The most harrowing, heart-breaking aspect of this pandemic is the enforced separation of the sick and dying from those who love them. Having to stay away from your spouse or your parent or your best friend at their time of greatest need, how terrible is that. And then, in the case of those who die, to be deprived of a time to grieve together, or to wait until God knows when for a moment safe enough to congregate again. For as long as it lasts, the latter constraint imposes itself as well on those who are sick and dying from non-virus causes.
There’s not much room here for a stiff upper lip, for stiffening our resolve in the face of the various infirmities of life. This is devastatingly sad and lamentable, and needs to be seen as such. Better to cry to high heavens for what has befallen us than to retreat into some kind of phony detachment or pious refuge. Besides Christ himself, our father Augustine is the best teacher on these matters. In chapter after chapter in Book XIX of the City of God, he catalogues the miseries that attend this mortal life, all with a view to refuting those Stoics who would have us “tough it out” in the face of life’s woes. For Augustine, the ultimate weakness of the Stoic view of life is its “exit strategy,” proposing that when things get really bad – and to prop up their defense of the “happy life” – one can always take matters into one’s own hands.
The one whom we follow wept over Jerusalem and over the death of his friend Lazarus, allowed the sinful woman to dry with her hair the tears on his feet, drove the money-changers out of the temple, fiercely rebuffed Peter as a tempter, and prayed that he might be spared the agony that lay ahead of him. His was not the way of detachment, if that in any way meant an indifference to the hard demands of love. He decidedly did not take matters into his own hands, but surrendered himself right to the end to his Father’s will.
So much of our pre-pandemic life has buffered us from the naked reality of our vulnerability. The sickness and death of a young person or a loved one may put us in touch with painful truths, but we eventually return to something close to our normal buffered life. The scale of our present crisis is different. Ironically, in our isolation we are brought face to face with the extent of our interdependence. Like it or not, and whether we abide by its demands or not, we know that we are our brother’s and sister’s keeper. As such, we have the chance to think more deeply about what matters in our lives; see with a new set of eyes our spouse and children, the brothers and sisters in our communities, and the panhandlers at our city intersections; and place ourselves with greater trust into the hands of a God who at all times is close to the broken-hearted.