Let's make this these last few months count for the rest of our lives.
In a strange way, the past few months have become an involuntary spiritual retreat. We didn’t sign up for it, but it turns out we really needed it. I’ve been reading books I’d been hoping to get to for years, and many an afternoon finds me leaning back in a wicker chair in the garden and staring at the robins as they forage for twigs from the crab apples for their spring nests. I wander aimlessly with my toddler and we examine every flower in the yard very closely. We stop and smell each one, exclaiming how wonderful the scent is. We keep track of how many bees visit each one and which particular bloom is most popular.
Most of all, I think.
I don’t think about anything in particular. I’m not solving problems or making academic achievements. When I say that I think, I mean that I contemplate. I consider how nice the sun feels on my arm, how a toddler walks and throws off excess energy like a shock of lightning, how blessed it is to be alive. On a typical, normal day full of work and errands, I would think none of these thoughts. So, for me at least, this forced retreat has provided major benefits.
This doesn’t mean that life right now is normal or should be considered the ideal moving forward. I’m particularly aware that my blissful experience is not at all like the experience of many others for whom this time has been very, very difficult because of illness, loneliness, grief, or economic hardship. I can’t help but notice, though, that many of my neighbors are adopting new routines as well. More people are out for evening walks, sitting in the yard with family, and playing outdoor games with their children. Even if we’ve been having a difficult go of it, the human spirit has always been able to take a bad situation and turn it around for the good. We can overcome evil and create beauty where there seems to be only suffering. Families have the opportunity to grow closer. We have the chance to consider what it is about life that is really important to us.
As we – hopefully – begin returning to more normal routines, the habits of the past few months don’t need to be entirely abandoned. Before spreading our wings to flutter out of the cocoon and forgetting all about this strange parallel life, it might be helpful to consider what lessons we can carry with us.
1We've been too busy
It’s an odd feeling, to be bored. This afternoon, I took a biography of Emily Dickinson – talk about a woman born for the quarantine lifestyle — outside to read. After an hour my eyes glazed over. I looked in on my children and tempted them to play a game with me. No luck. I tried to read more but only stared at the page mindlessly. I closed the book and watched the leaves flutter in the breeze. Like an ancient farmer, I analyzed the western sky for signs of a warm front. I don’t know that I was bored, exactly. To me, being bored is an itchy feeling, like I ought to be doing something but there’s nothing to do. Boredom is a product of an addiction to busyness. That addiction has been broken over the past few months. I didn’t do much of anything this afternoon, but I was content. Going forward, I don’t want my days to continue on like this indefinitely, but an occasional lazy afternoon to linger around the house reading, hanging with family, or simply relaxing outside is a habit I would like to protect.
2We haven't been spending enough time with family
I never realized how much I take my grandparents for granted until I couldn’t visit them. I never comprehended how important family birthday celebrations are until we couldn’t gather for them. There have been so many weekends in the past that I’ve allowed myself to become too busy to visit my grandparents, so many times I forgot to call them on the phone or check in on them. Even with my children, I haven’t spent enough quality time with them. Yes, I drive them to all their practices and games and watch them play. I try to stay as engaged as possible in their lives, but over the past few months with no organized activities I’ve had the chance to sit around and really get to know them in a way I didn’t before. We play card games, wash the dishes together after dinner, talk walks, and play catch in the yard. I don’t want to look back at the end of my life and regret not giving enough time to my family. Simply being with them is a true blessing.
3We've been secretly stressed out
Not sitting in rush-hour traffic is great. Not rushing from appointment to appointment is great. It turns out those errands weren’t so essential after all. Like most people, my life has been carefully scheduled. Being so organized allows me to thrive at work and at parenting a family of six children. But it comes at a cost. There’s a relentlessness to a rigorous daily schedule that wears a person out after a while. A number of my friends have said the same, commenting how nice it has been to slow down. It’s as if a weight has been lifted from their shoulders. My work schedule has picked back up again and eventually my children’s soccer games will start again, but one thing I’ve learned is that I it might be good to cut out some of the over-scheduling. It won’t do for us to throw ourselves right back into a frenetic lifestyle. We have a chance to slow down. We should take it.
4Small business is bigger than we thought.
I’m not trying to make a political or economic point when I say that small business has turned out to be incredibly vital and ought to be protected. I live in an urban neighborhood with a number of small businesses within a few blocks, and what has become increasingly obvious is that these businesses are about more than money — they’re about people. Seeing them struggle is especially hard because the people who own and work in them are neighbors, and their contributions make our neighborhood come alive. It has become more important than ever to continue supporting these small businesses. They’re more essential than they seemed.
5Church is essential
I’ve had to chase my parishioners out of our parish Masses for the past six weeks. As a priest, it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. I know my parishioners have cried because they cannot come to Mass. Others have told me that they’ll never take Mass for granted again. They are spiritually starving and cannot wait to return. We are extremely blessed in St. Louis, where I pastor a parish, because our churches are all opening up again. In other places, though, I know that the spiritual struggle continues. Some day, I’m confident, in the not-too-distant future, we’ll all have the opportunity again to go to Mass every single day if we so choose. When I wake up and I’m tired and don’t feel like getting to the church, I pray that I’ll remember the past few months. When church is out of our lives, it takes a piece of our heart with it. In the future, how could we not make every effort to be there?
I’m sure there are many other revelatory moments and lessons you could share, ways in which this challenging experience has shone a light on your daily life. When it comes to the strange suffering we’re enduring, this too shall pass. But may the hard-won insights we have gained never be lost.
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