Early in my career, I served as a pastor on the staff of a large church. One day a parishioner came to meet with me, ostensibly for counseling. She took charge of the proceedings right away, asking me to sit next to her so I could see and read with her from a book of worship rites she had brought. It was not uncommon to commence a church-based meeting with “a word of prayer”, so I had no reason to object. We jointly read a brief prayer she had chosen from the book.
But then she turned to another page, one that contained the ritual words of a wedding ceremony, and began reading them, expecting me to read the corresponding responses.
I gently but firmly demurred, moving from the chair beside her to one that faced her directly. I said quietly, “Tell me what is going on here.”
And over the next hour, first haltingly, then with increasingly choked emotion, this respected matron of the community told me of her young adulthood working as a prostitute in a naval seaport. For decades now she had been haunted by the memory and the guilt of those early days, tortured by shame and living in terror of ever being found out. Beyond her own unrelieved self-hatred, what if her husband and daughters ever knew? How could she possibly escape this daily torture?
“So,” she told me, “I’ve just had it in my head: what if I could marry a holy man? What if I could marry a priest or a minister or somebody? Could that take away my sin?”
This was not the first time or the last time I encountered what I came to think of as “the priest wish”. People who wear ministerial robes or judicial robes or other uniforms experience it daily—encountering someone’s wish that there were someone else really powerful—maybe holy powerful, maybe judicially powerful, maybe politically powerful, maybe just rich powerful—who could save them from their doldrums. Who could somehow change the reality in which they are living, in which they are living unhappily, in which the sunshine and optimism and pursuit of their dreams is dimmed and dreary.
Sort of like, well, rescuing us from life going into the third year of our pandemic. Life when everything we used to take for granted is still not "normal". Work. School. Daily social life. Birthday parties. Holiday celebrations. Travel. Theater and movies and concerts. Restaurants. Gyms. Masks. Boosters. Compromise and uncertainty still contaminating every spontaneous urge.
When our grandson Micah was three, his mother and father came home from the maternity ward carrying his newborn infant sister Sophie. Minutes after they all settled into the house and his sensitive parents were doing their best to make him feel important as a big brother, Micah saw right through it. He pronounced a verdict on the situation: “I want my old house back.”
Yeah. We get it. We all want our old house back again. The enduring pandemic and the ever-present threat that we’re going to be the next one knocked flat by Covid has plunged us right back into Micah’s world. Think about how a child experiences the world, and how damnably similar it is to what we’ve been reduced to. I’m indebted to a wise early-childhood specialist named Rachel Giannini for helping me see it like this:
Confined to some version or other of lockdown, like a vulnerable child is, we are constantly waiting for adults to share what’s coming next. We’re forced to adapt to changing decisions and routines somebody else imposes that impact both our emotional and physical well-being. We’re supposed to follow these constantly changing rules, even as we most yearn to experience independence and freedom. Worst, during times of maximum uncertainty and apparent danger, we expect to rely on trusted authorities and touchstones to reassure us that we’re going to be alright. Surely, someone’s going to put out a hand for me to hold so I can get across this dangerous intersection…
But no crossing guard is there. No priest, either. The President can’t fix it. And failing to be saved by some savior or other, we have two alternatives. Many have chosen the easy one: find a scapegoat to blame for our unrest, and hate them out loud through all the mass media and social media in which we are marinated every day. Hate them, and hate those who won’t join you in hating them.
The second alternative is harder: we can re-grow up. Re-growing up ought to be relatively easy, since we already did it once (presumably). But doing that means we have to sweep away our sour fixation on what we have lost to the pandemic. Yes, it has really, truly messed up just about everything we had relied on for our lovely lives. But that's gone now. Gone for a while, maybe gone for good.
Fortunately, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross laid out five stepping stones for traversing serious loss. And the good news is that we’re pretty close to the end of the pathway, whether we know it or not.
The first stage is denial. Oh, yes, two years ago this month our then-President and other presumably trustworthy leaders were telling us (but not themselves) that Covid was a fraud. Nothing to see here. Move along. And many followers chose denial for a while. Besides, the looming magnitude of the calamity outstripped the imaginations of the rest of us. How could such a monumental thing be real?
Then the next stage—anger—came out roaring, when the true horror of Covid became apparent. Righteous anger raged at the perfidy of being misled and at the seeming willingness to let Covid run rampant among us. And then the anger got really personal and painful, as half a million people died and left their families desolate and we witnesses seething.
The third stage of dealing with loss is bargaining, and we’ve seen the fruits of that stumbling along for a year now, with local and national lawmaking contaminated by ignorance and/or political gamesmanship, with well-intended massive campaigns to mask and vaccinate welcomed by most and yet mocked by millions of others.
The not-yet-home situation we’re in right now is the fourth stage: depression. We’re just worn down. Down. Being down is such a bummer. How can we apparently be so tantalizingly close to normal, and yet still be so frustratingly far from a return to…to…to what. To our old house, I guess. But will we ever live in that house again?
The final stage—acceptance—is the one we must choose to dwell in now. Must choose to dwell in. No more wishing for a priest to fix it. No more blaming somebody else for our unhappiness. Enough melancholy lamenting. Acceptance is the only place where we are likely to be clear-headed enough to embrace a future that is uncertain, of course, but is as full of promise as at any other time for those who decide to shuck off the now-too-familiar shroud of depression and stride forward nevertheless.
Until we’re free to choose all the other things we miss, this seems like a good next step.
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