After we got our second Covid-19 vaccinations last April, my husband and I went to dinner inside a restaurant for the first time in over a year. We toasted to the new day ahead.
We hoped for a return to something like normalcy. Schools would reopen in person in the fall. We could unmask in church. Visiting my elderly mother would be safer. I could travel and speak at conferences again. It had been a long year. But we made it.
Then, in August, cases in Austin, Texas, my hometown, surged and city officials began warning that I.C.U.s were near capacity largely because of unvaccinated adults. Then, our children, who are all too young to be vaccinated, had their first known exposure to someone with Covid and we all had to quarantine. We were all fine. Everyone had on masks and the kids never got sick. But for those two weeks, as we canceled plans, called off child care and tried to juggle work and parenting inside the confines of our home again, I thought, “Isn’t this supposed to be over now?”
When the pandemic was new, my family went into lockdown with purpose and determination, embracing new rhythms, rising to the occasion. But in this season of Covid Round 2, all that inner strength has fizzled. It feels like the race is getting longer. We are wearied from a year of death, from conflict with relatives and neighbors who refuse to mask or be vaccinated, from the uncertainty of not knowing what’s ahead, from our constant internal risk-benefit analysis of every event and gathering in our lives. We are tired. We are ready to move on.
Some of this feeling is compassion fatigue, but some of it is plain old fatigue. In C.S. Lewis’s classic book “The Screwtape Letters,” a demon named Screwtape is coaching his nephew on how to effectively tempt and damn his “patient,” an Englishman. “To produce the best results from the patient’s fatigue,” Screwtape writes, “you must feed him with false hopes.”
He encourages his nephew to assure the “patient” that his hardship is nearing an end: “Exaggerate the weariness by making him think it will soon be over.” He diabolically instructs him to “let his inner resolution be not to bear whatever comes to him, but to bear it ‘for a reasonable period’ — and let the reasonable period be shorter than the trial is likely to last.”
Here’s Lewis’s point: Fatigue can produce either impatience and anger or gentleness and kindness. But add disappointment to our fatigue — that sense that we cannot go on any longer and we thought we wouldn’t have to — and we become the worst versions of ourselves.
“It is not fatigue simply as such that produces the anger,” Screwtape says, “but unexpected demands on a man already tired.”
We’ve all borne a lot of demands over the past 18 months. And we’ve had it. No more.
For over a year, we have all had to face our collective and individual vulnerability. To be asked to re-enter this same unpredictability now is exhausting and deeply disappointing.
Will my kids be able to continue in school or will their classrooms shut down again? What will happen if we get in an accident and our hospitals are full because of a Covid surge? Will gatherings need to be canceled again? Will we have vaccine mandates? Will we have other surges? Other variants?
We can harness the best minds in the world to produce a vaccine in record time, but we still don’t know what our particular lives will look like tomorrow morning at the breakfast table. This uncertainty is, of course, how we have always lived each day — it’s simply part of what it means to be a human being. But Covid continues to throw how little we know, control or can predict into sharp relief. In the Hebrew Scriptures, we hear how the Israelites lived through the same sort of emotional roller coaster that many of us have felt this past year. In the Exodus story, they are finally freed after generations of slavery in Egypt (Joy! Relief!). But then, they find themselves pursued by an army (Fear! Danger!), but then, they are miraculously delivered thanks to the parting of the Red Sea (Joy! Relief!), but then they wander in the wilderness (Bewilderment! Danger!).
We are told that these tumultuous events generated “grumbling” among the Israelites. Well, I should think so! Humans are not good at bearing uncertainty and anxiety for such a long period of time. We eventually read about how Moses received the law and how the Israelites finally settle in Canaan. As readers of the Exodus story, we have the distinct advantage of being able to skip ahead, to see how the story ends and therefore to make theological and emotional sense of it, which we then read back into the text. But each of our lives is locked in the present tense. We can’t skip ahead in our own stories.
It has become a cliché, a bumper-sticker pat answer, to say “Let go and let God.” But why should we? What evidence is there that trusting God is such a great idea?
Again and again, the church has answered: because we have been given the gift of knowing how the story ends.
Christians see Moses as prefiguring Christ. Jesus, like Moses, delivered his people. Through his resurrection, we were rescued from the oppression of sin and power of death. The end of the story is that Jesus makes, as the Book of Revelation says, “all things new.” The church proclaims that in the resurrection, we have glimpsed the Promised Land. We have seen that God has defeated death. We cannot know the path ahead for any of our individual lives, but we can read the big story of redemption back into our particular life and our particular moment.
In this new phase of the pandemic, we sit poised between celebration and continued suffering. We aren’t sure how to feel. We aren’t sure when — or if — things will go back to normal.
So what must we do? We grieve. We admit we are worn out. We do what we can to help (which for most of us is simply to continue to wear masks and get vaccinated). And we take up the practices of patience and perseverance amid uncertainty. Perseverance isn’t simply a “grin and bear it” stoicism, much less a call to deny our frustration, disappointment or anxiety about what lies ahead.
Instead the Book of James presents perseverance as an artist, with our own souls as its medium. Perseverance, James writes, must “finish its work in us” that we might become “mature and complete.” It forms and shapes a kind of wholeness in us that comes as a gift: We don’t know what the next hour brings, but God can be trusted because we’ve glimpsed the end of the story. So now, in the present tense, with all its grief and frustrations, we can bear whatever comes to us, even if it lasts longer than we’d hoped.
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Tish Harrison Warren (@Tish_H_Warren) is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America and author of “Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep.”
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