Two months ago my husband and I looked at the headlines and recommendations and made the choice to start staying home. My county issued its stay-at-home order one week later, and my state a week after that. We only left the house for exercise and essential errands. We stuck to our homeschool schedule, and even managed to get actual exercise. Lots of home cooking and baking, and even some new crafts. After a week or two, I thought I had this covered.
Just kidding: I did not have this covered. As we approached and passed Easter, I became more and more aware of my helplessness. Good Friday is great for focusing the mind on one’s own powerlessness in the face of sin and death. Christ alone is the victor, and I only share in his victory by his very generous grace. Combine Good Friday with Covid-19 sheltering-in-place, and I began to see my helplessness in worldly matters, as well as spiritual ones.
Spiritual vs. Worldly Helplessness
Spiritual helplessness is all well and good: It doesn’t inconvenience anyone—least of all me—to admit that I am powerless over my habitual sins and claim complete reliance on God. There’s something deep and meaningful to be learned from the failure (namely, my powerlessness and complete reliance on God). But worldly helplessness is a whole different matter. My inability to, for example, wipe out the coronavirus, give full employment to the people I care about, and ensure that everyone stuck at home is in a home that is safe for them: These are things that affect real people, and every morning I dump them at God’s feet and ask what I’m supposed to do about it. The answer that keeps coming back is…nothing. Because there is nothing I can do. All the good intentions in the world, and I can only depend: on God, on people in power, on things completely out of my control.
Growing up Catholic, I heard the phrase “offer it up” plenty. I heard it even more as a Catholic adult surfing the Catholic internet, especially the parts on parenting. What does it actually mean? Well, to start with, what does it not mean? It doesn’t mean that you don’t seek help or treatment for things that are fixable. It doesn’t mean you should seek out pain or punishment. It doesn’t mean that you should let people mistreat you, or that you should think of yourself as worthless. To offer something up is, first of all, to accept something that you cannot change. If I have dropped something on my foot, I cannot go back in time and not drop that thing. I can accept the pain and offer it up as a sacrifice to God, especially in solidarity with others who are suffering, but that still means I put ice on my foot, or a bandage. I do what I can do, and accept the powerlessness of what I can’t.
Acceptance Leads to Improvement
Ten years ago, I was diagnosed with post-partum depression. While the whole experience was awful, that moment itself was a relief. To this day, I can still feel the peace that washed over me as I stopped fighting what was going on in my own head, stopped trying to make it different, to fix it, and simply accepted that what was happening between my ears was a problem, that trying harder or beating myself up some more wasn’t a solution, and that I could just stop. A weight that had been bearing down on me for almost a year suddenly lifted when I stopped struggling and let go.
Sometimes, we generate more distress for ourselves by struggling against the thing that distresses us. When I was trying to fight the symptoms of post-partum depression and muscle through, I was miserable. When I stopped trying to fix myself, my distress-level instantly lowered. There’s actually a therapy model based on this principle called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). It teaches people to simply let their own distressing thoughts and anxieties be, and move on to the things they can actually do something about. For a control-freak like me, it sounds like a strange mix of giving up and getting on with it. But I know from experience that accepting what I cannot change is not the same as giving up. It is, however, freeing me up to deal with the things I can actually deal with. More than anything, it reminds me of offering it up.
Right now, there are a lot of things I can’t do anything about. I start my morning off worrying about them, but if I can accept them, I can move on with my day with a lot more energy available. For example, I’m worried about my family’s continued health. (Who isn’t?) I can spend time worrying, or I can accept the uncertainty, carry on washing my hands, and offer up the helplessness in solidarity with those whose health is more directly threatened than mine. I cannot hand my husband a job (Would that I could!), but I can accept my helplessness and offer it up for those who are far less secure. And then, weight off my shoulders, I can move on with the few things I can actually do something about: teaching the kids, making dinner, trying not to go stir crazy.
Psalm 131 says, “I do not busy myself with great matters, with things too sublime for me. Rather, I have stilled my soul.” I can accept my helplessness and still get to work where my work is appropriate. And with my efforts freed up in the right places, I might even be able to work on those habitual sins.