What the Pandemic Is Teaching Me, Part 1
Updated: Apr 19, 2020
"In a pandemic, self-isolation is called quarantine. In Buddhism, it is called retreat. From the cave of our home, like the meditators of ancient times, we can consciously kindle the lamp of compassion and connection."
~ Lama Willa Miller
As I write, I am not quarantined in the strict sense of the word. My husband and I have been venturing out to walk and for things that don't put us in contact with groups of people. As the pandemic is still unfolding in the United States, however, it's likely we'll soon have little reason to leave home.
I grew up in a house that was in a flight path out of the city’s airport and near enough the intersection of two busy streets that I could always hear movement outside. The furnace vent in my room allowed the sound of the TV or muffled conversations in the living room to waft up, adding to a sense of aliveness late into the night and reminding me my parents were near.
When I was a teen, my family moved to Southern Indiana and built a house pretty much entirely with our own hands. We had an amazing time living together in the basement during much of the build, in rooms made by draping sheets from the joists that supported the first floor. It was never entirely quiet, even late at night, but there was always the reassurance of family nearby.
As an adult, I became aware of a belief that I could not be happy living in a place unless there was at least one thing that stayed open 24 hours a day. For some reason, there was comfort in the idea that no matter the time, I could find somewhere to go where something would be happening or where I could get something I might need.
What I call a “need to have noise, movement, and a sense of security” would probably more accurately be called my “need to escape quiet and being alone,” and it runs deep. If I've have had any real anxiety about the COVID-19 situation, it's stemmed from the idea that at some point, the streets might be empty, and there would be nowhere for me to go.
So what better time to think about one of the spiritual practices I feel least eager to consider in Richard Foster's book Celebration of Discipline: solitude. (Foster includes the practice of silence as something basically inseparable from solitude, so I'll include it, too.)
It's easy for me to think about Jesus being busy all the time, but Foster reminded me that Jesus regularly sought out time alone. I only hope he got a lot more of it than what was recorded in the Bible!
I imagine Jesus would have been a master of practicing solitude and silence even in his busiest times. His heart was constantly tuned in to his Father, making it possible to be attentive to God even when he was in the middle of crowds. As Foster puts it, "A day filled with noise and voices can be a day of silence, if noises become for us the echo of the presence of God, if voices are, for us, messages and solicitations of God."
I can think of many times in my life when I've craved down time and then been paralyzed by indecision about what to do when I actually got some. This makes me feel like I won't be particularly good at solitude and silence, but I would love to cultivate some of the qualities these practices bring forward.
Foster discusses, for instance, opportunities these practices can open to "hear the divine Whisper better." He suggests it offers a chance to grow out of a need to explain oneself or take control of situations, leaving that work to God.
He also indicates solitude and silence can make one more sensitive to and compassionate toward others. He writes, "There comes a new freedom to be with people, new attentiveness to their needs, new responsiveness to their hurts."
These all resonate with me, and have me thinking about how oblivious I have become. The way the pandemic has suddenly slowed certain aspects of life down has made me acutely aware of just how much my life has revolved around staying busy. Busyness takes a lot of energy to maintain, keeps me focused on myself, and makes it difficult for me to listen to God and those around me.
I will need to be careful in exploring solitude in this particular season. My current opportunity for solitude is essentially forced, but life will eventually transition back into some form of its pre-pandemic hustle and bustle. I’ll need to look to the example Jesus set in being intentional about setting time aside.
I will also need to be careful about finding a healthy balance between seeking solitude and journeying with others. While quiet and being alone make me nervous, I am at heart an introvert, so it’s tempting to think of solitude as an end rather than as a means to an end.
I want to keep in mind that God can ultimately work through this practice to form the best version of me for the purpose of serving others, and he can use others to provide accountability and support. I'll need to be open to ways community can play a role in this practice.
I considered some practical applications of this practice in my life. I loved the idea presented in the quote at the beginning of this post of thinking about self-isolation as a retreat. Foster had a couple of other suggestions that resonated with me and that might help me engage deeper.
One idea was finding a little place for practicing solitude and silence in or out of the home. I can’t go too far afield at the moment, but I have started enjoying sitting on the back porch again. I've also taken over a spare bedroom so my husband doesn't feel like he has to change his normal routines when I want to process or write. I can see these places becoming real sanctuaries.
Another suggestion Foster had was setting aside time to rethink life goals. This also felt like a good fit, given this journey I'm on. The pandemic has been a wake-up call to people all over the world regarding just how quickly life can change and just how much we need each other. It's made us question what's normal and what's certain, and what kind of goals even make sense.
As a person who likes to be in control, I appreciated Foster's warning about discovering rather than making goals. He reminded, "God delights in showing us exciting new alternatives for the future." If I can practice being still and listening in the silence for God’s gentle promptings, what a beautiful way to find my way forward through this time, and beyond!
The pandemic won’t last forever, but I will be thinking about these things for a long time to come. I am grateful for what I’ve learned about myself so far, and for the opportunity to think about some practical new ways of opening my life to God’s presence and will.
What kinds of things have come to the surface for you during this time? What would allow you to connect with God in a way that lets your hear him past all the noise and distraction during this time of uncertainty? Comment below, or e-mail me your own insights.