I read a perplexing news article last week. The article’s author offered advice about how to cope with the fact that there appears to be no foreseeable end to the pandemic.
The news article began with some sensible observations. The author quoted a proverb that says, “There is nothing worse than finally seeing the light and then falling back into darkness.” The proverb certainly sums up our current situation: the availability of a vaccine made it appear that we were moving toward normalcy, but the spread of the ‘delta variant’ plunged us back into the darkness of uncertainty about the future.
The article proceeded with advice, however, that appeared to be completely absurd. The author advised readers to distract themselves from their stress by engaging in shocking actions like sucking on lemons or plunging into freezing water. It’s been several days since I read that article, and I still can’t decide whether it was intended to be serious or facetious.
The perplexing news article did have at least one positive effect; it inspired me to offer my own suggestions to those who struggle to cope with the prolongation of the pandemic. I hope my suggestions make some sense to you.
Everyone’s valid observations about the pandemic are that it’s wearisome and that there appears to be no end in sight. I’d like to suggest that this disconcerting situation is entirely normal. At the best of times, there are aspects of life that can be wearisome; further, the normal burdens of life never cease. Admittedly, the increased risk to the public health makes the pandemic an unusual event. The worries, risks, and burdens that accompany the pandemic are unusual in their scope but not in their nature. Worries, risks, and burdens are ever present in every person’s life.
As the burdens of the pandemic are abnormal in severity but not in variety, the normal response to burdens on the part of Jesus’ disciples is appropriate to the pandemic in the same way that it is appropriate to any ordinary event. In today’s Gospel reading Jesus says, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” (Mk. 8:34) It is necessary to keep in mind that ‘denying oneself’ for Jesus’ sake does not equate to denying one’s humanity.
When Jesus instructed his disciples to ‘pick up their cross and follow him,’ he was not promoting self-destructive behavior. Picking up one’s cross does not entail self-harm or heroic self-denial. To ‘pick up one’s cross and follow Jesus’ means nothing more or less than to imitate him. Jesus gave over his entire life to serving God by inaugurating the possibility of redemption for all people. His disciples imitate him by laying aside their self-concern and giving their lives over to loving God by loving their neighbor.
Here, then, are my suggestions for coping with the unusually burdensome and uncertain nature of the COVID19 pandemic: get over yourself and give yourself over to showing compassion to someone in need.
In case you think my suggestions are facetious, let me explain the rationale behind this advice. If you are stressed by the loss of your previous social life, if you feel burdened by the news of spreading contagion, if you are offended by the irrational behavior of those who can no longer cope with their lives, there is a common element in those problems: you. If, on the other hand, you set aside your self-concern, you have already escaped the source of all your worries.
When Jesus instructed his disciples to ‘pick up their cross and follow him,’ he was not recommending an impossible burden. Rather, he was identifying the dynamic that governs all human relationships. Those whose relationships center on themselves are the loneliest of people; those whose attentions focus on others are surrounded by love and filled with consolation.
There is, in fact, nothing worse than finally seeing the light and then falling back into darkness. The light seen by Jesus’ disciples isn’t the light of their own habits, predilections, or desires; the light seen by the disciples of Jesus is the light of salvation revealed in his death. That light never fades and is never overcome by darkness. Living in that light requires the death to self that allows one to set aside the self-concern that creates unbearable burdens. That light is a guarantee of being able to cope with life’s ordinary and extraordinary challenges.
My advice is this: you have already seen the light; don’t fall back into darkness. As perplexing as it might sound, the way to live in the light is to get over yourself and give yourself over to the love of God.