(I wrote this on Tuesday, March 10th. I had no idea all that would happen between then and today. I hope my words are appropriately tentative and wondering. I pray that they don’t diminish anyone’s pain or disregard anyone’s experience. I am still wondering where this will all go.)
Today it feels like I am living in an alternate reality. It seems it has been a while since fear and disruption were this present in our daily shared lives. Maybe it happened during the days after 9/11. Maybe after the assassination of Dr. King or President Kennedy. For some, maybe during the time of struggles for Civil Rights. And while not present in my personal memory, certainly during World War II. Maybe I’m really exaggerating all this. Maybe it is just the 24 hour news cycle. All I know is that many people I know are afraid and worried.
The stock market is falling. The COVID-19 coronavirus threatens us with its mysterious spread. Governments chose yesterday to start fighting about oil prices. Our president and national leadership (at this point) seem to be floundering in its response to all the current news and crises. And the nation is not even together in this. I cannot recall a time where so many citizens and families stood on the opposite side of political divides.
My own place of privilege means that means that disruption for me is smaller than for many others (so far). We can cancel a long-planned trip to Peru and not have it devastate our finances. We can stay home from movies or restaurants and find other options for entertainment. As a retired person, I don’t face the income loss that comes from staying home from a place of employment. I haven’t experienced any serious illness. And (at least at this point) the stock market tumble doesn’t affect our monthly income.
I am profoundly aware that times like today knock us over and encourage us to recoil, to burrow down, and to hide. Yet somehow, it seems that there has to be a better personal stance in response to all that is happening. Caution and care for others is good. Fear doesn’t seem like the best reaction. But complacency is not really how I want to respond.
I don’t really know an easy path. The threats are real. Illness, death, and financial insecurity are truly present. But hysteria and terror get me nowhere. Over and over in both the Jewish and Christian holy books we hear the refrain, “don’t be afraid.”
So what shall we do? I don’t know. A least for today, I find no comforting words.
Spiritual Practice: Facing Our Fears
Travel can be rehearsal for harder things in life. It allows us to choose to face things that scare us. Sometimes those things are small. Sometimes they are big. I can visit a place where I don’t speak the language and still find ways to communicate. I can ride the metro in a strange city, wondering if I will really end up at the neighborhood I had hoped to visit. I can board a large flying machine, trusting that technology and human skill will navigate gravity and weather patterns to get me where I wish to go. I can savor the daily diet of a local resident, though what I see on my plate is something I never imagined eating in my life.
Travel invites us to grow in courage. It develops a spiritual/psychological muscle that teaches us how to face challenges that we didn’t choose but come to us nonetheless. When our life partner is so hard to understand he might as well be speaking a different language. When our new job is so difficult that it feels like we have entered a foreign land. When the death of a loved one makes us feel like we are in some distant desert. When we are so confused and desperate for direction that we will receive the kindness of any stranger.
We will all face fears at some point in our lives. Death will happen, we will fail, relationships will shatter, societal breakdowns will overwhelm us, trusted ones will betray us. We cannot escape our fears. So perhaps we can invite them in small ways—and learn to face the big fears by entertaining the small ones.