Anyone like myself who lives with a chronic illness is probably familiar with this scenario: Some well-meaning individual offers what they think is helpful advice about how illness is a physical reflection of an inner wound or malady. If I would only do the necessary inner work, I would be healed, they tell me.
I find these interactions offensive and this notion absurd. I was born with a genetic degenerative disease, a form of muscular dystrophy called FSHD. What could my fetal-self have done to deserve this fate? What work could a newborn baby be expected to do?
We are all human. We will all die, and some will do so by illness. This is not something unique to only those who are not self-aware enough, do not meditate enough, or have not addressed their sacred wounds. Sickness and death are integral parts of being human. So when it happens to you, it is not your fault. It is simply what will happen to us all at some point or another.
I do, however, see illness as reminder of the ever-present opportunity that exists to address those sacred wounds, attend to unfinished business, and live more intentionally and fully (to the ability one’s physical limitations will allow) and in the moment and for the moment. The fact that there may not be a tomorrow is more potent for those of us who have been faced with our own vulnerability and mortality.
As a spiritual seeker, I am admittedly drawn to posts, poems, articles and videos that are framing COVID-19 as a message from God or the Universe to do our collective spiritual work as a society and mend our self-destructive ways. I have heard many – some who see the virus as a desperate act of nature against humanity’s abuse of the environment, some as a divine wake-up call to create more universal human connection, some as God’s punishment for people’s sinful behavior, and still some as divine retribution for fundamentalist distortions of religion. There is something attractive about this approach, which lends meaning to this madness and tries to at least find something positive that could potentially come out of this horror.
Yet I find even those who champion causes with which I too identify, to be insensitive to those who are suffering and even dying (most alone in hospitals with no loved ones around them); to those who are now jobless and maybe even facing homelessness; and to those self-employed who have spent their lives working towards a goal that is now crashing down around them with no unemployment compensation upon which to fall back.
Who is expressing these opinions? From what I can see, it is mostly the healthy and financially secure. They are stuck at home involuntarily, but they are finding the time alone or with family – slowing their pace and spending time in nature, even if only in their own gardens – to be healing, rejuvenating and enlightening. That is because they can see an end to this situation that will probably not alter their lives in devastating ways. And so, given no other choice, they are learning lessons about themselves and their life choices from a situation they did not choose. And this is commendable. I do not mean to suggest otherwise.
At the same time, however, it is important to recognize that for many this is not a spiritual retreat. This is a horror film or even a death sentence. In the case of COVID-19, it is those with special needs who are bearing the brunt of this pandemic. It is the elderly, the weak and chronically ill who are suffering the most physically; those of low income or no job stability who are suffering most economically; and the mentally ill and challenged who are suffering most emotionally. Not to mention those who are in abusive relationships and are now living 24/7 with their abusers.
Is it not callous to suggest that it is part of some divine plan for the most vulnerable in our society to have to suffer and die, or lose whatever minimal livelihood they had, so that the most powerful, healthy and secure can spend time in reflection? Something about that equation does not add up. Does it make sense that those who already know the lesson of the fragility of life would be the ones who would suffer most from this universal “lesson”?
This situation is not parallel to that of the Israelite slaves in Egypt who had to wander 40 years in the desert before becoming a truly free nation. In that narrative, it was necessary for the older generation who were attached to a slave mentality to die out before the younger generation could take responsibility for their lives. Those who are dying are mostly not those who are creating addictive technology, who travel excessively and live extravagantly, who are starting wars and performing terrorist attacks, or who run huge corporations and factories that pollute the air and oceans and pillage and litter the earth.
This situation is also not analogous to the Egyptians who needed the tenth plague (the death of all first-born sons) to convince them the time had come to stop oppressing the Israelite slaves and set them free. It is not the leaders or future leaders who are by and large being killed off now; it is those who are least powerful to make an impact and alter the societal norms of corruption, abuse, violence, racism and oppression.
If society is indeed being forced into a collective Sabbatical from the ills we ourselves created but that threaten to destroy us and the earth – a “time-out” that will last for as long as it takes for us to stop worshiping those idols and placing them above our own collective well-being – why wouldn’t it be those who are causing that harm, or who have the most power to do more harm, who are being killed off and made to suffer most from this “plague”?
As a lover of narrative, as one who turns to stories to make sense of the universe, I have not yet found an archetypal biblical story to superimpose on our current scenario. Perhaps that is because those narratives assume a rational order to things. Perhaps that is because those stories place our human concepts of guilt, punishment, and even learning and making meaning, onto a universe that is not of human making. Whether or not one believes in God, Spirit, or whatever name you choose for the mysterious realm of existence, it is clear that the Universe existed before humans did. So why force human explanations onto an unknowable force that defies all human understanding?
But as humans, we cannot refrain from trying to understand, even as we know that what we are trying to understand is beyond comprehension. That is one thing that makes us uniquely human. Like with all human powers, however, we must not abuse this one, but rather use it with wisdom and compassion. And so, when we feel the need to formulate theories that create just cause for death and suffering, we need to do so with extreme sensitivity and forethought.
One way to start is to speak not in the language of cause, but rather result. The only thing we should dare speak of now is what can be learned on a human level as the result of a situation that we as humans cannot dare to even attempt to comprehend – so that those who are dying and suffering do not do so in vain.
If we do not emerge from this horror a changed society – if those who survive wounded and scarred are left to their own devices to pick up their devastated lives; if we continue to destroy our environment in the ways we were doing before COVID-19 surfaced; if countries and nations return to fighting instead of cooperating; if fundamentalist religious groups continue to cause more separation, hatred and violence in the world instead of connection, love and peace – that will be a travesty.
Just as I see my own illness as an opportunity to examine my life and make more intentional choices, we can see this collective illness as an opportunity to examine our lives individually and as a society. But we must be careful with the language we use. It is one thing for someone who is ill to say they see their illness as a gift or a divine invitation, but it is quite another thing for someone else to tell you that YOUR illness is a gift or divine call to mend your life – or worse yet, a punishment or even consequence of something you did or are doing wrong.
Because we are all in this together but are experiencing it in different ways and to different extents and extremes, we must be especially mindful of how we articulate the meaning we create around this collective experience. Before each rainbow we point out to others, we must acknowledge that not everyone can see the same rainbow from where they are standing, or ever be able to access to it from there. And we must remind ourselves and others just how decimating the rainstorm is, and how some, especially those without shelter, will suffer much more than those with shelter in which to “shelter in place”.
Let’s keep in mind one symbolism of the rainbow – it’s varied spectrum of colors – even as we remember that it is also a symbol of renewal and hope. Let us keep in mind the horrific reality of what is going on around us, even if we are not experiencing it as dramatically as others.
I turn now to the story of Noah and the Ark, that relays the biblical version of the origin of the rainbow, although it too is not a good enough parallel, as those who are dying from Corona certainly cannot as a group be called “evil to the core.” As Noah emerged from the Ark and saw that first rainbow spread across the sky above him, I imagine he felt a variety of emotions:
Awe. Wonder. Humility. Mystery. Mourning. Relief. Anger. Frustration. Gratitude. And yes, even blessedness for all he had endured and learned from his forced isolation with his family for 40 days and nights. While he would have had plenty of opportunity for introspection, and bonding with his family and the animals with whom he shared his quarters, I doubt he would have tweeted – if he could – to all those who were drowning around him what a gift God had given him by sending the Flood.