It is near impossible to think very far outside of the pervasive unreality/reality of the impact of the COVID-19 virus on our lives. During the past week it has assaulted us first primarily as an expanding and threatening disease. By the end of the week it has taken an all-consuming hold on not just civic life - schools, colleges, athletic events, social and art events, religious gatherings, the list goes on - but even more importantly, it has defined each and every one of our personal lives as well. We are “quarantined” one way or another from what we know as “our lives” - our families, work, our social lives, our sense of hospitality, our friends, our ability to shop and move freely in the community. Yes, we have our computers, Skype, FaceTime, and Zoom conference calls, but what we assume to be the simple act of a visit to a sick friend or sharing a cup of tea, is now off limits. We can go out of the house warily for a walk or necessary doctor or shopping visits, but we must avoid crowds or engaging in up-close-and-personal conversations. The whole situation has created a foreign state of feeling both loneliness and learning to accept the new phenomenon of a computer screened relational life.
And for for those of us with life circumstances for which the isolation creates seemingly overwhelming challenges - medical crises most particularly - the situation becomes overpowering and threatening. At a time when we would most likely be depending on each other, we can easily feel so alone and helpless in our need.
My family, perhaps like many of yours, has experienced major disruptions this past week further complicated by the prevalence of the virus. My son lives in Virginia and is dealing with a mother-in-law in Massachusetts who fell and broke her hip last week and needed immediate surgery for a hip replacement. This meant our daughter-in-law (with a cold) had to reluctantly fly to Boston to be with her already very vulnerable parents. The operation did not go well and her mother was sent to rehab after a short time in the hospital. While in rehab the mother desperately wanted to go home, and the whole situation moved into the extreme crisis mode when my daughter-in-law was asked to leave the rehab center because of a non-visitor rule due to the virus, and the mother was subsequently brought back home to receive difficult home care. Meantime, back in Virginia, the 11 year old twins had to cancel their birthday parties this week because of the virus. Further it was announced that the local schools would be closed for at least four weeks, so what to do with the kids during that time, especially when they are essentially housebound? In addition, when my son went to the store to get food there were absolutely no provisions of pasta on the shelves of a large supermarket. And as noted above, the list goes on.
I am imagining all sorts of similar and even more serious life and death dilemmas occurring because of the virus not only across most every community in the U.S., but in communities throughout the world as people learn to practice greater hygiene and other defensive modes to prevent the virus and deal with those who are ill. And we are all left pretty much passively trusting that the heroic medical community will be able to cope with our regular medical and virus induced demands and eventually be able to provide some solutions.
But here’s another sider to the crisis. In spite of the incredible complexity of our current virus-infected world, an equally amazing phenomenon has entered my life and perhaps yours. Every single day this week we have had a significant and often surprising and poignant relational moment. We have received unexpected phone calls of care, offers to go shopping for us, and lovely letters or emails from family and friends. I am always just so amazed at the essential goodness of people and life in general which we can too easily take for granted. So it takes a social crisis to remind us how interdependent we are and how much love and kindness permeates our lives if we need it, even within the servere limitations of our specific ability to help each other at this particular time.
I have concluded that the key word for the week is “accompaniment.” In spite of the necessary distancing, we are actually finding adaptive ways to be with and support each other. I found one of the dictionary definitions particularly metaphorically appropriate to our situation: accompaniment is “a musical part that supports or partners a solo instrument, voice, or group.” So like the crucially supportive background of the piano during a performance, social, emotional and communal accompaniment is what ultimately holds our otherwise solo and group efforts together in harmony, even when the music is so dissonant and nearly overwhelmingly challenging.
During my conversation with my son mentioned above, I was not able to help him with his situation with money or rescuing him in any way. All I could say is that I want to stay in touch so I can accompany you in caring and prayer. I would have liked to offer more, of course, but I will offer him what I can.
And so it is with all of us during this unprecedented historical moment, isn’t it? We may not be able to offer the specific support others need because we simply can’t - not even heroically. But we can stay in touch and we can offer deep and mutual caring and prayers.
Many religious services include the call and response blessing to be shared personally: “peace be with you” with the response “and with you.” In this profoundly trying and difficult time for all of us, I would like to offer a blessing of peace to you this Saturday evening, and you, in turn, can offer it to all you meet as well in the likely difficult days ahead.