Troubled or Intrigued?

by Rev. Cynthia Park, LPC, PhD, Grace Episcopal Church

We have become so used to our “binary” mindsets that we forget it is possible to experience very different emotions simultaneously. It doesn’t mean there is something peculiar about us if during this quarantine we feel both anxious about what is happening and, also feel peaceful about the government ordering us into “time out.”

We are not unaccustomed to paradoxical emotions. Consider, for example, the mixed feelings when a loved one dies following a devastating illness. We are simultaneously completely sad at our loss and we are also
completely grateful for the end to suffering.

The challenge in these days is to spend time listening to the messages these disparate feelings are trying to communicate to our conscious minds.

Consider the common frustration of “helplessness”. Why does that pinch us? Have we considered that much of the world’s population lives in a constant institutionalized state of “helplessness”, because of their race, their economics, their education, their politics, or their gender identity?

We who perpetually and without thinking live at the center of social hegemony expect that, when “this” is all over, we will return to things as they were. But, what about the rest of the world?

What would it look like to explore new ways of being human that are fashioned according to the lessons this temporary sense of helplessness is teaching us? What would it look like to see the world from the perspective of those to whom this pandemic has introduced us?

First, let’s look more closely at how the present circumstances are diagnostic:

1. Our limited capacity to tolerate ambiguity has become very evident. We insist on knowing exactly when “this” will be over. A sign of good mental health is the capacity to tolerate things that are ambiguous. This unique sort of tolerance derives from recognizing our “right size”; that is, we are not always at the center of information. Our experience may be only a small percentage of a larger picture that does not directly include us. Developing this level of tolerance is achieved by practicing daily respect for others’ feelings, moderation in our personal appetites for food and other sensual pleasures, and just and honest communication with others. Practicing these attitudes in the context of regular quiet centered prayer can not only enhance our connection with others, but with the Divine.
2. It is a challenge for us to sustain personal limitations to our autonomy in order to ensure the welfare of others. In the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001, our “brotherly love” was spontaneous and generous. By contrast, in the initial days of the recent quarantine and shelter in place edicts, we bristled at the idea of the government mandating what it looks like to “love your neighbor.” Perhaps, this is why we have such resistance to Jesus’ clarification about the identity of “our neighbor.” We are emotionally paralyzed at the notion that we might risk inconvenience for the welfare of someone — some “people”– we have been taught to despise. Can we not discipline our “autonomy” to live in such a way that we choose to actually know others, and use our “might” to set aside our prejudice?
3. Our “world” view is actually a “personal” view: “I feel fine. So, why can’t I resume my activities?” In how many other situations have we had this same attitude? It comes from living in the fantasy that our lives are independent of others’ lives. Learning that all our lives are
connected isn’t a hope; it’s a scientific fact.

Second, let’s move from a posture of irritation to a posture of imagination.
1. During this time, the political or religious cultures of other countries has not been as important as their personal stories. When we hear their stories, do the circumstances and relationships resonate with our own stories?
2. The move toward a solution has thrown wide the door for collaborative research around the globe. How can we continue this universal collegiality going forward? How have other places managed to address homelessness or domestic abuse? What has worked for them? What can we learn from them?
3. What can we do to enhance our awareness of people who are different from us? Since we now know that we are inextricably connected to each other and that if one group suffers, we all suffer, how can we enlarge our “personal” view so that it moves toward a true “world” view?

We don’t have to wait until we feel better about all of this before we can find life-giving meaning in it. Let’s hope that, in some critical ways, we never return to things “as they were.”