Three weeks ago, I felt my first spike of anxiety about the coronavirus. The retreat center was taking inquiries about cancellations. Pastor friends were deciding whether or not to close their churches. Family members, a number of whom fall into that high-risk category, were postponing previously scheduled, non-essential medical care. And then I looked at my 403(b). It was not a good day.
That seems like a long time ago. Things went from bad to worse quickly. Restaurants, bars, and places of public accommodation, including Mount Olivet Conference & Retreat, closed their doors temporarily. Family members sheltered in place under stay-at-home orders. Some were furloughed. Schools cancelled. Churches moved their services online. The United States plunged into a recession. The number of people diagnosed with COVID-19 skyrocketed, and the death toll mounted.
The world came unhinged.
And for the past week, we’ve been told over and over by public leaders and epidemiologists: it’s going to get worse. Much worse.
At first, my mind raced through possible future scenarios, an anxious tidal wave of “what ifs:” what if we lose our jobs and homes? What if the healthcare system completely collapses? What if my mother or stepfather succumbs to this disease? What if I die gasping for breath, unable to tell my daughter how much I love her?
Then I calmed down considerably, thanks to the gift of mindfulness, and no small measure of God’s grace.
Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to our experience, both internally and externally, in the present moment. When we are mindful, we notice our thoughts, feelings, and sensations without judging or trying to change ourselves. We don’t analyze. Instead, we observe what is happening in us and around us with openness, curiosity, and gentleness.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, who developed mindfulness-based-stress-reduction, describes it as a way of befriending ourselves, and by extension, others. When are mindful, we receive and welcome our experience regardless of what it is. Mindfulness trains us to be hospitable toward ourselves, like in that famous Rumi poem:
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
In the welcoming—no matter how counterintuitive it seems—there is freedom and space for something new to emerge, something like understanding and patience and compassion. These gifts ultimately come from God and fuel our hope and give us courage.
This is the heart of “retreat:” welcoming and being welcomed so that our connections to God and each other are renewed and so that we can care for others in creative, life-giving ways.
In the middle of my snowballing “what ifs,” I brought my attention back to my present reality. I have a home, food, and meaningful work. I have family, friends, and colleagues who are funny, kind, and dedicated. I have a daughter, who turned six years old today. Eleanor’s big party was cancelled, but like most kids, she knows how to live in the present. No worries. There are still cupcakes and party decorations and FaceTime calls with Gabby and Grandpa. This morning she sang with gusto with her kindergarten teacher on Facebook Live. Then she joyfully declared that she will be able to read really big words now that she’s six years old! Watching her is like getting a glimpse into the fullness-of-time come in the here-and-now.
Of course, being mindful is not denial. I realize that my “what ifs” are others’ realities. A friend’s father lies in an unconscious state after a traumatic brain injury. My friend can’t visit, touch, or sing to his father. A chaplain friend is waiting for the results of her COVID-19 test while she runs a high fever, coughs, and struggles alone at home. Countless people in New York City are huddled together in small spaces as their hospitals and morgues teeter on the brink of overwhelm.
If mindfulness cultivates compassion—and I believe it does—then that is the goal. Compassion moves us in the depths of our being to act on others’ behalf, to stay at home for as long as it takes, to go to work and put our lives on the line so that others might heal, to live in the moments that we have been given, and to hold one another with warmth and kindness.
*Theresa F. Latini, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of Mount Olivet Conference & Retreat Center and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA)