Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Of plans, mice, men and pandemics

I subscribe to a weekly newsletter from the Center for Contemplation and Action, an ecumenical think-tank (or prayer-tank?) in Albuquerque, founded by Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest and well-known author and celebrity in Christian circles.

His daily messages focus on different meditation topics, many of which go zinging by six or more feet over my head. He bases his messages mostly on Christian and Roman Catholic scripture and writings, but occasionally also dips into the Buddhist dharma, or "bible".

Last week's newsletter, though, lit a bulb in my head, probably because the daily topics focused on the coronavirus pandemic, the universal preoccupation du jour. 

Thursday's message was, in particular, simple, yet poignant: We are not in control.

"To be in control of one's destiny, job, or finances is nearly an unquestionable moral value in Western society," Rohr writes. "The popular phrase 'take control of your life' even sounds mature and spiritual."

And now, a microscopic virus has thrown all those common assumptions up in the air.

People who've spent so much energy obsessing, and bragging, about their healthy diet and lifestyle, suddenly walk the streets with their frightened faces covered with homemade masks.

At home they live in self-imposed isolation, afraid the Grim Reaper could be lurking about, maybe disguised as the housekeeper or gardener they have employed for years, or even more ridiculous, running out of toilet paper or canned beans.

What we're all being reminded of is our vulnerability and eventual demise, which, after you blow the candles on your sixtieth- or seventieth-birthday cake, invariably creeps closer to you every day.

To ignore that reality is the ultimate self-delusion.

Even at the national level, President Trump's political engineers had been crafting grand reelection plans based on a booming economy, low unemployment and everyone's fat 401K's.

But over a couple of weeks that rosy scenario has turned into a zombie nightmare of a cratering economy, millions of people losing their jobs, and the general population left scared and dazed, as if they'd been hit by a two-by-four.

The November election is not quite the shoo-in it appeared to be just a couple of months ago, thanks to the invisible virus.

On a more personal level, Stew and I had planned a tour of English medieval cathedrals. For several months—A.C., as in antecoronavirus—we bought books and maps, watched documentaries, even thought we could meet friends in London.

In short order, the cathedrals, and in fact most of England, shut down, and the tour and flight were cancelled. Blame COVID-19.

We're back in Rancho Santa Clara, under "house arrest," as some friends call the self-quarantine, Stew cooking soups in quantities sufficient to feed an army platoon; both of us checking mutual fund and bank balances more often, and nervously, than usual; and FĂ©lix and I praying for an early rainy season that will roust up the landscape from its scorched stupor.

We've been forced to admit that we are not in control, not at all, and along the way, that doing so is liberating.

"Learning that we are not in control situates us correctly in the universe," Rohr writes. "If we are to feel at home in this world, we have to come to know that we are not steering this ship."

"Letting go" is a ditty common in most all religions and philosophies. Today, in the middle of yet another epidemic, the latest in hundreds throughout human history, it has become for me, a sanity-saving antidote against useless obsessions and pretensions.

I'm finding it far more useful to break up my overarching concerns into more manageable, and ultimately more useful, bites, such as to concentrate on washing my hands really well and read books that have long laid around the house unread, and sometimes even unopened.

Maybe even pray once in a while.

That, and reaching for the remote as soon as another supposed pundit or expert shows up on TV, peddling their own soup of alarming "breaking news," generously seasoned with what-ifs and what-if-nots. 

My regimen may not quite as spiritually or philosophically profound as Rohr's, but it's what best suits my moment, and one I hope can take me beyond the coronavirus pandemic. 

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