I recently asked an elderly neighbor how she was faring, and whether she needed me to pick up any groceries for her. “I’m fine,” she responded, then added, “Just trying to keep busy!”
It’s a common expression, “trying to keep busy,” and it reflects a common belief that as long as we’re doing things, keeping productive, then everything is fine.
Except that everything isn’t fine, is it, and no amount of activity is going to make it so.
Even people who aren’t able to work, who are sheltering in place, often find themselves getting up every morning with a full list: bake bread, read, clean out the closet, rewire that old lamp in the attic, schedule videoconferencing sessions, learn to speak Italian.
Part of that frenetic activity comes from guilt, guilt experienced by those of us not on the front lines, not stocking grocery shelves or working in emergency rooms. We feel they’re carrying the brunt of this pandemic, and so we don’t feel comfortable doing “nothing,” while they’re doing so much. Or perhaps we're not experiencing symptoms, and we feel for all the people who are seriously ill, the people who have died. Staying productive is one way of assuaging the guilt, that sense of owing them all something.
But part of the activity, too, comes from our culture, a culture that encourages productivity. Be more. Do more. Say more. Achieve more. Succeed in your career, move up the property ladder, raise perfect children. If we’re not busy, then we’re somehow lacking—or lazy. We measure our lives through our achievements, our productivity, and the pandemic hasn’t changed that.
It’s also a natural reaction to stress and anxiety. Perhaps if I keep moving, my thoughts and feelings won’t catch up with me. Because they’re scary to experience. It’s easier to do some online retail therapy, take an online salsa class, read Tolstoy.
There’s actually something else we can do that will work even better (and, honestly, do you really want to read Tolstoy?). One of the reasons we’re packing so much “stuff” into our days is that we’ve lost our usual schedules. When we don’t need to be in a meeting at 9:00, we need something to take its place.
What I’d like to suggest is that this is a beautiful opportunity to establish new habits, habits that can carry you through the pandemic and beyond. It takes time to incorporate something new into your life, and if you do it now, then once you’re back to those 9:00 meetings, you’ll still have this new and seriously helpful habit sewn into the very fabric of your life.
You don’t even have to come up with the habits yourself; we actually published a book a couple of years ago that will do it for you—Fr. Roger Landry’s Plan of Life. I was revisiting it recently and found that it might have been written prescriptively for this time. For those of you who feel you should be using this time to accomplish something, the book offers a good analogy: that of being in training. An athlete cannot compete without first going through rigorous training, setting and keeping excellent habits, and finding discipline inside themselves to see it all through. We, Father Landry suggests, are like that athlete: we too can be trained “toward the holiness to which our baptism calls us.”
How? By establishing regular habits that start with when and how we get out of bed in the morning (Father’s “heroic moment”!), making a simple morning offering that consecrates ourselves and our day to God, and continuing through to a humble examination of conscience at the end of the day.
What these habits will do is lend structure to a day that stretches long and dreary in its lack of structure, provide steps that will still our minds and get them off the hamster-wheel of worry, and include God in everything we do. Will following the plan remove your anxiety? No; but it will ease the worry and the restlessness. It will help you put them in God’s hands instead of trying to handle everything yourself.
And, really, isn’t our ultimate goal to grow closer to God, to feel his presence and love in every moment? I think that’s not just a “forever goal,” I think it’s a very specific one, a goal for now, for this minute, for this pandemic, for this situation. If ever there were a time to not want to be alone, it’s now. If ever there were a time to need someone to lean on, it’s now. And God is there.
Mother Thecla, co-founder of the Daughters of St. Paul, writes, “Let us live in intimacy with the Divine Master: mind, will, heart, and activities; our senses, hands, feet, eyes, ears—everything in him, for him, and with him. Let us strive for always greater union with him.”
It’s not always running away that will free us from our fears. In fact, running away is a pretty bad coping strategy, because we’ll never run fast enough or far enough to keep them permanently at bay. Instead, why not run toward the One who is always waiting for us, who has his arms open, who loves us more than we can even imagine? And the strategy for running into the arms of God? Developing a plan that won’t rely on feeling productive, but that instead will bring us into that closer union with our Risen Lord.
We have that plan here.
by Jeannette de Beauvoir
image: Leon Biss for Upsplash