before it is safe to do so.  Our collective physical health must come first, along with some reassurance that we can trust in a future that will be different, but, I hope, spiritually stronger.  This is what I suggest in the article published last week (27 April), pasted below.   



By Gerald J. Schiffhorst

I wonder how we will be changed by the COVID-19 pandemic—those of us who haven’t lost our jobs or been hospitalized or forced to fight for unemployment compensation or deal with inadequate health insurance.

And I wonder what we will learn. Will we be able to look back on this as a crisis that strengthened us in some way?

As guest columnist Joseph Wise says in the Sentinel (4-17), the crisis is also an opportunity. He is writing about education, but his insight applies to the economy and every area impacted by this pandemic.

The lockdown is forcing me to re-learn several important lessons.  The first is that I am not in control: the future is uncertain but need not be a source of panic, the kind of alarm that comes from too much media exposure. (I limit my news intake to fifteen minutes a day.)  The world as we know it will change, and some good things will happen. 

Second, uncertainty is always disturbing, and the present pain is a world-wide challenge, but the pain does not have to turn into suffering for those of us sequestered at home.

Pain becomes suffering, I think, when we feel alone, abandoned, and unloved. My  wife, Lynn, and I are doing what many others have been doing: reaching out to those who feel lonely and helpless, both the elderly and the unemployed. We are phoning or emailing friends, some of them too frightened to go outdoors. They feel less isolated and anxious by these daily contacts, and so do we.

We all need to be reminded that some anxiety is normal, but since the future is never known, all I can do is focus on the here and now, taking one day at a time.  So mindfulness, paying close attention to each thing I do and refusing to worry about the future, is my third lesson.

Finally, this crisis is a reminder that my life is not merely about me--my comfort, pleasure, and success; it is, as my Jesuit education taught me, about serving others. The coronavirus is a startling reminder that we are connected to everyone else on the planet in innumerable ways. 

We may be isolated in our homes, but we are not really alone since we exist in relationship with the natural world and its people. We are learning the hard way how dependent we are on one another.

In a recent interview about the challenge of being confined at home, Pope Francis quoted from Virgil’s “Aeneid.” The lesson he found in this Roman poem from 19 B.C. was not to give up in despair but “save yourself for better times, for in those times remembering what happened will help us. Take care of yourselves for a future that will come.”

In that future, we will only be as strong and compassionate as we are today.


Gerald J. Schiffhorst, a professor emeritus of English at UCF, lives in Winter Park.




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