What a week it has been! I mean, just wow. I feel like it’s been a month since the last time I posted. It’s only been three weeks since I made the commitment to publish a blog post weekly as a birthday gift to myself, yet it feels much longer than that. I’m sure you can likely relate to this odd feeling about time right now. I have been trying to get my mind to wrap around something other than topics related to COVID-19 that I could write about this week, but it’s simply not happening. The name of this blog is “Where Is My Mind?” and it would be a lie to say my mind is on much else right now.
In a surreal turn of events, Friday in my classroom was spent keeping students meaningfully engaged and happily occupied while fielding several texts from loved ones sharing breaking news of the various school districts in our state announcing closures, something that would have never seemed possible even a week ago. Then came the email notification from my daughter’s district which neighbors mine, soon followed by my son’s high school district (the one into which my k-8 district feeds). It would be hours before my own district announced that we would also be closed beginning Monday, March 16th.
This is an incredibly difficult decision for school districts to make, particularly districts like mine which serve a high percentage of students on free and reduced meal programs. Closure means disrupted lives for our families who already struggle to make ends meet. No one wants this scenario to play out. I looked at my students on Friday knowing that for a few of them, the extended time they will be away from school will mean that any healthy, normal routine to their days comes from being at school. These particular kids don’t even look forward to Fridays or school vacations, and here we were sending them off to at least 5 weeks of uncertainty. A very difficult decision indeed.
But I believe it’s ultimately the right one for what we’re facing.
I headed home Friday and found myself looking at my large to-read pile, marveling at the unanticipated amount of reading time that just presented itself. There is that bright side. Nothing gets me out of my own head quite like reading a book. It is my ultimate luxury made all the better because books are always within my reach and never cost prohibitive. I especially love books set in other countries that help me learn more about other cultures, or biographies that broaden my understanding of the human experience. I’ve heard it said that some books are like filet mignon while others are like Cheetos, or something like that. I seem to love all kinds. Far from a book snob, I enjoy everything from the classics – to informative nonfiction – to great fiction – to the occasional celebrity memoir. Musician bios are particularly fun to devour. Depending on my mood, I love just about any genre. And it looks like for the next five weeks at least, I will have nothing but time with which to enjoy many of them. For some of us, this whole staying home and social distancing experience is going to be much easier than for others. I’m thankful I have a house full of readers and that it’s books we have hoarded rather than toilet paper.
But here I am in the second full day of this collective social distancing effort, and the new books that have interested me most, that I expected to jump at reading given the extra time, remain closed. I’m not in panic mode. I’m sleeping well. I feel rational and level-headed. I’m not out bulk shopping. I note all of these things only because I do experience anxiety, and a time like this could potentially wreak havoc on my mental state. That doesn’t seem to be happening. Rather than opening one of my new books, though, I found myself pulling one off my shelf that I first read over twenty years ago and have been drawn to again and again. It’s the book Loving God With All Your Mind by Elizabeth George. I was gifted this book years ago by a dear friend in a Bible study/ accountability group, and it’s one of a few books I point to as having been truly transformational in my life. George examines six scripture passages that deal with our thinking and how we can worship the Lord with not only our hearts but with our minds. This weekend I’ve been going back to her words about one of my favorite passages of scripture, Philippians 4:8.
Much has been said about the panic and “hysteria” being witnessed in these uncertain early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s interesting to me that many people commenting on the reactions in this way are fellow believers. I see words like “stupid” and “ridiculous” being thrown around on social media by believers and non-believers alike. But it is comments like this coming from my brothers and sisters in Christ which grieve me most. I’m concerned by how many of my friends are claiming that since God is in control and is bigger than any virus, that taking steps like social distancing is all part of the “hysteria” and unnecessary if one puts their trust in God.
I go back to Philippians 4:8 and see the first admonition: “Finally, brethren, whatever is TRUE… think on these things.” I love that God gave us minds to think for ourselves. He didn’t just create us to be mere puppets moving and operating solely through His tugging at strings. He gave us minds to choose to follow Him. He first loved us, but He wants us to be the ones to move toward Him and in Him. He also gave us minds to study, to consider, to empathize, and to discern. I am thankful to serve a Creator who does not want nor expect me to check my brain at the door. We are presented with a global situation in which our choices and actions can and will affect our neighbors. With any degree of studying the global impact of this virus and its documented exponential spread, the truth of its threat is beyond debate at this point. Certainly as believers we place our highest trust in the Lord, but we cannot do this while usurping wise direction intended to help those around us. In Christ we are called to put others before ourselves. This is no time to flaunt one’s trust in the Lord by saying things like, “He is protecting me so I can go out as I please.” Or worse, to insinuate that believers have some kind of protection from this virus that others do not. If we are to think on what is true, I take that to mean putting my trust in God while using the wisdom and discernment He imparts by taking the necessary steps to protect my most vulnerable neighbors. “Love does no harm to a neighbor.” (Romans 13:10)
I suspect that many struggle with the truth of this viral threat because it is scary. It would be nice and easier to minimize the threat, claim the Lord’s protection, and then just go on business as usual. It goes back to all those “what ifs” and unknowns that I wrote about last week. When we are faced with them, especially collectively as we are now, it is just not a very comfortable spot in which to find ourselves. Uncertainty is the worst. We live in a culture where many of us fill our schedules to overflowing, and have every last minute of our days accounted for, not leaving much time for being alone with our thoughts. Whether this is intentional or not, it’s a pretty effective numbing strategy. Sometimes (maybe often?) time to reflect on our thoughts is painful and difficult. Then add a global pandemic to those worries? I suspect there are many people in our country (and across the globe) who have found themselves at a standstill with their schedules suddenly cleared and a whole lot of uncomfortable time on their hands, even if they still need to care for family or report to work for a portion of their days. Some of our most pleasurable diversions are off the table for a time. It’s a tough adjustment for sure.
In her book Elizabeth George reminds me that in Philippians 4:8, Paul calls us to think about what is real. This virus is real. Its rapid spread is happening. Mercifully, it seems to spare much of the population its worst effects and, experts tell us, for many it won’t be much worse than a bad cold or flu. But the reality is that for others it can and will be fatal. Those are realities that must not be downplayed. Therefore, steps to protect our communities must be taken by ALL of us, not only those who stand to face the worst effects. Beyond that, though, what is yet to come remains to be seen. Chapter 2 of George’s book is entitled “Taking Every Thought Captive” (a reference to another favorite verse of mine, 2 Corinthians 10:5). When we begin to speculate or catastrophize beyond what is known and real today and in this moment, that is when we fall into worry and become vulnerable to panic. I think that is our biggest challenge in this time of uncertainty. We need to face what is real and respond responsibly and with compassion for our neighbors, while not forecasting into the future and projecting our worst fears into it. What we fear in the future is not real. I appreciate George’s examination of how she learned to retrain her own thoughts and fought through her own anxiety and depression by learning to differentiate between which thoughts were real and which were untrue but consuming her and sapping her joy.
Thoughts about things that are untrue and unreal will drain our life and our energy. Obeying the command of Philippians 4:8, however, helps keep our bucket full and our energy available to serve God. Thinking on what is true and real frees us to be used by God.Elizabeth George, Loving God With All Your Mind, p.45
Rereading this book and reflecting on Philippians 4:8 has been grounding for me this weekend. It’s been helping me prioritize my wide open time and consider how I can protect my thought life and not let it veer into unhealthy habits or patterns in this strange period of pressing pause on most normal activities. It’s been helping me frame this whole situation in a way that I believe will help me honor God and love my neighbors through responsible community action that is not driven by panic, hysteria, or an exaggerated sense of doom.
If you are finding yourself feeling extra stress or worry right now. I highly recommend this one.
Wishing us all a week of focusing on what is true, noble, right, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy. If you can, stay close to home, help those you can who are near you, and stay healthy! We are all in this together.