I confess I have not been focused and disciplined in my work this last week. My eyes keep getting dragged away from my work to reading news reports about the coronavirus. It seems I can’t get enough information about this strange phenomenon that is upending our world.
Victor Davis Hanson wrote an article entitled “The Great Coronavirus War Is upon Us”, that captures why we can’t divert our eyes from the next report and then the next. Something is upon us. Something we can’t quite control. Something bigger and spreading. We’ve never experienced anything like this before in our lifetimes.
He said, “Try this thought experiment. Envision the coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, as a living, breathing enemy—which, of course, is exactly what it is.
“But imagine for a moment that we are in a real war with a cognizant, thinking, and clever enemy whose sole reason to live is to hurt, maim, or kill as many of us as it can.
“COVID-19 may not have jets, tanks, or nukes, like our past enemies. But its arsenal, numbers, cunning, and willpower are said to be formidable.”
We’ve all been submerged in a new reality, one we could hardly have supposed just a few weeks ago. No wonder we’re drawn to look at it, think about it, play with it like a change in your mouth when a tooth is pulled. Can this really be happening to us? Everybody? All of us?
I remember the day President John F. Kennedy was shot and I saw it on TV. I naively said because I was a child, “This can’t happen in America.” The child in me still responds the same. This can’t be happening. The world can’t be closing down for an indeterminable time for an enemy we can’t see, and one so stealthy that we don’t know when we’ve been attacked.
Yet, beyond the shock and awe of being swept by a virus and being a spectator of a big deal, there is some personal grieving. Canceled, canceled, canceled reads one headline. Everything we care about, everything that diverts and entertains us, opportunities we’ve worked hard for, are suddenly vanished in a whirlwind. We were leading a tour to Israel and Egypt this spring. Gone. There will be no visiting the Garden Tomb where the flowers grow. Canceled. Our son was scheduled to perform with the Utah Opera. Canceled. Our son-in-law’s graduation. Canceled. His last days at BYU. Canceled.
We can’t attend our new granddaughter’s baby blessing in Kansas. Our trip is canceled. We will have to skip a dear friend’s funeral in Idaho. We would add numbers to the gathering and make it too big. Canceled. It goes on and on.
These events and connections are what lift life from the daily tedium and give us something to look forward to and something to work towards. Our social life. in major ways, canceled. How do we even calculate the way this spice in our lives makes the rest of our lives manageable?
We only see each other as we go shopping and realize the crowds are suddenly huge and a new energy rocks the store. Since we don’t know what duration we are shopping for, we may shop for more than we need in a kind of group frenzy. I take pictures of empty shelves where rolls of toilet paper once stood with my cell phone.
So we have been dealt disappointment as the cancellations mount, giving us the sense that all those things we looked forward to have vanished and won’t return in the same form. Something is flat when there is nothing to look forward to. We may feel flat too, or worse. We hate it when we see long-term efforts come to nothing—like the musician who prepared for years for the concert that now must be canceled. What was it all for? Is this some dreadful joke?
But wait, there’s more. Incomes are flattened by this temblor. Some businesses can’t survive a cessation of customers. The people who give samples at Costco will be fired. The cruise lines are empty. The stock market is erratic. The loss is in the trillions and we feel it in our pocketbooks. Some budgets are so thin, they can’t afford a hit like this.
But wait, there’s more. This is the very most difficult of all. A series of announcements were issued this week concerning the important precautions that the Church must take. No public at General Conference, no large meetings or gatherings, no services at the church on Sunday, many temples temporarily closing. These places where we find warmth and hope and divine connection, not available to us.
What a lethal combination it can be to be both disappointed, a little fearful of the virus, devastated by the economy, and cut off from so much of what spiritually feeds you. It would be easy indeed to take a spiritual dive.
This will be the time that we have to remind ourselves in no uncertain times: don’t go diving. Our relationship with God can be clear and bright and can sustain us during this time of greater challenge. The windows of heaven have not been shut to us. God has not ceased giving revelation. In fact, we can see with the home-centered, church-supported curriculum, the Lord was already preparing us for harder times when at least for a little season we do not have access to the church. “Be still,” He says, “and know that I am God.”
We always have access to Him. This is a truth that can simply make us gasp. God is in His heaven and has not retreated from us. What will our spiritual life look like when we are not clearly supported by others sitting by us in the pew? It will be what it has always been, a journey of the soul that we take one by one into His presence. My daily holy habits have to improve, not slacken. My devotions must be with more sincere intent.
Though we may have found it easier to be devoted at church because we have others to feed us, now we must be devoted because that is the whole, yearning desire of our soul.
Our Sabbath worship can still be faith-filled and focused. At our home, we will dress up, choose a time, have the sacrament because it has been authorized, and create the best meeting and study that we can. We will pull on the vast and rich resources that the Church has supplied us: scriptures, videos, conference talks. We have so much material to study and be enriched by we could never plumb it all.
(And by the way, you can listen to Meridian Magazine’s Come Follow Me podcast to help with your study each week. A new one comes out each Friday for the curriculum for the next week. That way we can stay connected with each other.)
I may not be able to attend the temple, but, with that extra time, I can explore my family history and share it with my children and grandchildren. I can prepare names for the temple and pray to be directed in my search.
This doesn’t have to be a profoundly less spiritual time for me, it can actually be an increase when I take responsibility to say, “if all the world is falling around me, I will always stand by Jesus Christ. I was not born to live on borrowed light.”
Though I have been greatly blessed to feel the Spirit of the Lord in the presence of others, my most profound experiences have been in my bedroom alone when I seek Him with love and urgency.
If I can be spiritually sound, even disappointments gradually take their place as the little thing they are in a whole long life of blessings. I have always loved these words of Albert Camus, “In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it was that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, with me, there’s something stronger—something better, pushing right back.”
So much depends on our expectations. If I understand and fully accept that my life, as yours, has some strict limitations right now, then I can make the best of it. I can thrive and often laugh. It is the net on my tennis court. It gives me the bounds within which to play.
Who we are will be revealed in this time of crisis.
Almost twenty years ago, my husband, Scot, and I were taking 50 people with us on a Holy Land cruise, and our job was to teach and lecture along the way. Now, there were two highlights on this cruise. One was Israel and the other was Egypt. Two days before we left, the cruise lines called us and said that because of an Intifada in Israel, we were unable to stop there. “Oh well,” we thought. “At least we still have Egypt.” As we got on the cruise the first day, they told us that we wouldn’t be stopping in Egypt either. Too much unrest.
One couple we knew were bringing all their adult children on this trip to see Israel and Egypt. They had saved a lifetime for it. Now we couldn’t go to either. It was our job to make everybody feel better about this.
And what was our stop to replace Israel and Egypt? Sicily. Trust me, there’s no comparison. We did not have any lectures ready on the spiritual history of Sicily.
At our first meeting, we were looking at some very disappointed passengers. We prayed about what to say. This is approximately what it was. “We know you are so disappointed that we are not going to Israel or Egypt. We are too. We won’t pretend it isn’t disappointing. Yet we also know something else. If we are dismayed or angry or upset, we will miss the beauty of what we do get to see. If we are clinging to what we thought should have been, we won’t delight in what is. We are Latter-day Saints, and we have been taught our whole lives to be resilient. It is our legacy. We have been taught to be grateful in all things and I know we can be. This can be our best trip ever if we can let go of our expectations and open our eyes to what is.”
By the way, we added, we will change the curriculum for these new stops along the Mediterranean to talk about the history of Paul, the Apostle.
What a magnificent set of good sports we had on that trip. I think of it as one of the highlights of our many years directing tours because we made a moral decision together to abandon disappointment and instead find joy in what we had. We felt each other’s strength and steadfastness as we refused to succumb to whining. It was beautiful.
So I feel remarkably peaceful and happy in my narrowed world for the next period of time. Who knows how long it will be? I don’t. But I have faith in the Lord’s capacity and my cooperation with Him to be profoundly sturdy and fine through it all.
And there’s one more thing that keeps playing on my mind. What a time to minister this can be. This story from the life of James Talmage comes to me often as told by Elder Robert C. Gay in General Conference.
“As a young professor, before he became an Apostle, in the height of the deadly diphtheria epidemic of 1892, Elder Talmage discovered a family of strangers, not members of the Church, who lived near him and who were stricken by the disease. No one wanted to put themselves at risk by going inside the infected home. Elder Talmage, however, immediately proceeded to the home. He found four children: a two-and-a-half-year-old dead on the bed, a five-year-old and ten-year-old in great pain, and a weakened thirteen-year-old. The parents were suffering with grief and fatigue.
“Elder Talmage dressed the dead and the living, swept the rooms, carried out the soiled clothing, and burned filthy rags covered with the disease. He worked all day and then returned the next morning. The ten-year-old died during the night. He lifted and held the five-year-old. She coughed bloody mucus all over his face and clothes. He wrote, “I could not put her from me,” and he held her until she died in his arms. He helped bury all three children and arranged for food and clean clothing for the grieving family. Upon returning home, Brother Talmage disposed of his clothes, bathed in a zinc solution, quarantined himself from his family, and suffered through a mild attack of the disease.”
In the hardest conditions, ministers minister. What a calling. It probably won’t mean we expose ourselves to disease as Elder Talmage did. That would not be for the public good, but it might mean that people whose hearts are vulnerable may need our comfort. We might lend a cheering voice when things look gloomy. We will find our opportunity if we are looking for it. Who we are will be revealed in this time of crisis.