Recovering from Pandemic Despair

As I Was Saying

As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.

With days before school starts for my children and a new wave of Delta infections on the rise, a familiar feeling of frustration and anxiety also re-emerged. This intense form of worry mixed with ebbing emotions of resentment toward irresponsible individuals really weighed on me. Then, the day before my kids started their first week of school in mid-August, we were allowed to join an open house, and seeing most adults wearing masks and cooperating with the school was a bit comforting. After all, one salient realization in the past year has been that we as adults have failed our children.

My kids (first and third grade) are probably not going to remember the trauma of 2020. But many adolescents in America have witnessed with their own eyes how grown-ups have failed them. With unwavering, publicly displayed defiance of masks and stay-at-home orders, many betrayed their share of responsibilities. By the fall of 2021, this acute problem has only become worse, with those who are against the vaccine continuing their polemics even during the rising surge of the Delta variant. Between Aug. 5 and 12, just days before school reopening, more than 120,000 COVID-19 cases were reported among children, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. About 114,000 children in the U.S. have been orphaned by COVID-19 deaths. We as adults have massively failed our children in this country.

I think of a place in the book of Proverbs about how observing ants would teach us something about diligence: “Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise! It has no commander, no overseer or ruler, yet it stores its provisions in summer and gathers its food at harvest” (Prov. 6:6-8). More than diligence, ants have been known to scientists as an altruistic species. They have found that ants can actually die altruistically so that their own colony may survive. One common example is that in case of a devouring fire, ants would form a rolling ball to get away. This involves the willing sacrifice of outer layers of ants. A science journal Current Biology also published an article detailing how when ants of the species Temnothorax unifasciatus get infected by a contagious and lethal parasitic fungus and get very sick, they would walk away from their families and colony to suffer an isolated death.

If even the smallest creatures are capable of such altruism—sacrificing one’s life so that others may live—why have we as adult human beings failed to protect the most vulnerable of our race? Has human altruism died? To be honest, this is the deep root of my frustration during COVID years, something disillusioning enough to become the source of an existential anxiety. Negativity about selfish human behavior has been full blown on the media. That is another source of anxiety.

Last month, my spiritual director introduced the welcome prayer to me. The core idea is that instead of trying to avoid the pain and suffering in our lives, we simply give up the fight and face them. Like true forgiveness, which is impossible with human nature, the welcoming prayer comes from a deep place of inner freedom and awareness of the goodness of God.

At first, it was such a strange and counterintuitive concept. I hate the pandemic and the fact that it has lasted for more than a year. I want it to end so badly. I hate all the shocking and ugly things this pandemic has brought us to realize about our fellow human beings. I hate my own resentment toward people whose actions prolonged this pandemic. How do we go about accepting these emotions of despair?

What the welcoming prayer helps us do is to practice the receiving posture of pain or suffering. There are three simple steps. First, it requires us to identify the painful emotions. Second, welcome the pain, the grief, the anger, the frustration, the resentment. And finally, we must relinquish our desire to be in control or to change the situation.

A novel called A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula Le Guin, illustrates this very dynamic. A young wizard is being trained to be a sorcerer. One day, he finds himself haunted by a demon, which the young wizard himself conjured up without realizing it. Because of their symbiotic relationship, the demon grows in power as the young wizard grows. Eventually, the wizard must flee, but wherever he settles, the demon follows him there. Then, with all escape routes blocked, the wizard has only one thing left to him: he turns to the demon and embraces it. This makes the demon vanish.

Behind the story is a simple but practical wisdom we often hear colloquially as “facing one’s own demon.” By welcoming the painful emotions in life, one is experiencing the merging of two powerful things: awareness of reality and surrender of the will. It braces a person to stay present in the now, no matter how dark it is. As Marcel Proust puts it, “We are healed of a suffering only by experiencing it to the full.”

Jesus Christ himself is not unfamiliar with the moment-to-moment suffering and despair on earth, but as the Bible reminds us, “Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow his steps” (1 Pet. 2:21).

About the Author

Mary Li Ma, Ph.D., is a a member of Plymouth Heights CRC church in Grand Rapids, Mich.

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