What is suffering? One way to define suffering is the rupture between your future as you pictured it and the reality of what your future will actually be. This is easy to see in the case of the loss of a loved one, especially a sudden loss. The future we thought we had with that person is suddenly no longer possible. Even in small sufferings—being awakened in the middle of the night (again!) by a crying child—our suffering arises mostly from our expectation of uninterrupted sleep.
Early on in dealing with any loss, a natural desire for restoration arises, no matter how impossible restoration might be. I just want my night’s sleep back! Or I want my miscarried child back—not some other child, but the one I lost. My mother died in August, and when I need my mom I simply want her back.
A Ruptured World
Over time, most of us resolve these feelings, a process which is helped greatly by the realization that fulfilling these desires is absolutely impossible—at least on earth. But what about all the other kinds of suffering and loss? Due to the coronavirus and the world’s response to it, many, many people are experiencing all kinds of loss right now. There are very few Americans who have not experienced some kind of rupture between what they thought, on March 1, their future would be and what, on April 1, it actually is.
Even the homeless person has seen the world change around him, and much of what he depended on for his daily existence has disappeared. Food pantries and soup kitchens have drastically cut their services or even closed. The foot traffic that may have been relied on for a few dollars here and there has dried up. Even the bathrooms he used to use are locked up.
How about inmates? Some have been restricted to their cells instead of being able to use common areas. They’ve been required to sit six feet apart at mealtimes. In some cases outdoor exercise time has been curtailed in an effort to have fewer inmates in the yard at one time. Both correctional officers and inmates are experiencing higher levels of stress, leading to shorter fuses and more incidents requiring disciplinary measures.
The elderly, to save whom our current measures of extreme restriction were implemented in the first place, are not too different from the inmates. In care facilities, many are restricted to their rooms with no visitors allowed. Even those who live at home have seen their worlds shrink dramatically—church on Sunday, trips to the store, and visits with grandkids, all currently classified as engraved invitations to the grim reaper, have been cancelled until further notice.
Can We Return?
So, the loss is widespread. Because the first shock and the busyness of preparing for “sheltering in place” has passed, many of us are left wishing for our old lives back (maybe with a few improvements). Weeks in, the novelty has worn off, and the things we put aside willingly on a temporary basis—hugging our friends, shaking hands with the sweet man next door, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with our besties at a restaurant—we now truly long for.
“Let’s all do our part, get through this, and get back to the way things were.” That seems to be social media’s rallying cry, but is it possible? We did not put society and culture in a cryogenic freeze in mid-March. We have continued changing and developing, perhaps even faster than before—it does not seem unlikely that Covid-19 will turn out to be a watershed moment in world history.
The loss drives us to seek restoration, but the reasonable person must acknowledge that it is no more possible to “get back to the way things were” than it is for me to get my mom back. The economic impact alone will bring in its wake a great deal of suffering. The mental and physical toll of weeks of isolation will not be lightly shaken off by those vulnerable to chronic illnesses—physical or mental. The precedents by which government agents have curtailed the liberties of citizens by reason of a health crisis have been set. There is no going back to a time when these precedents did not exist.
Accepting the New Reality
However, once we accept that literal restoration is not possible, we can come to accept the new reality. Acknowledging that my mother was not going to be restored to me left me with a choice: live inside my grief or try to understand what new thing God would do in that empty space. For, God does not leave a void. He uproots only to plant again.
If a financial downturn means we can’t carry out the plans we had for buying a home, sending our teen to college, or starting a new business, that truly is a loss. The future we envisioned can not happen. But that means it’s time to ask God what good thing He is doing in place of that plan.
If the society we live in continues to curtail certain freedoms in the name of health, the way we’ve always envisioned living our lives may no longer be possible. Perhaps restrictions will be placed on travel that limit our ability to spend time with loved ones. If so, what might the Lord wish us to do instead?
“Let It Be”
It seems odd to look at our task as one of minimizing suffering, but if suffering really is the rupture between what we expect and what we end up with, it seems that what is called for is a holy detachment and a docility to the will of God. We need look no further than the mother of Our Lord for a great example of both. Did she expect to become a mother before her marriage? What plans did she have that were “disrupted” by God’s plan? Yet, what was her answer to Gabriel’s question? She did not ask for some time to wrap her mind around this new plan. She didn’t talk about what good intentions she had that would now not fit into her future. She said simply, “Let it be.” This could only be the fruit of great love of God and great detachment from her own schemes and designs.
The life we step out into once this is over will be different. But let us not spend too much time looking back. Very well did Prior Nivakoff of the Benedictine monks of Norcia, Italy put it recently: “A great temptation is to demand that God return what we have lost. In the field of tragedy, God sows seeds of new life.”
What we return to will not be the same as what we left. But what we find will be the result of the action of the Holy Spirit, Who is always doing something new. And may our response be, “Fiat.”