Suffering in a Pandemic Age as a Christian

A few weeks ago, when the novel coronavirus was just starting to spread in the Western world – and along with it, many people’s fears – I became aware of an essay by C. S. Lewis: “On Living in an Atomic Age.” The entire essay can be found in Lewis’s collection “Present Concerns: Journalistic Essays,” but the following excerpt has been most circulated:

In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. “How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”

In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.

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C. S. Lewis

As noted by Aaron Earls in this response, many people seem to be misinterpreting Lewis’s thoughts here. As he suggests, Lewis would not tell us to ignore the coronavirus, to just go on with our lives by “doing sensible and human things” (in fact, that wouldn’t be “sensible”). Experiencing a daily threat of the bomb is not the same situation as experiencing a global pandemic, and our actions need to fit the situation. As the top scientific and public health experts are telling us, it’s key that we adapt our behavior to stay home and socially distance to decrease the spread of the virus to the fullest extent possible.

When I first read Lewis’s essay, I felt strangely comforted. Humans have lived through epic tragedies before –  such as during the days when there was significant threat of the atomic bomb, the great wars, and the plague – and the novel coronavirus falls in that long line of global crisis. This has helped me to connect with ancestors – including my dad who fought in World War II and likely had to deal with a lot of the same feelings as I am now – as well as many more before me. Many did not survive, but this crisis is helping me to connect with a sense of humanity common to all people across ages, races, religions, genders, etc., and that feels really important. If we are learning nothing else from this pandemic, I believe, it is that we are all far more interdependent than we previously realized.

I think Lewis’s main idea comes in his obvious point that we all are certain to die, many of us in rather unpleasant ways. Most have not really seriously entertained that thought or worked through how to deal with it. We have not yet prepared ourselves for suffering.

A few years ago, I had the privilege of meeting over tea with my friend Dr. Deanna Thompson as she worked through her thoughts about suffering for her book “Glimpsing Resurrection.” Deanna has experienced the trauma of incurable breast cancer for over 10 years now and has been on a quest for understanding how Christian faith might be a resource for those suffering with a life-threatening illness. It seems to me that those of us worried about the suffering of coronavirus might benefit from someone who already has suffered from an illness and found some insights for suffering well.

As a theologian, Dr. Thompson is interested in dusting off insights from Christian tradition to help individuals cope well, particularly with conditions and situations that cannot be resolved easily or quickly. She points to three key Biblical spaces that might be most helpful in this regard.

1. The Psalms.

The Psalms are a place in the Bible where, as Deanna points out, it becomes clear how Christian spirituality is more about ongoing conversation than simple plot. Although the Psalms are known more for praise, the focus of 40% of the Psalms is lament, helping individuals find language for various forms of suffering. As she states, “lament can open a way for the unendurable to be endured.”

In 2017, Deanna invited me to the Mahle Symposium at Hamline University for a day of theological discussion about healing, wholeness, and trauma. I love ideas, but what struck me the most was when singer-songwriter John Hermanson played his guitar and sang several of the lament Psalms in his own unique and beautiful style (which you can listen to here). I was particularly struck by Psalm 27:

“The Lord is my light and my salvation – whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life – of whom shall I be afraid?…
One thing I ask from the Lord, this only do I seek:
That I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life…
For in the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling…
I remain confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.”

These words have been really important to me whenever I feel like I’m in a “day of trouble,” as we all are now. They are words I return to every morning of this crisis as I pray through my response. Even if I feel in complete disarray before I start, meditating on how I seek to dwell with God brings me back to a calm center. They help me to look for goodness and to be patient for things to turn around.

2. The Story of Job.

Job’s story in the Hebrew Scriptures is famously complex and difficult to understand. At it’s core, though, are the vital relationships shown between Job and the Divine and between Job and his friends. With respect to the latter, theologian Daniel Castelo notes how “friendship is a serious moral-spiritual activity that has great potential for ill or good, especially in terms of suffering or pain.”

During this season of coronavirus, this truth is being revealed to many of us. We need friends. We need belonging. We remember a time when we could more easily gather and show physical affection, how important that was, and how we took it for granted. Until that time returns, we have the opportunity to connect virtually and be creative in showing how we love and care for each other.

Personally, I have been making a point everyday to reach out to friends to connect. I’ve been going on daily walks, and I make a point to “schedule” a friend to “walk and talk with” during these times. Like Deanna, I long have been skeptical of digital communication, but this time is revealing how critical this technology can be.

3. The Suffering of Jesus.

Poet Christian Wiman is one example of someone who became Christian because of how meaningful he found the story of Jesus suffering. He is Christian because of, he writes,  “that moment on the cross when Jesus, drinking the very dregs of human bitterness, cries out, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?'”

As Deanna elaborates in her book:

“It is the recognition of God’s lack of immunity to human suffering that helps Wiman glimpse a way to go on. What makes Christianity meaningful to him is its insistence on the humanity of God – the insistence that God doesn’t ‘float over the chaos of pain’ and that God is, instead, ‘given over to matter.’ Instead [Wiman] understands his story of suffering… as being held within the story of God’s experiences of bodily suffering in the person of Jesus. Because of Jesus’ story, Wiman is able to imagine more to his own story as well.”

In this Lenten season, Christians reflect for 40 days on this suffering. We see in Jesus a role model for how to bravely and honestly endure, and how it is okay to express our confusion and anger to God as a part of our ongoing relationship. We also look forward to Easter, where we celebrate hope and eventual victory.

And, we could all use a little hope right now.

***

It seems to me that the novel coronavirus – and the uncertainty and fear it has triggered – is a teacher about so many essential truths about being human – about living and suffering well – some of which I have discussed above. We would do well to listen to our emotions as teachers during this time, to see what they point us toward. As Parker Palmer has said, maybe our best response is to consider what we can learn, spiritually and otherwise, during a time such as this. I end with some thoughts that Palmer recently shared on social media, written by T. H. White.

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2 thoughts on “Suffering in a Pandemic Age as a Christian

  1. Pingback: The Science of Happiness during COVID-19 | The Quest for a Good Life

  2. Pingback: On Living in the Age of COVID-19 | The Quest for a Good Life

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