The societal uncertainty and the volatile nature of the virus transmission is enough to drive anyone off the cliff. It’s easy to pout and feel sorry for ourselves, even if all we are asked to do is stay home. Even when we have a spacious home to dwell in, even when we love being at home, and when home happens to be a safe and loving place for us, we can begin to resent the enforced nature of our collective confinement. We feel robbed of freedom and robbed of safety. We are told that self-isolation is the primary preventative measure to contain the spread of Covid-19.
Okay, I get it. I’m healthy, in a good physical space and still have my job. I practice tons of self-talk to convince myself it’s good and important to stay home and not see anyone in the flesh, let alone hug them. It’s good and important to exercise parish ministry with a laptop and the phone. It’s good to try new things, isn’t it, such as an online worship service through Zoom. No matter the volumes of self-talk, however, my pastor’s heart remains reluctant and unconvinced. You’re just getting too old and set in your ways, the upbeat voice inside begins to snicker.
And then our quiet prairie town got hit with its first known casualty of Covid-19. And I don’t mean the illness itself, but its preventative “cure” — the self-isolation. A well-known and loved member of the community snapped under the weight of having to close down his business on orders of the government to limit social interaction. In the end the lock-down and isolation, resulting in a loss of livelihood, purpose and income, pulled the trigger, and he was gone forever. In this lonely moment of despair, he ended it all; that tragic act is now hurting the very people he loved and cared for in his family and his community. Beyond comprehension, beyond consolation, beyond tragic.
Slowly, in one pastoral conversation after another, all on the phone, the puzzle pieces of this lost life revealed a multi-layered and complicated picture of someone who spent a lifetime struggling to rise above the destructive forces pulling on his sanity. Even a completely unrelated phone visit with friends in another part of the province revealed connections to the suicide in our prairie town — how interwoven is the web of connections.
My pastoral heart broke with every puzzle piece the next phone chat handed me — an addiction here, a conflicted relationship there, a tragedy to boot. My pastoral heart broke every time I had to dial a phone number instead of ringing a doorbell. My pastoral heart broke with the sound of choking tears through a receiver instead of in the comforting embrace of physical togetherness in prayer. I couldn’t help it. Every fiber in my being knew that this is not how ministry in the name of the One who touched and embraced the untouchables was meant to happen.
Like the people in Nova Scotia a few weeks ago, an entire community was reeling and we couldn’t even be in the same space together, let alone hold each other in a consoling embrace. Relational connections are vital for emotional, mental and social survival. A web of relationships is stitched together over a lifetime; that web is our lifeline in more ways than we realize. These relational webs are being severely tested right now by the social restrictions. It is hard enough for the relatively sane ones among us, let alone for those who already had their private share of demons to fight before the virus arrived.
When one entire web of life and love in a small, relatively stable and peaceful community grieves the tragic death of one of its own, however flawed his efforts in healing may have been, what hope is there for entire communities in the north? Our Indigenous sisters and brothers have had to stick together as the primary means of cultural, material and social survival. Living in close physical quarters, with few means to self-isolate and disinfect, Covid-19 has now reached the edges of these tight-knit inter-generational families. Already plagued by the social and economic demons of discrimination and poverty, collective mental breakdown as a result of the social restrictions may prove to be a more invasive and long-lasting virus than the one we are fighting off right now.
If the current social restrictions are stretching the inner resources of relatively healthy folks, what is the emotional and mental toll on individuals and families who were already suffering abuse, depression and other life-destructive factors, now and in the years to come? Each of us has our share of internal demons to fight; some of us hide those battles better than others. Some are simply more public than others, and still others are the result of blatant systemic injustice and exploitation.
It is too soon to know what collective mental health price we are paying to keep the virus contained. Both threats are invisible, both are detrimental to the human community. I sincerely hope that the preventive measures are not worse than the illness. There is good reason for my heart’s refusal to accept this season of social isolation as a new normal. It points to the fact that it is not good at all for us to be alone (Genesis 2:18). Prisoners in solitary confinement have long known this basic truth.
Julian of Norwich, a 14th century mystic, lived in voluntary self-isolation most of her life while her world suffered the Black Death. While making space in my heart for the pain of isolation suffered by so many at this time, some resulting in terribly tragic deaths, I draw solace from her spiritual witness and her writings. Julian reassures me that in our falling and rising again we are always kept in God’s love: “If there is anywhere on earth a lover of God who is always kept safe, I know nothing of it, for it was not shown to me. But this was shown: that in falling and rising again we are always kept in that same precious love.” ~ Julian of Norwich
In this season of disorienting social dislocation, let us keep a tender heart towards one another, knowing that each of us is fighting this battle in unique and often invisible ways. Let us extend the grace and care we each need to get through this, holding one another in our falling so that we can rise again together, secure in God’s and one another’s embrace of love and mercy. Finally, let us pray fervently that tragedies like the ones in Nova Scotia and in our prairie town will remain the exception rather than the rule.