By Nicholas Perkins
On a recent weekend, I lost three patients to the coronavirus. I said prayers for them, then called their families to express condolences and provided information on funeral home protocols. They wanted to know why this happened and why fear grips the world.
I had a moment of clarity after those sad phone calls: This pandemic invites me to give my energy to two invisible, equally powerful forces. One is fear and the other is faith. The choice that I make to focus on either can affect the quality of my day and my relationships. It can also determine how I adjust and adapt to the ever-changing dimensions of this crisis.
An example of this played out weeks ago in a store when many other shoppers and I observed an employee unload a pallet of Lysol disinfectant spray. I got two cans while the man beside me asked the woman with six if she would give one to him. The woman ignored him and walked away.
That experience made me think about effective stewardship. Will something I want on Amazon take up important space on a truck that may have to deliver essential, life-saving goods? The important thing during any crisis isn’t to find the perfect solution, but to discover the mission-essential things that have to be done.
What mission-essential things can I do to stay centered as I offer hope to others? I must first acknowledge some of the difficult realities in this situation: Social distancing is painful for people who want to be together. Isolation for those who are alone and lack a network is real. Anxiety can cause a person to rely on inappropriate coping mechanisms. Mounting anger over lost wages or unemployment is a valid concern.
A while ago, a nurse told me, “It seems the only thing I do all day is push pills. It feels so futile right now.” I felt powerless in her distress — but later I learned that she appreciated how I listened without commentary. Although this illness has physical consequences, its spiritual component has me explore the issues in my life that I minimize or ignore, while an appreciation for silence in the slowdown invites me to set deliberate intentions. I enjoy nature, meditate, explore my values, and define what inspires me.
Since creativity can be an effective resource for grief and trauma, I have turned washing my hands at work into a ritual. I say the Our Father and identify the attitudes and behaviors of which I need to be cleansed, e.g. arrogance, resentment, people-pleasing, or selfishness. As soap and water purify my hands, I imagine the love of Christ purifying my heart in the font of his limitless mercy.
Some people have asked me how this still-evolving tragedy compares to the events of September 11, 2001. They are very different, but an important common denominator is resilience and fortitude. A person who jumps from one speedboat to another commits an act of daring, not of fortitude. Had the person been trying to rescue the passengers of the second speedboat, we could speak of fortitude, but not without a pursuit of the good. The principle act of fortitude is to endure, and that is a significant similarity between the 9-11 attacks and this pandemic.
I’ve stopped watching the news because it does nothing for my emotional sobriety. Instead, I search for moments of fortitude: Nurses and physicians care for patients with COVID-19, environmental service workers clean rooms, one person gives another a can of Lysol. And the belief that fortitude and sacrifice work together for the common good flattens the curve.
Nicholas Perkins, BCC, is a chaplain at Franciscan Health Dyer in Dyer, IN.