The Pandemic as a Teacher
I have long been intrigued by a strange and fascinating pair of verses in the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes: “A good name is better than fragrant oil, and the day of death than the day of birth. It is better to go to a house of mourning than to a house of feasting; for that is the end of every human being, and a living person should take it to heart.” (Ecclesiastes 7:1-2)
A good name is better than perfumed massage oil? For sure. But the day of death than the day of birth? The day a baby is born is full of joy, hope and possibility, while the day of death - sadness and loss! I am sure I don’t know anyone who prefers a shiva house to a house of joy. How could the Biblical writer say such a thing? “For that is the end of every human being, and a living person should take it to heart.” In short, he says, you learn more at a shiva house, because there you are confronted by the most basic fact of human existence — your own mortality. Taking in that fact, rather than instinctively pushing it away, can make you a wiser person. It can, paradoxically, make your life more vibrant and joyful.
So, too, almost no one would prefer these times of pandemic to our ordinary lives, with the comfort of regular routines, the presence of loved ones and community members, and a reasonable level of health and well-being. Yet, as Ecclesiastes challenges us, times of trial can be times of spiritual opportunity. Precisely because everything is turned upside-down and our mortality is less deniable than usual, we are invited to look inward and cultivate deeper wisdom.
Just as in a house of shiva, we recognize in these times what is always true: that we are fragile, mortal beings, and that we and everyone we will ever love will eventually die. We also know now what we usually deny: that we have far less control over our lives’ unfolding than we usually think. And we may be more drawn than usual to the truth that present-moment awareness, gratitude and kindness are the keys to well-being in any circumstances.
I am definitively not saying that the coronavirus is a blessing or that it came to stimulate our spiritual development. But for those of us lucky enough to be reasonably well and secure (if isolated, frightened, and unsure), we have choices as to how to orient ourselves toward this new and undesired set of circumstances. We can choose to turn away from the learnings that this time may bring, or we may — at whatever timing is right for us — take these lessons to heart.
During the first week of the shelter-in-place orders, I attended a webinar in which an inspired peace activist shared his personal practice in these days. He said that he makes a point of asking himself each day: “Who do you want to be when the virus has passed? How will you have changed?” So, too, he dares to dream that human society has the chance to transform itself as we move through this ordeal together. Might we continue to be kinder with one another even after the threat of the virus is gone? Might we grow accustomed to reaching out to the vulnerable more often? Could we spend more time expressing our concern for those that society has too often considered less valuable? Might this finally be the moment when the whole human family resolves to protect the planet that is our home?
Undoubtedly, the times in which we live leave us disoriented and frightened, but they
also offer the opportunity for transformation. In this sense, the pandemic can be a powerful teacher, to the extent that we are willing to learn.
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Since the start of the pandemic, I have been teaching on these issues to a variety of synagogues and organizations. In these classes, participants find a safe and sacred space to share their experiences of these times, and to explore the spiritual possibilities that are present for us now.
I have also expanded my availability for spiritual direction and kindness coaching, now offered by phone or zoom. Explore what is happening in your experience of the sacred in spiritual direction, or learn the practice of lovingkindness meditation, to respond to yourself and others in these times with a loving heart.
Want to be in touch? Contact me at email@example.com