This weekend, we reached another terrible threshold. The death toll in the United States has passed 200,000 people who have died from COVID-19. 200,000 families torn apart. 200,000 patients whom healthcare officials have tried to help.
If you didn’t know that we had reached this monumental number, it’s because there is so much to distract us. There is still school and work and college football to keep us occupied. Already you can see the seasonal displays in stores and on social media feeds. Everything that is trying to make us think that life is semi-normal.
But it’s not normal for 200,000 to die in six months in our country. It’s not normal to not talk about that. It’s not normal for us all to feel that collective grief and not have a place to talk about that weight and why doing simple things seems so difficult.
200,000 is a number difficult to comprehend.
Two hundred thousand deaths is akin to losing the entire population of Salt Lake City or Montgomery, Ala. — a devastation.
We’ve lost the equivalent of whole cities. We’ve lost entire families to COVID-19. Whether we actively think about the deaths or not, we can feel it. We can feel the suffering of people deep within us. We may try to distract ourselves and our minds. We may try to numb ourselves from this reality, but deep within us, we know that there are other humans suffering.
The question is how will this knowing change us?
“Mama, do you have any questions for me?”
Our four-year-old almost always starts his day with this question. He is so curious. He wants to know as much as he can about everything from the names and planets of Star War characters to how and why hurricanes form. He wants to learn every letter and how to spell all kinds of words. He just wants to learn.
When do we lose this innate curiosity? When do we become convinced that the way we learned something is that way everyone learned something? When do we stop wanting to learn?
Maybe it’s because I was trained as a teacher or the fact that I never taught the same grade twice, but there was always something in me that wanted to read a new book and find out about a new place. But there is a subject I would prefer not to learn more about. I have to admit when it comes to learning that I was wrong about something or that I have participated in unjust systems, there is a part of me that wants to pretend like I don’t know.
Austin Channing Brown says in her book, I’m Still Here:
Our only chance at dismantling racial injustice is being more curious about its origin than we are worried about our comfort. It’s not a comfortable conversation for any of us. It is risky and messy.
May God grant us curiosity and community to explore what we discover.
This past week the lectionary came from Romans and it talked about loving our neighbor, a concept that we most often associate with the sayings of Jesus recorded in the gospel. What struck me about this instruction in Romans is that it comes after the reminder in Romans 12:1-2 to “offer our bodies as living sacrifices” and to “renewing of our minds” so that we “do not conform any longer to the patterns of the world.”
Following this passage, in Romans 13 is the reminder that we are all uniquely gifted and beloved. Each of us having something important to offer the body of Christ. The mention of the body of Christ here in Romans might sound like 1 Corinthians 12 and it is similar. Here the indication is that we can’t recognize our belovedness or the unique gifts and talents we have that bring important and good things to the body of Christ.
And then and only then can we love our neighbor. Perhaps the amount of foundational and soul work that has to be done before we can get to the mindset and wholeness is what is really preventing us from loving each other deeply. We can’t love our neighbor because we haven’t renewed our minds and we are beliving the cultural language that creates us vs. them. We can’t love our neighbor because of the cultural influences of consumerism that wants us to believe that we are not enough or that we are flawed in some way that a product or service can cure.
We can’t love our neighbor because there is so much soul work to do before we can get there. There is more to the division and divisiveness that permeates our American society. There are deep soul questions, “Will my life matter?” “Am I worthy?” “Am I good?” “Am I enough?”
May God grant us the ears to hear below the surface of noise. May God grant us the heart to have compassion for those who are seeking answers to deep and important questions.
In the midst of all the changes we are experiencing and the way our sympathetic nervous system is in overdrive, it can be very easy to disconnect from our bodies and our souls especially. When we are constantly reacting to decisions and news because we can’t think ahead, then we move into an automatic kind of motion. Our energy becomes chaotic.
Even though there is so much uncertainty, there are ways that we can ground ourselves in our bodies and in the right now. In fact, grounding ourselves is one of the ways that we can stop our sympathetic system from firing incessantly.
Grounding is finding yourself within your body and soul. It is finding your center and holding your center. When we ground ourselves, we let go of wanting to control the things around us. Grounding also ignites our immune system and increases blood flow, something we all need right now. Grounding is reconnecting to the world around you most of the time by touch the earth with bare feet, removing any barrier between your feet and the earth.
We are disconnected from ourselves and we are disconnected from the earth.
Reconnecting ourselves to the earth reconnects us to ourselves. Reconnecting to ourselves reconnects us to each other. This is a reminder we desperately need right now.
Going to the library has always been a part of our weekly routine. It is a place where I always found comfort and a place I knew I wanted our kids to find refuge. One of the last memories of “normal” life was a field trip to the main library branch where not only as there trees growing in the middle of the building, but the lower flower is also all for kids.
I was quick to sign up as a parent chaperone because I knew that I wanted to see our four-year-old as he took it all in. We explored books and then enjoyed a puppet show about the three little pigs while the thirteen-month-old tried to get to the puppets.
I remember sitting next to a fellow teacher who was a doctor and asking her what she thought about COVID-19. I remember being concerned, but none of us knew how much life would change and that in just a few short weeks we wouldn’t sit beside someone in a closed-in space without a mask on. I didn’t know that the idea of field trips would be something that was not a guarantee, but a logistical nightmare because of transporting kids on an enclosed bus and changing locations. I didn’t know that so many of the places that were field trip destinations would be closed to big groups.
At the end of the scheduled activities, the kids were allowed to check out books. Our four-year-old chose a book called My First Book of Girl Power, a book about superheroes and one in series from which we had checked out multiple different books. This book throughout closing school and changing schedules and not seeing our older sister became a companion and comfort. This female pastor and literacy teacher loved that he was clinging to the concept of female superheroes and a book during uncertain and unknown times.
Because libraries closed, we didn’t turn in this book until we got a notice that it was due this week…six months after our field trip and indeed the memory of a life we used to live. We turned it in with masks on at a drive-through window at a distant library branch where we were picking up our hold items, but before we did, we took a picture reminding ourselves of the field trip, this good book, and that we would be able to check it back out soon.
May we pause to remember, even when it’s painful and may we hold onto hope in superheroes and good books.
On Tuesday night during the Democratic National Convention, Michelle Obama gave a powerful speech. Most striking to me was her reference to her famous line: “When they go low, we go high.” She made an important distinction about what that truly means. She said: “Going high doesn’t mean putting on a smile and ignoring the negativity and viciousness.”
This is an important clarification and one that reminds me of the research I have been doing on toxic positivity. Toxic positivity is defined as:
toxic positivity as the excessive and ineffective overgeneralization of a happy, optimistic state across all situations. The process of toxic positivity results in the denial, minimization, and invalidation of the authentic human emotional experience.
Researchers have identified multiple layers of problem with this overgeneralization. By always looking on the bright side, those who practice toxic positivity are actually not allowing themselves to feel emotions that are really important. It’s not that they don’t feel those emotions, but rather that someone who has been taught to practice toxic positivity doesn’t have a place to express those deep emotions that aren’t deemed “positive.”
The results are devastating. Denying uncomfortable emotions buries those emotions deep within and can impact sleep and stress levels. When someone who practices toxic positivity denies uncomfortable emotions in their own lives, conversations with others who are going through difficult or traumatic experiences are burdened with hurtful and harmful comments like: “It will all work out. Everything is going to be ok.” Because the person practicing toxic positivity is unable to provide room for those more difficult emotions, they are unable to form real and meaningful connections with others.
I’ve heard toxic positivity invade our discussions of the pandemic in ways that attempt to suppress grief and fear and doubt. While I do believe “we are going to get through this”, I also believe there are families, communities, and professions that will never be the same because of this pandemic. We need to provide space for grief, anger, and fear. We need to not try to cover up or gloss over what we are feeling and what we are experiencing. We need to practice walking in each other’s shoes understanding that we are more connected than we are divided.
As we were on our morning bike ride and walk, our four-year-old stopped just up ahead and of me. He waited until I caught him to him and then looked at him with a glint in his eye, “Did I do it right?” he asked me. I waited unsure of what he was talking about until he explained that he kept his eyes on the road, he stayed to the side and when he glanced back and saw that he was getting too far ahead he stopped and waited. I smiled and affirmed, “Yes, yes you did. Good job, buddy!”
These are all the things we have been talking about over the last six weeks as we have transitioned from walking together to walking and bike riding together. These are all things that have caused redirections when he didn’t do one of these things as well.
I can’t help but wonder if his question today, is really a question that most of us parents are asking ourselves: “Did I do it right?” Should I have enrolled my child in school? Should I have homeschooled instead? Should I have provided more space or more boundaries?
The back and forth and constant mitigation of risks is exhausting. The collective grief of hearing story after story of people dying because of the global pandemic is overwhelming. We are all functioning on too little sleep and too much stress.
“Did I do it right?” will be a question that we can continue to ask ourselves as we continue to understand more about this virus and about how living with this virus is changing the way that we parent, work, and educate our children.
As you are trying to balance it all, I wonder if the words that I offer our four-year-old when he doesn’t do it right might provide some peace, “Tomorrow is a new day and we will try again.”
Last week, I went to the church for my weekly check of the building. On my list was organizing the non-perishable food donations that were collected through porch drops in order to pack bags for our neighbors in need. Also on my list was checking messages, checking the mail, and something I had been avoiding for weeks, cleaning out the refrigerator.
Mainly I didn’t want to be reminded of that refrigerator filled with food for after worship, fifth Sunday fellowships I didn’t want to be reminded of the Sunday baked goods that would serve as our Wednesday Bible study snacks. I didn’t want to see that moldy communion bread I was sure was in there.
But it was time.
When I opened the refrigerator, I found what I expected: moldy communion bread, moldy potato salad from our last fellowship meal, and stale baked goods. I couldn’t hold back the tears that came. The way we get together, the way that we are church together, and the way that we help our neighbors in need has all changed so drastically in such a short period of time. While I was sad, I also was overwhelmed with gratitude for a congregation who is committed to keeping each other safe and committed to continue to worship virtually until it is safe for ALL of us to come together in person.
I tossed the communion bread in the trash. Sometimes communion bread is blueberry poptarts, sandwich bread, or whatever else we can find in our own homes. As I walked out, I saw the food items piled up ready to be distributed to those who are hungry and thought, “Oh wait…that’s our communion. We are offering food in the form of peanut butter, granola bars, and soup to those who are most in need right now. We are offering the miracle of Jesus’ body and blood by recognizing the great need that surrounds us in these uncertain times.”
This do in remembrance of me.
I found this on Instagram posted by a teacher friend and immediately felt a wave of relief wash over me. I quickly posted it to my stories and followed @miles_of_pe who shared it. (If you know who created it originally, I’d love to give credit!)
After I posted it, I received so many comments and responses from fellow parents. Parents who have been worried about sending their children anywhere because they aren’t sure that it is safe. Parents who don’t have a teaching background wondering if they are engaging their children enough or whether they are falling behind. Parents who have made the decision to keep their kids home for the fall. Parents who are planning to send their kids to school in the fall and are worried that the stint of e-learning last Spring caused them to fall behind.
What if…it’s enough?
What if…our very concern over the well-being of our children is enough to help them know that they are loved and seen? What if…our sleepless nights and early mornings fitting in work before they get up and after they go to sleep is enough for them to understand that we are doing whatever we can to make sure they have time with us? What if…all those walks and outside time and playing in blow-up pools in the backyard is actually they’re absolutely favorite thing to do even though they have done it every afternoon?
What if, dear parent, you are not just enough…but more than enough?
As we were doing our weekly grocery pick up, our four-year-old asked which walk we were going on. I reminded him that we were going to get the groceries and he insisted, “But which walk way are we going?” He was trying to orient himself and determine where he was in relation to our house and to our neighborhood. Over the last four months, the majority of our mornings have started with a walk. We’ve developed loops and turns and he has given each of the walks a name.
Now that he is exploring these same ways that we have walked on his bike, he has developed some favorites. Just yesterday I told him that he could choose the way we went. He was so excited to show us the way for a change. As we go I’ve always pointed out the different roads and the different ways that would take us back to our house. I was so impressed that he led the way on a 2.5-mile loop without ever making a wrong turn.
As we have been in this period of quarantine, our community of faith was finishing a study of Acts. Something about the followers of the Way took on a new meaning for me as we were literally developing a new way of life, learning, and being together.
Acts 9 talks about Saul who was persecuting followers of the Way saying:
so that if he found any men or women belonging to the Way, he could bring them as prisoners to Jerusalem.
This new Way was so threatening to the establishment that they were bringing in followers to try to stop the movement.
We are developing a new way of life. It is a threat to our capitalistic, individualist society because it means we are valuing time together, time outdoors, and simple acts of kindness like food left on a neighbor’s porch. We are finding paths and ways in our neighborhoods rather than traveling out of our communities.
This is the Way of caring for each other and being community together. Let us walk bravely into this new Way.