With lockdown now into its eleventh week (longer if, like some of us, you went into self-isolation the minute the alarm bells sounded) I’m beginning to wonder if this is what the ‘new normal’ really looks like. For those whose businesses have folded, who have no familiar routine to return to, or who find themselves prematurely retired, getting out of bed in the morning may be the biggest challenge they will face in the ‘new normal’ day. Despite the long weeks of lockdown, nobody is prepared for this sense of purposelessness and for the depression that comes with it.
The shock of the new, if it is new at all, returns us to the age old problem of solitude and loneliness, of purposelessness. But perhaps we also misunderstand the nature of purpose, when it comes to what our lives are for or about. St. Paul, in his letter to the fledgling church in Rome, writes that God works all things to the good for those who love him, who are called according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28) It seems that love, calling and purpose are very closely related. They are bound up in each other.
That, you may say, is all very well for those who have the time to ponder these things, whose thoughts and concerns are not taken up with how to pay the rent and feed their children, once the furlough money stops and their wages with it. And yet there is a connection between loving God and the harsh realities that many people will face post-lockdown. I think it has to do with our ability to somehow anchor our fears and uncertainties in a deep conviction about the transforming possibilities of love.
Every now and then we see these possibilities arising in the most unlikely contexts, in the angry confrontations that we are witnessing on both sides of the Atlantic at the moment, and in the way they oblige us to confront our complicity in what can only be described as the historic sins of slavery, racism and all forms of prejudice. Where we confront prejudice in ourselves, we must turn and seek forgiveness from those we distrust and at the same time fear, because prejudice and fear belong together. But the hardest thing is not the seeking of forgiveness. It is the acceptance of it.
Accepting another’s forgiveness obliges us to open our hearts to those we have wronged, and who we now fear, and then to keep them open. It obliges us to go on accepting love. We have seen small instances of this happening. Riot police taking a knee before protestors and the gentle acceptance of love and forgiveness that follows. Black people refusing to hate white people. The walls of hostility come down, momentarily perhaps, but also irreversibly. Hope replaces despair. Somewhere in all this the loving purposes of God are at work.
The Christian Church is called to embody the loving purposes of God. But it cannot do this unless it re-connects with its own humanity, unless it thinks of itself not as an organisation, or an institution, but as a vulnerable body of human beings called to live out God’s purposes for the world. The Church defines itself as the body of Christ to the extent that it knows itself to be a people whom God loves and who love God. Where there is indifference to God, there is also indifference to the suffering of other human beings. So, for Christians, the living out of God’s purpose begins with self questioning, first in regard to whether we love God and, secondly, in the extent to which others feel our love for God in the way we think of them, speak of them, and act towards them.
All of this returns us to the acceptance of forgiveness which is at the heart of the Christian faith. Accepting that we are forgiven, keeping our hearts open to this often painful reality, disposes us to love others as Christ loves us. We still have time, before the end of lockdown, to decide whether we want to live our lives in the knowledge of this world transforming reality.
There was no internet connection this morning. Like many people, I find being unexpectedly cut adrift in this way frustrating but this morning it induced panic. It takes very little to throw a day off kilter during this pandemic. We need certain structures to stay in place for the various components of the day to hold together, so that the day retains its shape and forward momentum. The internet is vital to structure, but it must not become indispensable.
Perhaps what we need right now is a modified rule of life, broadly suited to the situation we are in but adaptable to individual circumstances and to the kind of stress inducing situations which would normally be quite easy to deal with. We need habits of mind to fall back on, a basic template for living in a way that ensures that a person thrives during this period of lockdown, rather than just surviving it.
We could start by being more kind to ourselves. This is not selfish individualism. Being kind to oneself when there is so much suffering everywhere is quite difficult to achieve, given the feelings of guilt it can induce, and the mental and spiritual distortions that these feelings can lead to. It helps, in this respect, not to get over tired. We need to live within our physical and spiritual means if we are to remain emotionally stable for the duration of this pandemic. Getting up an hour later not only ensures we are more rested, it brings the added benefit of shunting the whole day forward, making the day itself feel a little shorter.
Having got up a little later, spending the first hour of the waking day in the presence of God, sustained by tea if necessary, gives a person a firmer footing on which to begin the day itself. It is important to be honest about what we feel during this hour, while at the same time not allowing yesterday’s preoccupations and emotions to dominate it. A certain equanimity is needed for grace to do its transforming work. Facing one’s real emotions and allowing them to be held by God may provide a way for them to be used as the means for building something new for ourselves or for someone else in the day that lies ahead.
Whether a person lives alone or is part of a household, the way in which they spend the first hour of the day will significantly impact on the hours that follow because during that first hour, we can be open to the possibility of seeing things differently, of noticing things around us. In being available in this way, to the good that is around us, time acquires a value of its own. Learning the habits of openness allows for reflection and for consideration of what others, close to us or far away, might be thinking or feeling at any given moment.
The first hour spent with God also teaches us the value of silence. While it is important not to run from silence by filling the day with internal or external noise, we need to be kind to ourselves where these distractions are concerned. Most of us need social media right now because it connects us with people. It is a great antidote to loneliness and can be a real source of encouragement and support to anyone who engages with it in a generous and creative way. Social media works best when we consciously use it to support or enrich the lives of others. Giving and receiving ‘likes’ and positive comments strengthens our sense of belonging together in these difficult times, so we should be kind to ourselves by not feeling guilty about the fact that we find these positive interactions good and helpful.
It is equally important to have a meaningful project to work on, not just to fill the time, but to give substance to the day and to dilute the stress that comes with living with other people in a more concentrated way than we’re used to. Any project or activity that leaves a person feeling better about themselves, whether it is writing a novel or clearing out a garage, benefits those they live with.
This is a blessing in itself and a direct result of what normality may yet look like for years to come. Perhaps we will have got used to not having to prove ourselves, to achieve and to be driven by the need to work or be busy because we cannot bear the thought of time wasted. Perhaps we will become less in need of proving ourselves and better at living within our limits and at the same time living richly towards God and other people. So much death and suffering may yet teach us to value not only the time that is given to us but life itself.