At the end of Lord of the Rings, the battle over and hard won, Frodo (weakened and scarred) is about to set sail with Gandalf for the Undying Lands.
“I wish it need not have happened in my time”, says Frodo wearily.
“So do I,” replies Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
Wise words Gandalf. Wise indeed.
They seem very real and relevant right now.
If we’re learning anything as we’re struggling with a world changed beyond recognition by Covid-19 in just three short months, it’s this…
We are not autonomous, independent, self-sufficient beings. We are connected symbiotically with every other living thing on the planet in fragile, complicated and interdependent ways. John Donne, the Metaphysical poet and Dean of St Paul’s, writing 400 years ago during a serious illness understood this. ‘No man is an island, entire of itself.’ He wrote, ‘Each man’s death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind; Therefore send not to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.’
We are vulnerable. The fortresses we build around ourselves to keep us safe (wealth, status, careers, health, social connections) are houses of glass and like so many dominoes can be toppled by an enemy so tiny it can only be seen through an electron microscope.
Being in control is often an illusion. For all our advanced scientific and technological knowledge, it feels right now as if we are but helpless children abandoned ‘on a darkling plain…where ignorant armies clash by night’. *
Let’s not pretend or dance in the dark. These really are frightening times.
But they are not times without hope.
Amidst all the bleak (and frankly scary) news reports that clog up my daily social media feeds, there are many, many reports of people coming forward to offer their skills and services as volunteers to support our Health Service; people going the extra mile to support the elderly and vulnerable. Everyday heroes living amongst us.
Many things have been stripped from us by this pandemic. Our workplaces and schools are closed. We can’t meet up with friends, family and loved ones. Our finances may be in freefall. Our health, life even, at risk. But for many of us, especially those in lock-down, one thing we have been gifted:
With everything that isn’t in our control right now, what is in our control is what we decide to do with this time that is given us.
C.S.Lewis (the ‘Narnia’ guy) wrote this during the ‘fear of the bomb’ years:
‘ If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep’.
Time really is a gift, and I can choose to spend it in fear, in hiding, in hoarding and in selfishness, or I can choose to use it to grow, to reflect, to learn, to pray and to nurture my relationships.
When we have so little choice over everything else, we get to choose this… We get to choose how we will respond to what is happening to and around us.
‘Everything can be taken from a man but one thing,’ wrote Auschwitz survivor Victor Frankl in ‘The Search for Meaning’, ‘the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.’
That, to me, feels like the greatest freedom, and one that no one and nothing can take from us.
So, how should I choose to use this time?
I miss my family and friends hugely right now, despite all the Zoom and FaceTime meetings. I miss the hugs, the gatherings in the kitchen to share a glass of beer or wine and catch up on all their news. I miss seeing my grandchildren. I miss the family dogs! I wonder whether, as introverts, we’re more temperamentally suited to this strange situation? All the evidence might seem to suggest so.
Let me tell you why I think that’s way too simple.
Yes, we’re ok with our own company. Yes, we may have countless individual projects on the go. Yes, we might not need ‘people stimulation’ quite as much, but then there’s the downside….
Rumination and Anxiety!
The problem with being reflective, with being ‘in your head’ a lot, is that when times are tough, it can be a pretty dark place to be. So, if that’s where you’re at right now, I’d like to share what’s helped me.
Worries, and anxiety in general, love it when you invite them in for a cup of tea. Sound odd? Well, it’s when you let them stick around, when you hold a conversation with them, ruminate on them, try to find evidence to disprove or prove what they’re suggesting. It’s when you let them ‘squat’ in your headspace.
What anxiety hates most is when we get proactive. When we take action or problem-solve around our worries.
So what I’ve chosen is what I’ve called my ‘Plan Against Panic’. I‘m going to choose to spend my time in these ways….
I plan to:
I want to build and plan and create for the new future that’s coming. It’s going to be different. You and I will be different. So I want to learn something new, develop myself. I’m already having to learn how to work remotely, and I’m finding that a focus on learning a new skill means my brain is less open to anxiety. It’s occupied. There’s a measure of agency, control and a positive feedback loop. I’m also helping my future self. So challenge yourself to learn something new. Something that maybe you’ve always wanted to, but never had the time. Now, you have.
Go in and go deep…. Yes, it’s ok to think deeply, to reflect about your life; reflecting isn’t the same as marinating in anxiety – just put some positive parameters and boundaries on the time you spend doing it, and how you do it. Most of us live like pondskaters on the skin of life, afraid of the depths beneath, running away from uncomfortable truths through activity and distraction. Hard to do now though! So face the truth head on. Monsters are less frightening in the light of day, especially when we decide to do something about them.
Try journaling. It can be very empowering. Identify the changes you want in your life, and the steps you need to take to get there, and commit to the first tiny step on your journey. There may be things in your life, that now they’ve gone, you don’t want them back.
Start redesigning the life you want. Here’s some journaling aids, so you keep safe:
James Pennebaker & John Evans ‘Expressive Writing: Words that Heal’.
‘Journaling as a Spiritual Practice’, Helen Cepero.
‘The Quiet Journal’ Susan Cain.
(There are of course lots of helpful books and articles on personal journaling out there – I’m not getting affiliate commissions on these by the way! I’ve just found them helpful).
Reach out with your heart. Connect. You’re stuck at home, but your influence isn’t.
You’re connecting (probably much more now) via social media with the world out there. Sow good, positive, hopeful seeds; words; virtual deeds. Encourage people. Teach them (if that’s your thing). We’re seeing so many people reaching out with their skills and knowledge to offer free services in this time…. online exercise videos, virtual classrooms, art and music tutorials, live streaming theatre… Sow your gifts out there too. Freely, if you can. We are one world.
And finally, a bit about faith, and hope. Hard times are the furnace where these qualities are often forged.
Who feels the need of a lamp when the sun is shining? We can distract ourselves from the things that frighten us when the day is bright, but when darkness falls and the world grows quiet, what then?
We need the companionship of faith and hope, and the assurance of eternal realities.
At the beginning of 2020, not knowing what it would bring (as none of us did), I posted this…
It feels more relevant now than ever.
Take care, stay safe – ’til next time
*Ref: ‘Dover Beach’ (Matthew Arnold)