I’ll start this morning with an old story about a King, who one day commanded all his wise women and men to come to him. He charged them, “Make me a motto that would be appropriate in every situation, as useful in prosperity as in adversity, something wise and true, words that might in any possible circumstance guide any person, their whole lives. And,” he added, “it must be short enough to be engraved on my ring!”
Hearing this extremely tall order, the wise people withdrew. Together and apart, they wrestled with the King’s charge to them for days and days, until finally it came to them. Rejoicing, they emerged from their chambers and went to the King with their newly created motto. “O King,” they said, “we have created the words that shall give rise to wisdom in every circumstance of life, happy or sad.” And these were the words they gave to the King, short enough to engrave on his ring: “this too shall pass.”
We need to put the King’s ring on every day, engraved with these words.
We needed to put this ring on every day before the coronavirus came. We’ll need to put this ring on every day after this time of the coronavirus is history.
But in this time: now more than ever.
This too shall pass.
Thursday, we heard news from China. China has gone from “patient zero” to zero patients. This is a major turning point. As of Thursday there were no new local infections. To determine if this will hold, there must be no new infections for 14 consecutive days, so we shall see. And beyond this, there may be subsequent waves of infections down the line.
But as far as this preacher can see, the motto on the ring is literally true. We’re seeing glimmers of the beginning of the end of the worst global health crisis since the 1918 flu pandemic. Just bare glimmers, but I’ll take it.
Because life right now is really tough. Infections and deaths are ramping up in Europe and here in America. And social distancing has turned our worlds upside down. Public gatherings of all kinds called off. No more face-to-face worship. Restaurants closed (except for delivery or take out). Movie theaters closed. Skating rinks closed. Gyms closed. Schools closed. Staying home all the time. One tweet shows a person playing a flute, and the caption reads, “Putting on a concert for my pet rocks during self-quarantine.” Another tweet comes from the mother of several young children: “Been homeschooling a 6-year-old and 8-year-old for one hour and 11 minutes,” she says. Then this: “Teachers deserve to make a billion dollars a year. Or a week.”
It’s tough all over. But we’ve got to double-down on social distancing. China’s where it’s at right now because of strict discipline. There is no way for America to get to a place of zero new patients unless we practice strict discipline ourselves.
The only way out is through.
So we need to put the ring on our finger. Spirituality is about a certain way of seeing that helps us be more patient with tough times, more resilient, more hopeful, and more capable of a sense of humor. “This too shall pass” means that we don’t have to self-protect in the face of pain that is permanent, because it’s not permanent. We don’t have to be in denial about how bad the times really are, because times change. We can just say it like it really is, and that’s ok.
But, “this too shall pass” also means that we can invest ourselves in doing hard things and taking our medicine (however bad it tastes) without excessive seriousness or despair. We can do the hard things and mix into them some light-heartedness. For there is always light at the end of every tunnel.
And finally, “this too shall pass” means that we need to stay resolutely curious in the midst of tough times, because there are uniquely good things to be found even now, especially now, and we don’t want them to be wasted, we don’t want to miss the opportunity to know them. It’s that old parable from the Buddha again: tiger above the man hanging on a vine, tiger below; two mice nibbling away at that vine; but right in front of his nose, in the preciousness of the moment he has left: a strawberry for him to pluck and eat.
Will you put the King’s ring on, with me? Let’s look at our lives right now through the spiritual perspective of “this too shall pass,” and see where it takes us.
Starting with an honest assessment of how things suck right now. We all have our stories. Here are some of the things I’m experiencing and seeing.
One is nothing less than the suppression of a fundamental human desire, which is to congregate. Which is to come together, in the flesh. Plan B—which is coming together virtually, as we are doing now, and in so many other ways—will serve us admirably for now. Absolutely. More on that in a moment. But right now I just gotta say: I miss you. I miss the hugs. I miss the physical proximity, human animal that I am, neurologically wired as I am for emotional connection, and as you are wired too; and so, when that connection is not happening, the result is big: the result is chronic irritability, the result is anger, the result is fear, the result is depression, the result is also physical illness.
It is a must–reducing the wildfire-like transmission of the coronavirus by social distancing–and there are hard consequences. Solving one epidemic only feeds another, which Vox’s Ezra Klein calls a “social recession”—an epidemic of loneliness and isolation.
Social distancing also means this: the loss of external structures and rhythms that organize and support our lives. That sounds very abstract but the impacts are as concrete as they come.
For example, when public schools are shut down, what’s happening to the hundreds of thousands of students who depend on free lunches? How are children living in poverty going to eat?
Or, as the service industry is reduced to bare-bones, leaving hundreds of thousands unemployed, what’s going to happen next? There’s talk of big government help coming our way, in the form of direct payments to people. We’ll see.
And then there’s the whole shut down of public celebrations that mark the time of year, like St. Patrick’s Day parades, and March Madness, and opening day of Baseball Season, and Easter church services. It’s harder to feel which season we’re actually in, or if we’ve actually moved on from winter to spring yet (which we officially have, just this week.)
The times feel surreal and mushy.
So do our personal lives. The days blend into each other. Is it Friday? Is it Monday? Hunkered down at home, who has not yet asked themselves, “Well, what am I going to do all day?” Or, “now what?”
And who has not yet muttered to themselves, “Him again!” “Her again!” “OMG the kids are driving me up the wall!” This is something else. External structures like work at the office, or kids going to school, or stay-at-home moms going to the gym with the kids to work out—all of these structures and more organize our relationships and bring us together when we want that—or give us some distance when we want that. But it’s gone now.
“Him again!” “Her again!” “OMG the kids are driving me up the wall!”
All of this is to say: if your life these days feels awful—if you are sad or angry or depressed or whatever—I see you. I honor you. It’s ok. It just means you are being impacted by a world that is truly tough these days. It just means you are alive these days.
And, we must social distance. Do it out of kindness for the hospitals and medical personnel who are way beyond up to their eyeballs in dealing with sick people—God bless them and keep them. Above all do it so we can eventually get to where China got this Thursday.
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” says Frodo in Lord of The Rings. “So do I,” says Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
So now we turn to the second meaning of “this too shall pass”: investing ourselves in the time given to us, with as much good humor as we can muster.
I’m really feeding off of Facebook these days, and here’s something I saw recently—this message: “Realized that this lockdown is pretty much like being stuck on a starship. You get to have away missions to empty lands or busy market places. The rest of the time you’re fannying about with technology and drinking tea.”
This suggests decision number #1 in this time: get on the starship. Go high-tech. Learn and use high-tech forms of connecting that provide alternatives to lo-tech face-to-face gatherings. We’re doing that already with West Shore worship. We’re getting started with ZOOM conferencing. Social media for all of us is right now the way to go. If you’ve been resisting, perhaps it’s time to rethink that.
Regarding the use of social media, you will want to know what the research shows: that you’ll get happier if you get active in your use of it: by sending messages, leaving comments, or talking in group chats. This is opposed to simply scrolling through your feed or watching viral videos. You’ll feel better if you can put something of yourself out there. I’ll feel better, because it’s been my habit to be more passive than active. So I’m learning, we’re learning.
Decision number #2 in this time is for families and individuals to step up to the task of creating structure for the day and the week. It’s no longer coming from outside us. We must do it ourselves, to create a greater sense of control and reassurance and normalcy. So what will your daily rituals be in this time? For yourself, for your primary relationship (if you are in one), and for your children or other family members (again, if that’s your situation)? Rituals help bring relaxation and calm. Rituals make a big difference.
I like this list of “Daily Quarantine Questions,” which suggests what some of what these rituals might be:
- What am I grateful for today?
- Who am I checking in on or connecting with today?
- What expectations of “normal” am I letting go of today?
- How am I getting outside today?
- How am I moving my body today?
- What beauty am I creating, cultivating, or inviting in today?
I really like this list, but to be completely honest, I also feel like it’s a bit tone-deaf in its relentless positivity. One thing we all need to understand is that we are grieving losses right now. All of the cancellations means that a lot of experiences have been stolen from us that we can’t get back. We’re grieving. And griefwork is some of the hardest work there is. So, as we plan our days, we need to give ourselves a break. Therefore, decision #3: Shun perfectionism. Don’t pile unrealistic expectations onto this time. Let your definition of “success” be generous. Some days are diamonds, other days coal. Some days you’re going to put your yoga pants on, brush your teeth, feed the kids and the cat, and that’s pretty much success right there. Some days it’s just going to be that way. But I’m hearing way too many people saying something like, “I have at least 20 books I haven’t read yet, so now that I have all this time, here goes! And I’ve always wanted to learn watercolor painting, so I’m going to dial up a bunch of YouTube videos and teach myself. And there’s that house renovation project that’s been on the back burner for way too long. Plus I’m going to spend more time with family. Plus, plus, plus.” OMG I’m exhausted just saying all this.
Be kind to yourself. Some days, moving your body to the kitchen to make coffee might be all you got.
So be it.
Decision #1, decision #2, decision #3, and now decision #4: this one is specifically for single-parent or double-parent families with young children. I can’t imagine how challenging this time is for you. The fact that you have young children who will relentlessly exhaust you with their endless demands (because they are doing their job as children)–and there’s no one else around to share your parenting job with, to allow you to get away for a while—well, that’s especially hard. Given your need, you may choose to buddy up with another person or another family. Kids can’t be supervised via ZOOM call. Do the best you can. Hang in there.
Finally, decision #5: this one relates to how social distancing is intensifying the stress in existing relationships. As in, “Him again!” “Her again!” Writing in The New York Times, Jennifer Senior says that “The coronavirus may turn out to be the ultimate stress test for couples.” Listen to that: “ultimate stress test.” Because: partners can be different. Different in how they absorb information—one drinks deep, the other sips. Different in how they deal with an emergency—one gets all-consumed by it, the other focuses on maintaining the normal rhythms of life. Different in how they live through disaster—one takes a positive, pro-active approach, the other is more passive and fatalistic.
Partners can be different. Thus the stress.
And the stress can be explosive, in this time when partners are hunkering down in the same place and spending way more unstructured time with each other than usual. So we must know this and acknowledge this. Not just “social distancing” but “spousal distancing”! Decide to give each other space. Decide to take space for yourself. Give each other grace. Do it. You might even allow yourselves to playfully pretend that an imaginary third person lives with you, and even though it’s clear that your partner did the thing that’s bothering you, blame the imaginary third person instead! It’s like a piece of Twitter wisdom that says: “Pro-tip for couples suddenly working from home together: get yourselves an imaginary coworker to blame things on. In our apartment, we call her Cheryl—as in, Cheryl keeps leaving her dirty cups all over the place and we really don’t know what to do with her….”
Grace, grace, and more grace….
All these decisions we can take, in the time given to us, which is this time.
Which, guaranteed, is going to pass. This takes us to the third and last meaning of the mantra: “This too shall pass”: our need to stay resolutely curious in the midst of tough times, because there are uniquely good things to be found even now, and we don’t want them to be wasted, we don’t want to miss the opportunity to know them.
At the very least, we are all washing our hands right now, and we know the ins and outs of how to do that thoroughly. 20 seconds at least, get your thumbs, get your nails, don’t forget your wrists, all to the sound of your chosen tune.
Here’s one, thanks to the rock band Queen: “We will, we will WASH YOU!” (repeat).
Here’s another good thing: so often the Internet and social media are used in ways that divide. But maybe in this time we will use it the way it was meant to be used: to bring together and unite.
Or this good thing: West Shore has never livestreamed worship before but we do now, and now that we’re doing this, I’m hoping we never stop. It opens up a new beautiful dimension to who we are.
These are uniquely good gifts from this time, and there’s more.
It’s a time when we can develop greater empathy for people who experience social distancing as a regular part of life, coronavirus or no coronavirus. A quarter of older adults regularly feel the same kind of isolation that we’re all feeling today. Stay-at-home parents—moms or dads—regularly feel like this. And once we know this, how can we not act differently towards them? How can we not do more to make sure the elderly feel more connected? How dare we ever again say to a stay-at-home mom, “But what did you do all day”?
This time has uniquely good gifts to give. We’ve got to stay curious.
Italians singing to each other from balconies.
Love has no limits in how it can be expressed.
Some are saying that this would be a good time to put our Christmas lights back up, to lift spirits. Maybe.
Love has no limits in how it can be expressed.
Love and courage and cheer to you this day.
Remember: “This too shall pass.”