The coronavirus pandemic is Lent writ large ... and there are valuable lessons in the midst of it for us.
All my life, I’ve made plans. I have plans for retirement, plans for dinner, plans for precisely what I will do each day and at what time. I have goals for my job performance, and for personal and spiritual growth. I am persistent and careful in attempting to implement my plans. Often this means that I rely entirely on myself, because nothing is more frustrating than when someone else goes off script and throws a wrench into my plans. If someone so much as cancels a meeting with me, or fails to answer an email in a timely manner, I can become irrationally frustrated. I’m the type of kid who would do all the work for my entire group when we had to do team projects in school. I still feel more comfortable staying in control and taking care of most things by myself.
Here’s the benefit of being in control – I’ve convinced myself it’s very efficient.
Here’s the drawback – Whatever control I think I have is an illusion.
I am never actually in control; I only think I am. There are moments when this becomes painfully clear.
Each Lent, I choose a particular bad habit that I would like to change. I make a plan. I promise to think about it more, exercise self-control, and improve. Each Lent, I fail miserably. Sure, I might make some progress, but I always slip up somewhere and end up right back where I started. Really, I only have so much self-control. After a while, it runs out. That’s when I realize I have almost no control over my own behaviors. I act in ways that horrify me. I can’t even believe that it was me that has thought, said, or did such things. And it seems I’m powerless to stop it.
What I’m talking about is an internal, spiritual condition. It’s my own inertia that refuses to budge even an inch. That inner battle is currently being illustrated all around us in a great big, huge, horrifying way. The coronavirus pandemic is Lent writ large. Each day the news spins more out of control. My retirement plans are out of control. My choices about what restaurants I patronize are out of my control. I’m a priest and I cannot even offer a public Mass. I cannot even begin to express how upset and sad I am about this, how much I miss my parishioners. I would change all of this if I could, make a plan, somehow make everything better. But I cannot.
What I’m experiencing instead is a range of emotions that come with confronting my sudden loss of control.
First on the list is frustration. I want something or someone to blame. I want to be able to make my own decisions about how and when to leave the house and whose hand I’m willing to shake. I want to be the one to decide when Masses and Bible studies are canceled. These choices, however, are not up to me to decide right now. I know this is for the best, but nevertheless cannot shake feelings of intense frustration.
Second, I’m stressed out. I want to be doing something, anything, but cannot. I take comfort in doing my small part – offering private Masses, hearing confessions, being sure the Church is unlocked each day – but I wish I could control the whole situation from start to finish.
Third, my desire for control is creating disappointment. These past few weeks are not what I would have imagined they’d be like if you’d asked me how my Lent would go this year. And as we approach Holy Week I’m fretting that all my carefully laid plans are permanently going awry and Easter will be ruined. My feelings of disappointment showcase that my desire for control has led to a lack of flexibility. I want my life to be a certain way, and when it isn’t I have trouble adjusting.
I’ve known for a while that I like to be in charge, and have been working to slowly improve – mostly by letting go and letting God do the work for me instead of doubling down and becoming even more controlling. Along the way, I’ve learned a few lessons about the character flaws that underlie my desire for control. In part, it springs from insecurity. I am desperate for my way to be the right way, the only way. I’m too insecure to allow for an alternate plan to be suggested, because what if it turns out my way wasn’t the best way after all? The desire for control also comes from fear. I think that if I don’t guide a particular process, then it can’t possibly go right. I am afraid and anxious about the unknown, and so try to exert my influence to ward off the unexpected.
Each Lent I am humbled and reminded that I am not in control. This year the lesson is being driven home with particular gusto. What will tomorrow bring? I have no idea. All my meetings are canceled. Maybe I’ll get sick. Maybe someone I love will get sick. None of us are in control of it.
All we can really control is how we respond. Nothing else. There are benefits of giving up control. For me, understanding that not every situation needs my input has allowed me to find more acceptance for other people and situations. Suddenly, I can relax, allow myself to be surprised, and discover unexpected blessings. A sense of trust begins to develop for other people and I’ve learned to appreciate them and to even admit that their ideas are often better than mine.
Life is much better this way. Even though current circumstances have revealed that I still have a long way to go in giving up control, it is very clear to me that the more we can do this, the happier we will be.