Four months ago, as we began developing this initiative, Retreat Where You Are, we acknowledged this reality: “Life looks and feels different right now. You may be anxious about your new daily routine and the uncertainty of the future.” Here, in the United States, we had been living with the pandemic for over a month, bringing layers of uncertainty about health and wellbeing, financial sustainability, job security, and more. It has been over five months now, and the uncertainty remains. It has seeped into new corners of daily living, presenting us with spiritual challenges and opportunities simultaneously.
Let me share a concrete and personal example: schooling. In many places across the country, K-12 school is now in session. We have another week before the start of school in Minneapolis, where my daughter is enrolled, and things are still very uncertain. I began trying to get information eight weeks ago, and I’m no further along in getting my questions answered than I was then. The district wide email system has been glitching. Dates for start-of-school virtual events have been set and re-set. Some families have teacher assignments; others don’t. My neighbors had to drive to their son’s school to look at a list of all class assignments taped to the front door. Unfulfilled communication deadlines pass us by. There is no substantive information about daily schedules for distance learning, meaning that it is long past the time when the vast majority of families can arrange child care and tutoring around their work schedules. I don’t know any parent with school-age kids who hasn’t felt beside themselves with worry and frustration sometime in the past few weeks. My teacher friends are in the same boat—incomplete information, unanswered questions, lack of resources—with the additional pressure of responding to concerned families.
Having spent most of my career as a pastoral care professor, I highly value education and communication. I believe in teaching to the whole person. The integration of mindfulness, compassionate communication, and resilience-building techniques belong in classrooms from Kindergarten through Graduate School. Few things matter more to me than my daughter’s learning, growth, and overall wellbeing. I want the same for all kids. So this particular uncertainty is not one that I welcome or enjoy.
Nonetheless here it is: a lot of uncertainty. Related to what I hold most dear. And I am not alone in this experience. The pandemic cracked the protective cocoon of (presumed) certainty for many of us in different but related ways. What perhaps we once took for granted, we do no longer. Clarity about future aspirations and expectations for health and longevity has been muddied.
Truth is, of course, most things weren’t as certain as we had assumed. Those who have lived in war-torn countries know this. Those who suffer violence and oppression know it as well.
Black, indigenous, people of color face uncertainties about their loved ones’ safety and wellbeing that severely relativizes most concerns about schooling. Whether some kids learn well or suffer anxiety due to the stress and strain is of another magnitude than whether my friend’s son will be shot by police while playing in his front yard. To be clear, I am writing about the former kind of uncertainty, not the latter.
What then can we do when faced with so much uncertainty?
Accept our limits. We are fallible, finite creatures. There is much we do not know and much that is out of our control. Meditation teacher, psychologist, and Buddhist monk, Jack Kornfield, writes, “To become wise you must become comfortable with not knowing.”
Respond thoughtfully instead of reacting anxiously. When uncertainty rises so does our anxiety. When we become anxious, our thinking constricts and we may feel dis-empowered. We assume that we have few options, and our creative capacity to solve problems shrinks. We may lash out at others, and then regret it. Yet we can learn other patterns. We can notice our worries and fears. We can pay attention to the anxious energy coursing through our bodies without succumbing to it. We can pause and breathe mindfully so that we can act with kindness and integrity.
Hold ourselves and others with kindness. In the midst of a global pandemic and all its stresses and strains, griefs and losses, we will have moments in which we act far less than our best. We may lose our tempers, fail to empathize with others, and even lash out. The good news is that there are more moments to come. We can apologize. We can remember that we are human (and finite). We can grieve. We can reconnect to love for ourselves and others. We can be gracious to others when they do the same.
Trust the enduring presence of Light, Life, and Love. The Gospel John describes Jesus as bringing light, life, and love. He embodied them. They are God’s gifts to humanity to be received again and again. When we wait for the appearance of resurrection life in the midst of loss and chaos, when we remember that love is stronger than hate, and when we let light dispel the despair in our uncertain hearts, then we are living in trust.
All of this is distinct from attempting to control our circumstances, or worse yet, other people. When we relinquish control, because we have no other life-giving option, then we are freed to live in the present moment. When I place my attention on my daughter rather than all my worries about her schooling, I am freed to see the beautiful life coursing through her. I am reminded of her strength and resilience and innate capacity to learn. My heart and mind rest. I find myself laughing along with her again. I still don’t know much about her schooling or how it will fit into our schedule. I don’t know whether it will be mostly frustrating or mostly enjoyable for her. Uncertainty remains, but I can accept it because love also remains and holds us all with grace.
*Theresa F. Latini, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of Mount Olivet Conference & Retreat Center and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA)