Four Ways to Approach Life in a COVID-19 World

Alycia Wood uses a personal story of a hockey game to reflect on learning to live, pray, and keep perspective during a time of instability and fear.

One day, people will look back on the COVID-19 pandemic, but we’re not quite there yet. Many people are still working from home; many recreational activities are still paused; schools are still closed. Meanwhile, hospitals are overwhelmed, the stock market is still uncertain, and vacations, weddings, and graduations have all been postponed or halted. Welcome to the new “normal” for the globe.

What’s a healthy perspective? The first thing to keep in mind is that our basic human predicament hasn’t changed. You may be familiar with the popular saying, “The only two things sure in life are death and taxes!” The reality that is forced on us all from the moment we have life is that someday that life will end. I don’t say this to be morbid, but rather to show that, from a broad standpoint, the entrance of COVID-19 adds one significant new threat to our daily list. From the simple daily tasks of walking down the stairs and getting behind the wheel of a car to the unwieldy territory of our many pursuits in public spaces, we often forget that we take our lives into our hands every day. And let’s not forget about our many culinary risks: eating sushi or a good medium-rare steak! In other words, our mortality is nothing new, we just tend to forget about it when things seem to be going well. COVID-19 has taken away that luxury.

What do we do? We continue to acknowledge that the present day is a gift, but we also plan for tomorrow. Living too far in one or the other of those directions is not healthy, and the real challenge here is to find the balance. Here’s a personal example: I have been a hockey player for over 20 years. During one particular game, I was sitting on the bench waiting for my next shift on the ice when a teammate decided to switch with me. She was tired and needed a break from skating. As she approached the bench, I noticed that the puck had moved close to where I was going to jump on the ice to start playing. As soon as my teammate got close enough, I got on the ice and raced, full-speed to the puck at the same time as another player from the other team. I beat her to it and in response she knocked me on my stomach and fell on top of my back. Because I was going full speed when she hit me, I also slid very fast on my stomach. When I looked up, I could see that I was sliding closer and closer to the boards and that I was going to hit them with my head. My hands were pinned underneath me and I remember saying over and over in my head, “Oh my Lord, I am going so fast. Oh my Lord, I am going so fast.” As we slid the last few feet into the boards, I recalled something that they teach when you first learn how to play hockey. Over and over, it’s drilled into you: “Never go into the boards head-first. Never go into the boards head-first.” Thankfully, those words came to my recollection and, at the last second, I turned my head and smashed into the boards with my shoulder.

I immediately heard a crunch and could tell that my arm was immobile. I laid on the ice as the girl got off me and the referee blew the whistle. I had to go to the emergency room in my hockey pads because we couldn’t get them off without causing serious pain. The ER staff got the pads off, x-rayed my shoulder, and discovered I had a torn ligament.

Thankfully, it wasn’t bad enough to necessitate surgery, but it would leave a permanent bump. Over the next several days, I remember thinking that if the boards and my speed did this to my shoulder, what would it have done to my neck and spine had I hit them with my head? I realized that in just a short amount of time–an instant, really–my life could have looked very different. That experience fundamentally changed me. I began to see each day as precious and valuable. How could I maximize it? How could I spend it in a way where I didn’t waste it? I no longer wanted to let important moments and events pass me by. I wanted to live each day more intentionally, valuing each conversation, each thing I learned, and each music note I played on the piano. No one knows when their life will drastically change due to some sort of event, but it brought to light that a drastic event can happen to me, at any point. These types of events have the ability to shift our perspective on life, and in a sense, that might be one of the few things we can thank COVID-19 for.

These types of events have the ability to shift our perspective on life, and in a sense, that might be one of the few things we can thank COVID-19 for.

How do we live? Should we live in fear of each second being our last? Should we live in fear of whether we will live to next month? Should we never save for retirement because we may die before that happens? Should we never dream of starting a company or seeing our grandchildren because we may not live to see the finished results? I think that is a less helpful response. We are very familiar with the feeling of anxiety, which can include a fear or worry of the unknown future. There are many life situations, including stress, danger, or unfamiliarity that can bring this on. Anxiety can brew up in us emotional fears about things that are hypothetical or have yet to happen. But here is the question: What if there was something that could be known of the future? Could that impact our feelings of anxiety now? Let me explain further. The first time I saw the movie Inception, I was so thoroughly confused! I couldn’t figure out what was going on and I got lost in the plot. But because the movie is so intriguing, I had to watch it again, and when I did, it all made much more sense. Why? Because I knew the ending. See, when you watch a movie a second time, you are always watching it through the lens of the ending. You know what is going to happen to the actors, how the plot will unfold, what decisions and actions people will make and how they connect to the future. When you watch a movie for the second time, all you are doing is putting together the dots in the middle. Knowing the ending changes your whole experience of the movie.

What is the ending for a Christian? It is eternity with the most perfect being that ever could have existed. An existence with perfect love, peace, beauty, and no COVID-19.

Does it change the middle? No, but it does mean that we don’t have to live in fear in the middle. Rather, we are to remember that these are the (often painful) steps to the assured end that is already to come. And, while it is true that we have to leave this life to get there, we at least know what the “there” is! And the best part is that nothing that happens here on earth can change what is to come. Nothing. That guaranteed future for the Christian to be with their Creator for all of eternity cannot be changed by any events, wars, stock market crashes or pandemics. That guarantee is based off of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and the Christian’s acceptance of him. This past resurrection event reorients our present (1 Peter 1:3-6).

How do we pray? We use this time to pray for those that are suffering as a result of this virus. For those who are losing loved ones, or who are suffering from it themselves, their struggle should be on our hearts and minds. For those that are struggling financially due to great losses, or mentally due to social distancing and isolation, we need not forget their agony. We pray for wisdom for all governments to govern their people with care and compassion, whilst making big decisions that affect millions. We pray like we have always prayed for God’s strength, endurance, and perseverance through trial. But also, perhaps we can continue praying the way the Psalmists did, namely, with a song. In this regard, consider the words of “Because He Lives,” a song by the Gaithers that continues the psalmist’s tradition of singing one’s prayers to God:

God sent His son, they called Him Jesus
He came to love, heal and forgive
He lived and died to buy my pardon
An empty grave is there to prove my Savior lives

Because He lives, I can face tomorrow
Because He lives, all fear is gone
Because I know He holds the future
And life is worth the living, just because He lives

And then one day, I'll cross the river
I'll fight life's final war with pain
And then, as death gives way to victory
I'll see the lights of glory and I'll know He reigns

Because He lives, I can face tomorrow
Because He lives, all fear is gone
Because I know He holds the future
And life is worth the living, just because He lives[1]

[1] From Because He Lives by Bill and Gloria Gaither.

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A World in Search of an Ending

We make sense of difficult or unstable situations by finding a fitting ending. But there seems to be no end in sight with the COVID-19 crisis. What can we do?

Like most wise critics, Frank Kermode spells out his sizeable ambitions in modest terms: “It is not expected of critics as it is of poets that they should help us to make sense of our lives; they are bound only to attempt the lesser feat of making sense of the ways we try to make sense of our lives.” According to Kermode, one of our abiding means of sense-making consists in finding a fitting ending that furnishes us with a stable set of coordinates by which to locate the beginning, middle, and end of the human journey. Hence his title, The Sense of an Ending.

The sense of an ending, however, is often precisely what is lacking during protracted periods of crisis. This has certainly been the case as we confront the latest global pandemic. Despite our wealth of technology and scientific insight, we simply don’t have all the answers. Perhaps most importantly, we don’t yet know how or when all of this will end. As of this writing, the COVID-19 crisis doesn’t have a clear expiration date, and this is a key aspect of our deep confusion. Witness the nervous tic of apocalyptic forecasts and end-of-the-world memes. We’ve arrived at a historic juncture where films like Contagion, 28 Days Later, and Shaun of the Dead now function as prophetic texts. We simply don’t know what to make of something without a defined ending.

Adding to the confusion is the wide disparity in our experiences. While under-resourced healthcare workers battle a rising tide of infections, many of us pace around our homes binge-watching shows and trying not to obsess over the news. Others find themselves suddenly without a stable job. Then there are the people trudging to the frontlines of service industry work, risking infection with each route they drive, each item they scan, and each package they deliver. Yes, we’re all in this together, but this is not a uniform territory and your own social standing plays a major role in your response. While I’m grateful to the many celebrities using their platforms to tell us to stay home, we need to recognize that many people simply don’t have that luxury. Whether it’s lack of housing, work, or supplies keeping folks on the move, a public health crisis is not an equal opportunity offender.

Our most essential sources of solidarity are humbler than our glamorous social media dispatches—namely, relationality (we need each other), sinfulness, and mortality. No matter how outstanding our resources, we are not self-sufficient. When this calamity finally abates, it will not be because we “defeated,” “conquered,” or “vanquished” an “invisible enemy.” Such thinking falls prey to the same illusion of control that continually clouds our judgment. Rather, one more crisis will make way for another. COVID-19 does have an expiration date. But it won’t be the last pandemic. Our tragic well of wars, plagues, and famines hasn’t run dry. This is Albert Camus’ sober conclusion in The Plague, a novel whose hero sees all vaccines as temporary fixes at best, profound sources of false consolation at worst. Left to its own devices, our vale of tears will remain a vale of tears. The world is looking for more than an ending to our current global pandemic.

Unlike the cyclical dynamics on display in Greek epics like Homer’s Odyssey, Kermode points to Scripture as offering an inherently open-ended picture of history. Since Christ’s triumphant return represents the consummation of the ages, this event casts a redemptive shadow over all earthly struggles, no matter how abject or destitute. Far from turning a blind eye to the magnitude of suffering that infests our world, Christ’s promise to “wipe away every tear” performs the double feat of simultaneously dignifying human pain while denying it ultimacy.

When we’re suffering under the illusion of human self-sufficiency, the Christian vision of the end of human history often seems ominous. “Lord, please wait until I’ve died quietly in my sleep before you return.” Recognizing the spiritual immaturity of such prayers does little to quell their emotional power. However, when we gain a clearer perspective of what life in a fallen world actually looks like; when it becomes impossible to hide in our myriad distractions; when our convenient lifestyles are disrupted, we gain a picture that’s truly apocalyptic in the sense that it reveals our world from the standpoint of eternity.

If we restrict our gaze to “life under the sun,” Camus is right: We fight a ceaseless battle against the forces of destruction, with no ultimate victory in sight. Viewed from the vantage point of heaven, we see what Paul the apostle vividly calls “creation groaning”—the innate longing for wholeness that punctuates our world. Far from an invitation to despair, the view of a fallen world offers the only full-blooded hope available. Numbered in the inventory of our world’s countless atrocities is a Roman cross on which hung our Lord and Savior. Christ’s subsequent resurrection and ascension to the right hand of God the Father don’t swallow the torment he endured on the cross; they transfigure it. Seemingly tranquil times frequently find us staring vacantly into the sky and hoping for a gentle lifespan in which God promises minimal interference outside of church. We would do well to heed the words of the angels to Christ’s disciples after the ascension: “Why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). Don’t miss the fact that the phrase “same way as you saw him go” is putting heavy stress on the fact that this will be a bodily return.

Though angels aren’t necessarily calling to us, we can at least allow the headlines to break our reverie and recognize that our Lord’s return carries with it the promise not of another temporary policy, peace treaty, or vaccine, but of a full restoration that’s as glorious as it is permanent.

In this sense, Christianity offers the most unsentimental “happily ever after” of all time. Regarding our suffering, no cosmic erasure takes place. Only real tears can be wiped away after all, and only the Savior who endured our scorching gamut of sin and suffering is qualified to wipe those tears from our faces. It’s to him that we must now look. His is the only ending that makes lasting sense.

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