|Published by Louise Adey Huish on Wed, 13 May 2020 09:44|
Well, I don’t know about you, but now I’m just getting bored. The novelty has well and truly worn off, the Dunkerque spirit has faded, the war probably isn’t going to be over by Christmas after all.
Someone whose views I respect once said to me that she didn’t believe there was such a thing as boredom, only anger or grief needing to find an acceptable outlet. Boredom allows us to keep those painful feelings at a distance, but only by keeping everything at a distance. The spring isn’t any less beautiful, the birds aren’t singing any less loudly, the home-made food is still as delicious (and the baking, in my case, is now a bit less hit and miss!). But that sense of not being in control of our own lives is just as acute; the desire to make plans is just as urgent, and with each day it gets harder to focus on the small things, harder to value them as they deserve. We have been waiting for something to change; and now – after the Prime Minister’s most recent announcement on Sunday - it doesn’t seem to be changing after all. Back to Groundhog Day, then.
When I was a little girl, one of the most annoying things my parents could say was, ‘Let’s just wait and see, shall we?’ In fact, my mother had a pudding that was called ‘Wait and see pudding’ (or WASP pudding) – mainly because she didn’t know what would be going into it until the last moment, or how it would turn out. I hated having to ‘wait and see’, because I wanted to know now – and I think right now many of us are desperate to find out when or whether we are going back to work; whether a holiday, or a wedding, an exam or a house move is going to go ahead, or not.
While this is undoubtedly difficult, it’s worth remembering that for many, many people this radical lack of control is not just a strange interlude, but a way of life. If six weeks has proved tough, imagine what it must have been like to live through the six years of the Second World War. Imagine what it must be like today as a refugee, living in one of the camps, dealing with constant shortages and deprivation, with no opportunity for education, or meaningful work of any kind. Coping with infection and disease not just as a one-off, but as a constant threat.
Or imagine (I hope you are only having to imagine this) finding that life-limiting illness cuts through your plans for the future, your vision of the unfolding years. That you are waiting from one day to the next to find out the results of tests, the likely prognosis, whether or not your body will allow you to put the smallest of plans into action. My experience of working with patients at the end of their lives suggests that people tend to react in one of three ways. Some are felled by distress and anger, and literally ‘turn their face to the wall’. Some seek refuge in what I used to call the ‘Cadbury’s Social Whirl’: they are never without a dozen visitors, and there is loud conversation and laughter, chocolates and prosecco and nail polish at all hours. And some look death squarely in the eye: they are the ones who use the time they have left to best effect, and leave a sense of peace behind them when they go.
Acknowledging our fear, our sense of loss, is important. I should have been going on holiday to France in two days’ time, and I feel thwarted and upset that Monet’s garden and Chartres Cathedral are going to have to wait for another year. Everyone will have their own story of cancellations and deprivations to tell. But allowing fear and loss to have the upper hand isn’t helpful either (who wants to turn their face to the wall when the view from the window is so beautiful?). Nor is the lockdown equivalent of the Cadbury’s Social Whirl: endless To Do lists, or phone calls, or Zoom meetings to fill every waking moment. All we can do is look this strange ‘life on hold’ squarely in the eye, and use the time to best effect.
The time between Easter and Pentecost has always been a time of waiting; and then as now it must have been hard to know what anyone was waiting for. There is the initial sense of upheaval and excitement brought about by Jesus’s resurrection appearances; the recognition that something momentous and life-changing has taken place; the uncertainty as to whether this ‘new normal’ will be salvation, or catastrophe. And like us now, the disciples must have found themselves in uncharted territory, not quite sure from one moment to the next what the new day would bring. Then, just as they’re getting used to that set of changes, there is the day of Ascension, when everything changes again, and Jesus tells his followers that all they can do is ‘wait and see’ (Acts 1: 6-10).
We are in the in-between times, the ‘already but not yet’ experience of eschatological time. (Things have changed, but we don’t yet know what that change will look like.) We are simultaneously longing for change to be upon us (‘My soul waits for the Lord more than the night-watch waits for the morning’, Psalm 130:6), and filled with anxiety about what it might mean; bereft at all we have lost, and yet longing for the new world that is to come.
Jesus’s answer – the difficult and only answer – is to live in the now. The whole of the Sermon on the Mount urges us to seize the day, to engage with the only reality we have, which is the reality of the present moment. Now is when you can act, now is when you can make a difference, not next week, or next month, or at some unspecified time in the future. In fact, all the great wisdom traditions teach something very similar. ‘Consider the lilies of the field’, Jesus tells his listeners (Mt. 6:28); learn from the created world all around you that all you can do is trust. ‘Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today’ (Mt 6:34).