A man rolled his cart past me and we eyeballed each other. I took one look in his basket, full of a variety of frozen burritos that he appeared to have strong-armed in there like a bulldozer, and I set the Hot Pockets back.
I moved on, feeling smaller and more panicked by the minute as I passed the empty freezer cases, past a stray package of frozen eggplant, a frozen, cauliflower crust extra olive pizza, a section of frozen corn on the cob with obvious freezer burn.
On and on the empty sections gaped at me, and I back at them.
What in the world?
There are no shortages, the press tries to remind us.
This is not a natural disaster, the media drones.
If only everyone takes what they need, they say.
What I need is for my senior college nursing student to be able to take his long-awaited mission trip to the Dominican Republic that is now cancelled.
What I need is for my middle college son, studying in New York City, to come home before they lock down the area or the airports to travel.
What we all need is assurance that we will come out the other side of this unscathed.
No wonder England printed those signs during war times:
Easy for them to say.
Easy for anyone to say.
Hard, so very hard, for us to do.
What was it Mr. Rogers said? Look for the helpers? We could all use a helper about now, that’s for sure.
But we can help each other.
That’s the one sure thing we do have, right? Each other?
Social distancing doesn’t mean heart distancing, after all.
We can post our own signs of keeping calm, signs like kindness, like patience, like checking on each other.
We can take care of ourselves, too.
Having flown just days ago, I am reminded to put on my own oxygen mask before helping the person seated next to me. That means reaching for the tools I have been taught to use to keep my PTSD at bay,
things like writing and painting,
and my faith.
In this world, we will have trouble, that much is certain. Life can strip us from much. Plans and markets and governments can quake.
I’ve just returned from a short trip to New York City, where a single sniffle on the subway causes strangers to pull scarves over their faces and reach reflexively for the prized bottle of Purel in their pocket.
I don’t know why I thought it would be different when I returned home. I guess I thought less crowds and less noise, and the open fields, grass and trees of Indiana as opposed to a concrete jungle, would dampen my rising concern about the plague of the century, COVID-19, coronavirus.
The near-empty flight from New York City to Indianapolis–stewardess giving us poor souls in the back of the plane free wine–should have been my first clue: things at home don’t feel any better.
Schools are closing one after the other like dominos.
Workplaces are emailing urgent messages about working from home.
The news focuses on one topic and one topic only: coronavirus.
But there is, in the midst of this, one thing more pressing,
one thing more contagious,
one thing causing a fever unresponsive to pills or toilet paper or quarantine:
As a seasoned, working health care professional who often turns to irreverent humor to cope with the most intense and heartbreaking situations, even I feel the press of anxiety in my gut, my nights restless from disturbing, enigmatic dreams.
What is at the root of it, this fear we all feel?
The reasons are as varied as each of us: money and labile stocks; elderly relatives; children studying abroad; schools closing and childcare; a fan-less NCAA tournament; the disease itself, and so much more.
And let’s not forget Tom and Rita Hanks.
But still, all those are just symptoms.
There is a root to the fear behind all those things the best doctors and scientists, politicians and governments, N95-masks and Purel, can’t quarantine, and that is the fact that we as a society are desperately malnourished carriers of the highest risk factor of all:
Now, hopeless might not be the first word you would assign to your fear. But at the end of the day, when the structure of school and work, the false security of money and stocks, and the health we all take for granted are threatened, what do we have left to hope for?
Horatio Spafford knew something about life’s unexpected challenges. He was a successful attorney and real estate investor who lost a fortune in the great Chicago fire of 1871. Around the same time, his beloved four-year-old son died of scarlet fever.
Thinking a vacation would do his family some good, he sent his wife and four daughters on a ship to England, planning to join them after he finished some pressing business at home. However, while crossing the Atlantic Ocean, the ship was involved in a terrible collision and sunk. More than 200 people lost their lives, including all four of Horatio Spafford’s precious daughters. His wife, Anna, survived the tragedy. Upon arriving in England, she sent a telegram to her husband that began: “Saved alone. What shall I do?”
Horatio immediately set sail for England. At one point during his voyage, the captain of the ship, aware of the tragedy that had struck the Spafford family, summoned Horatio to tell him that they were now passing over the spot where the shipwreck had occurred.1
As Horatio thought about his daughters, words of comfort and hope filled his heart and mind. He wrote them down, and they have since become a well-beloved hymn:
When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll—
Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to know
It is well, it is well with my soul.2
How in the world, after losing literally everything, was Spafford able to write these words, and more than that, to mean them?
Faith is the best remedy, the most effective immunotherapy, the unequivocal fever reducer for fear.
Faith might not eliminate the aches of anxiety completely, and certainly an appropriate amount of vigilance is due during these times. But faith is certainly a better prescription than what the 24-hour-a-day cacophony of newscasters and social media can offer.
Making the shift from fear to faith isn’t easy, especially when faced with empty grocery aisles and airplanes and schools and stadiums. But here are a few tangible things we could do to shift our focus:
Take a walk in your garden. The tender shoots of hyacinths and daffodils are emerging in mine, and they remind me that spring always follows winter, no matter how brutally cold.
Create something new. I’m working on some built-in bookshelves and find the sanding and priming and painting immensely cathartic. Take out that adult coloring book and colored pencils that have been collecting dust, or pick up the knitting you set aside. The work of the hands can help soothe the mind so.
Hang out with your pets. There is a reason why comfort dogs are often seen at the scene of accidents and disasters. I have three retrievers whose gentle eyes and furry warmth calm and ground me regularly.
Finally and most importantly, turn to what the Lord says about fear.
Genesis 15:1: “Fearnot, Abram: I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward.”
Genesis 21:17: “And God heard the voice of the lad; and the angel of God called to Hagar out of heaven, and said unto her, What aileth thee, Hagar? Fearnot; for God hath heard the voice of the lad where he is.”
Genesis 26:24: “…fearnot, for I am with thee, and will bless thee…”
Deuteronomy 31:6: “Be strong and of a good courage, fearnot, nor be afraid of them: for the LORD thy God, he it is that doth go with thee; he will not fail thee, nor forsake thee.”
That’s just four of the hundreds of instances in scripture you can find the Lord assuring us He is with us. He sees us. He hears us.
And He never leaves us alone.
Many of us may contract this wicked virus before it’s all said and done. But in the meantime, we can trust that we will not be alone and we can continue to have hope, throughout it all.