When I was an Anglican vicar on the Isle of Wight I would quite often drop by in the afternoon for a cup of tea with one of my best parishioners. Peggy was a feisty widow who used to hide her smoking habit from me. She lived in a snug bungalow on a housing development of similar homes for retired folks. Peggy was the sacristan at church and she insisted on doing my laundry. “I’m not good for much, Vicar, but it’s something I can help with. So every Tuesday she’d show up at the vicarage and go off with a bag of my washing and bring it back on Thursday neatly folded and ironed.
One day in the Autumn I was having a cup of tea at Peggy’s. She was standing at the front window and laughed and said, “Come here Vicar. You need to see this.” So I went to the window.
“Just wait. You’ll see. Look across the street. Do you see the house over there?”
“Do you see that a leaf has blown onto the woman’s driveway?”
“OK. Now watch.”
A few moments later the front door opened and the woman from across the street emerged wearing an apron and rubber gloves. She carried a dust pan and brush, hurried over to the driveway and swept up that one leaf, then hurried back into the house.”
It was like Hyacinth Bucket on steroids.
Peggy couldn’t stop laughing. “She comes out like clockwork whenever a leaf falls. The poor woman must be totally batty!”
The incident reminded me of the observation in M. Scott Peck’s book The Road Not Taken that if we do everything to avoid suffering we will reap a harvest of much more suffering. People with a neurosis of some sort suffer intensely in an interior way. Fear builds into panic builds into paranoia. The person who spends all their time, energy and resources constructing a safe, risk free, suffering free life only postpones the inevitable, and when the suffering comes, because they have not learned to deal with suffering it hits them much harder.
I can’t help but apply this to the present coronavirus panic. The current statistics as of today are about 130,000 cases of infection worldwide and just about 4,700 deaths. Most people who are infected show no symptoms or suffer from a light cold. The elderly and people with underlying health issues are at more serious risk. I do not wish to minimize anyone’s death, and I think all due caution should be observed, but is the widespread panic and shutdown of our society really proportionate to the risk?
It seems to me there is another factor at play. We have built for ourselves in the affluent West a cosy comfort zone. Those tyrants, the insurance companies control our lives with their own version of paranoia. Every little risk has to be assessed. Companies run scared of lawsuits and the insurance companies they hire to cover lawsuits impose ever more restrictions on our lives. The insurance tyrants tell us they are protecting us, but in fact we spend most our time dealing with the paperwork and restriction all designed to protect them.
This has developed in our society into a kind of corporate paranoia. We worry all the time about every little security thereat, every little illness, every little problem that comes our way like the dear soul with her apron, her rubber gloves and her dustpan and brush.
We’re all like that little old lady in her perfectly preserved little world. We have pretty much whatever we want whenever we want it and no one is allowed to say “No”. In suburban America we shield ourselves in our gated communities from the drug addicts, the prostitutes, the gang members and pushers. We hide away our illnesses and put our old people in nice assisted living centers with “memory care facilities” where we leave them to rot. We don’t have funerals anymore we have joyful “memorial services” for people, then quietly cremate the corpse and scatter the ashes as if they never existed. Our whole society is one vast conspiracy to make us happy.
Then when something goes wrong, when something happens that is out of our control, when a crisis occurs we go nuts. We can’t cope. We don’t know how to deal with any kind of hardship of any kind because no one has ever said “No” to us. We’ve never learned self discipline. We’ve never had to go without. We’ve never had a crisis we couldn’t squirm out of and a problem we couldn’t buy our way out of.
I certainly do not wish to minimize or dismiss the suffering of those who are seriously ill, and of course all common sense precautions should be taken. Bad stuff could happen. Our health systems could be exhausted if the virus gets worse, but as it stands today, the irrational over reaction to the coronavirus is symptomatic of something deeper. There is a deeper illness in our society–a soul sickness that, unlike the virus, is curable.
It requires a return to modesty, self discipline, concern for others and a realistic, common sense awareness that bad stuff can happen in life. People get sick. People suffer. People die.
I will suffer. I will die, and the sooner I learn to take up my cross and follow my savior, the freer and more peaceful I will be. The freedom and peace will come from knowing the truth for the truth will set you free.
Does that mean we shrug our shoulders and say, “Oh, well we’re all going to die eventually anyway, so what’s the big deal?” Of course not. Sickness and death are bad and we should do all we can to fight against them and prepare. However, one of the ways we should also prepare is to have eyes, minds and hearts wide open to reality and prepare not only to prevent trouble through prudent and cautious steps, but while we hope for the best, to prepare for the worst…and that means preparing our souls not only for this life, but also for the life to come.
That can’t be a bad idea even when the sun is shining.