During this “lockdown”, I have really been enjoying revisiting photos from my world trip last year, since a friend invited me to share 10 travel photos over 10 days on Facebook. It’s a challenge to only share 10 from such a big trip, but I have loved doing it. I will share my favourites here too. While I was travelling, little did I suspect that all of these places would be in lockdown due to a pandemic within less than a year. How strange, and how grateful I am to have travelled when I did and to be home now.
This post follows on from the earlier one “Facing the void”. Although the idea of confronting our limitations and feelings of powerlessness could feel depressing, actually, I think it can be a deeply hopeful thing to do. So I’m sticking with it…
So, here are my questions to myself: When I stop, and cannot do anything of value; when I am unable to be useful, who am I? Do I have any intrinsic worth? Even if I “know” in theory that all life has worth, do I really believe it about my own life?
Many people are coming up against these questions for the first time, because of the pandemic. This is territory I am familiar with. Just under five years ago I was diagnosed with cancer. Instantly almost everything about my life changed. Although other people adapted their expectations of me pretty quickly, it took longer for me to adapt my expectations of myself. It took me about three months to really let go and stop working completely, for example.
My actions, my identity and my sense of self-worth have been strongly shaped by my desire to be useful for a looooong time. But because of my experiences, I now question that.
During that year, I had a lot to face. Including learning to break tasks like getting out of bed down into tiny, manageable steps. Everything took ages. Surviving became my only big goal, and each day presented many different challenges.
I was off work pretty much for a whole year while I had chemotherapy, surgery and radiotherapy, which amazingly over 9 months managed to eradicate the cancer. Then I began hormone therapy to minimise the chances of the cancer returning.
One of the many challenges during my cancer treatment was my gathering sense of doom about the political direction of the UK and the world in general, and my sense of utter powerlessness in the face of it all. One time, I arrived home from a long weekend in hospital to the news that we were going to use drones to bomb Syria. On seemingly rather inadequate evidence and threatening the lives of many innocent citizens of that country. I was so angry! I’d spent the weekend working with doctors and nurses and all the hospital staff to try to preserve my own life, only to find our politicians had sat in their comfy seats in the House of Commons and decided to remove the lives of many innocent people. I was livid.
I am sure that many factors played into that political decision, not least the fact that Syria is a long way away from the UK, and we have this chronic tendency to value the lives of people overseas less than our own. But I think there’s another, deeper story at work here too. I have a sneaking suspicion that if I don’t really believe my own life is valuable, I won’t really believe that the life of any other living being (human, animal, plant) is really valuable, either. Not really. This is why I think it’s really important for us – all of us – to actually face these questions, rather than avoiding them out of fear.
In a Zoom meeting recently, a colleague said, “People are afraid, because they can no longer define themselves by what they consume”. I, for one, have been astonished at how little I’ve purchased since the lockdown. Now, I’m wondering what I used to spend money on! Do we really want to be sleepwalking into a situation where we measure our own worth only by what we do, or where we define who we are mainly by what we buy? Really?
If you, like me, know someone who has died recently either from COVID 19 or from other causes, I doubt very much that you will be thinking their life was defined by what they bought or even what they did to earn money, however laudable their work might have been. As a friend used to say to me, “I’m not going to lie on my death bed wishing I’d spent more time at work.” The reality of our own mortality is something we can befriend as a perspective-giver sometimes.
I am aware of the massive challenges our economy faces now. But I would contend that the world economy faces those challenges, not just our country. And that it is surely high time for us to find a better, fairer way of distributing wealth or trading with one another for what we need, anyway? In times of crisis, the gift economy emerges beautifully, creatively, and money – these coins/notes/figures on a computer screen – seems actually worthless. What intrinsic worth do figures on a screen have? None. Even the coins are only really worth what you could make with them if you melted them down.
I want to offer some reassurance to anyone who feels afraid to confront their doubts about their own worth. Life is extraordinary. It is a sacred gift. And, perhaps unlike those coins, every living being has deep intrinsic worth. These things are not just beliefs to me. They are facts. Or at the very least, I think they are beliefs that carry the same weight of truth as facts do. May you catch a glimpse of your own worth today, whether you are in a busy and “useful”, “doing” phase of life, or in an inactive time where you are feeling powerless.
In my understanding, the European Union was set up to help bring about the end of wars and to increase international cooperation. Or to use the classic Miss World phrase, to promote “world peace”, the cause we all agree is so worthy. The UK wasn’t involved in the beginnings of the EU after the Second World War. We’ve often been slow to cooperate, and quick to hang onto what we deem to be ours. And, having come late to the party, we’ve exited the EU now as well. So I feel mixed about the 75th anniversary of “Victory in Europe”. I feel sad that we let go of something so precious, won at such cost, without seemingly remembering that the point of it all was to prevent war, with all its needless, tragic bloodshed from happening in Europe again.
For more about the history of the EU have a look here: https://europa.eu/european-union/about-eu/history_en
In a report about VE Day on the news last night, someone pointed out that when the UK welfare state (including the NHS, the world’s first free health service) was created, after the Second World War, even people who wouldn’t really benefit from it supported it, because they knew it would be good for others.
People who are staying at home and still physically distancing themselves during this pandemic are doing so not only for their own benefit, but out of consideration for other people, so they don’t inadvertently pass COVID-19 onto them.
I wish we could reclaim some of that post war clear-sightedness and selflessness now, for those who are not bothering to physically distance themselves from others. I imagine that anyone whose relative has died tragically from COVID-19 will continue to be careful about distancing themselves. The cost is real to them. I suppose by the end of the Second World War, probably everybody in the UK knew more than one person who had died in the war, and many others who’d been injured in it. Maybe this was part of what inspired such enormous public support for the welfare state, even though it must have cost tax payers dearly. Who cares about taxes when they’ve seen people die in wartime?
I understand that this isolation is a nightmare for some people. Especially those grieving alone, those having to shield themselves, and those who are really ill in hospital and for those who are trapped in unsafe homes, or who are finding the situation is triggering trauma from the past. But I hope that those of us who are not facing a direct mortal threat from being at home will manage to stay put for the time being, out of consideration for others, as well as ourselves.
Well, my little “retreat-at-home” went pretty well. The builders building the school nextdoor seemed to be at their noisiest last week, drilling up the pavement, but maybe I just noticed them more as I was being quiet? For this, and many other reasons, it was not at all like my usual retreats, when I would go away to a quieter place for 5 days or so. But it was a refreshing and good time. I particularly found the digital and tv detox helpful. I may have to do this more regularly.
One of the things the retreat drew strongly to my attention was something that I had been beginning to notice anyway about breathing. Slowing my breathing and breathing more deeply is becoming a more habitual part of my practice of contemplation and prayer these days.
This has come to me now for several reasons. I’ve been doing yoga in the lockdown, which encourages a type of active, aware breath, in tandem with physical movement. (I recommend https://www.youtube.com/yogawithadriene if you want to try some for free online.) Over the past few years, I’ve also had many conversations with friends and done various bits of reading and researching on the topics of trauma and anxiety. There’s so much to be said about this, and, although it may not be possible for everyone in every situation, generally speaking, finding a way of stilling yourself using your breath can be very helpful for many people.
For a long time, I’ve been aware of focusing on the breath as a starting point to prayer or meditation, but I don’t think I’ve ever practised this as consistently or habitually as I now find myself doing. Somehow, trying it out every time I’ve settled into a time of contemplation, meditation or prayer for a few weeks (and especially on my retreat week) is finally making its mark, and it is now becoming almost a reflex – as semi conscious as a night time brushing your teeth routine, really.
Maybe the right “tool” appears at the moment we most need it?
If you want to try slowing your breath, find a comfortable position with a strong foundation (notice the soles of your feet on the floor, your sit bones on a chair, or if you’re kneeling, the tops of your feet and shins on the floor etc). It takes me a while to make myself pay attention to my physical body. I wiggle to find the best position. Then I might open my hands in my lap, close my eyes, and just begin to notice my breathing.
After a few breaths, I gradually begin to deepen my breathing in and to lengthen my breathing out (so I breathe out for longer than I breathe in for). To really deepen my breathing in, sometimes I put a hand on my belly and feel it rise as I breathe in and fall as I breathe out. This reminds me that a deep breath fills the lungs from here, rather than from higher up around my chest, where we tend to gasp from if we’re anxious. As I’m doing all this, I also begin to gradually relax my face, jaw, shoulders, legs; wherever my body feels tense.
I stay with the deeper breathing for a while. On my retreat, I used an incense stick, which smoulders for half an hour, each morning as a measure of time, and also as a lovely fragrance to breathe in deeply. I only normally use incense like this when I’m on retreat. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea! It’s also quite tricky to commit the whole half hour to stillness. But as I noticed each day how the smoke curled its way unaccountably towards me, I was reminded of previous retreats, and I received a blessing from its gentle, silent, unpredictably curling, fragrant smoke.
Being still and breathing, even just for ten minutes before a meeting brings a blessing for me and for those I’m meeting with, I’m sure. Giving myself the freedom to be still and breathe for half an hour is glorious.
I am going to experiment with rest and retreat in the coming week, taking a break from everything online, phone calls and watching the news etc. I’m thinking of it as a kind of “retreat at home”. I’m also breaking our household routine of praying in the morning mon-fri, to allow myself some more lie ins, and the freedom to go with whatever rhythm my resting body and mind seem to need. I will still be cooking and eating with my housemates in the evenings though. And maybe I’ll join them for a film night once or twice.
If I feel in need of this, when I have not actually been all that busy, I’m wondering how many others must do? As I retreat I pray that somehow or other rest will come to all those who need it.
Hopefully by next weekend I will be full of beans and ready to dive back in again. Watch this space…!
After my previous couple of posts, here’s something more positive! Without at all wishing to downplay the awfulness of it all, there are good things beginning to emerge in the midst of this pandemic. One of the things that I’m finding particularly helpful is how people are starting to ask some really good questions. My previous post reflected on questions and thoughts coming from a place of anxiety. Here are some questions and thoughts that I think are emerging from a more positive place. These are opening up a space, tentatively beginning to explore possibilities and potential for a new world, which is why I love them. Thanks to everyone who has contributed one of them – albeit probably unwittingly!
How is this pandemic / lockdown changing me / us for better?
What are we learning from this situation?
I am suddenly aware that I need to show physical affection, but I can’t at the moment, and it’s really difficult. I realise now my need to hug people is not so much about other people’s need to be hugged, but about my need for physical contact.
How can I find rest in this time?
Can we begin to accept this season as a gift? Even while we know that for other people it is a terrible time of grief, fear, exhaustion and loss?
Suddenly, there’s nothing in my diary, and I feel free.
Could we find a way of sharing resources better in a simple way – like introducing a universal basic income or something like that?
I’m realising now that Universal Credit is not enough to live on. How did we get to the point where we expected our most vulnerable people to live on not enough? How can we make sure we never do that again?
What or who is it we’re longing for?
What is it we are dreaming of? Can we dream up a better future? What might it look like?
We’re suddenly finding that we’re having deeper conversations with friends and family than we had before. Even though they’re happening online, which is not as good as face to face conversations, the situation is making people question things more, and get to the heart of stuff, as all the surface distractions have been removed.
What risks is it good to take?
I’m realising that it’s all about people and relationships. It’s not really about tasks and action at all. When all the tasks and action end, the people and the relationships remain. I sort of always knew that’s what’s most important, but I didn’t dare say it before. But now I can say it.
“It is human to believe that we are in control and we have the answers when, usually, we aren’t and we don’t.” (This was a really striking sentence a recent course participant wrote in an assignment about the mission of God. What a gift!)
I think I am learning to let go. It swings between being very liberating, and quite scary!
This blog post may not be for the faint hearted. I just thought it might be good to reflect on some of the fears I’ve heard people articulate in video and phone calls over the past few days. Because several people have said that it has actually been very good to find a space to name their fears. I guess naming our fears may be the first step to beginning to deal with them (if “dealing with them” is possible). I’ll do another post about our hopes, but maybe it’s important to actually sit with our fears for a while. I do find it curiously comforting to realise that other people are facing many of the same fears I do, and some extra ones as well. There is a sense of solidarity emerging, which is how human beings have faced all kinds of adversity. Compassionate solidarity is the beginning of cooperation, which has enabled us as a species to survive a lot of storms. (Having said that, if reading these is not helpful for you at the moment, then please ignore this post!)
Who am I when I can’t do anything useful?
We’re just about OK at the moment. But if this lockdown lasts for months and months, how on earth will we cope?
What if we are back to some kind of “normal” in a year’s time, but people still don’t want to gather? Or they don’t want me to hug them? [Said by a very tactile person.]
People who are close to me have been diagnosed with Covid-19 and there’s nothing I can do to help them. I can’t even be with them, to hold their hands.
Have we made the right decisions about our young adult children living with their boyfriends/girlfriends (or not living with them) for the lockdown?
How do we take sensible precautions, without giving into anxiety?
How do we cope with the fact that one person in our household is very anxious about washing everything that we buy / observing more extreme social distancing / just avoiding other people altogether? In fact, how do we cope with everyone’s different anxieties and the different ways people are finding to cope with the situation?
We’re self employed and our business doesn’t qualify for any of the government support and we can’t work in the lockdown. How are we going to be able to pay the bills, or have money for food even?
When I was ill with Covid-19, at one point I felt so bad, I actually thought I’d wake up in a hospital bed. My spouse has underlying health conditions making them more vulnerable. When they got it, I thought it could be the end, and because of all the horror stories, I was afraid they’d have to go to hospital and I’d never see them again. [This couple have both recovered now, without needing hospital care.]
I so want our “new normal” when it emerges to be better than the old “normal”. But I am worried that it might be worse, because many people are feeling so anxious.