THE INNER PANDEMIC
Talk to Members of the Burlingame Country Club during the Coronavirus Pandemic, April 30, 2020
By William E. Swing
Thank you for inviting me to speak. I feel honored to be among my peers and friends and to be talking about something that truly matters, i.e. our interior lives during this coronavirus pandemic. We are all struggling to understand the nature of this virus. We are all moved by the human tragedy, loss, grief and suffering that we see constantly on the news. And we all fear that it is only going to get worse. Plus, there is the surprise factor: wondering if this virus will eventually make itself at home in us and in those most dear to us.
How do we make sense of all this? Inward sense! Yes, there is a health care pandemic going on. And an economic pandemic. But . . . there is also an inward pandemic that must be faced - in our souls, our psyches, our spirits. What is going on outside us is historic, and it calls to our innermost being for our healthiest response.
Some brave workers are rushing to hospitals to lay their lives on the line. Others are buying more guns. Some are howling and banging pans in honor of medical staffs. Some are gouging prices. Some are giving blood, while others are committing domestic violence. We, too, are trying to find our place in the pandemic. Our personal place in the pandemic! That’s what I am talking about this evening.
Here are three categories that might help in discerning our personal place. The first category of an interior outline is this:
Accepting That Your Inward Pandemic is Real
David Brooks, columnist for the New York Times, guessed that people were hurting inwardly because of the coronavirus pandemic, so he invited anyone who felt personal duress to get in touch with him. Over 6,000 people immediately responded. These folks fell into three groups. First, and surprisingly, were the young people. Their dreams of making their way forward in an expanding economy completely evaporated in “the blink of an eye.” Now they can’t eat, sleep or dream of a promising future.
The second group that responded, as you might imagine, were seniors. Obviously, those in elderly care facilities. Then seniors who live alone. But alone or not, they all realize that this pandemic is targeting them, first of all and most of all.
Finally, David Brooks heard from people who had underlying mental health issues – anxiety, panic attacks, suicidal thoughts – these people plunged when the pandemic broke out. Come to think of it, back in the 1930’s, the term “The Great Depression” reflected more than an economic downturn.
Until recently, we had such delicious diversions – the Warriors, the Symphony, bridge group, the investment group or book group, the 49ers, the driving range – not to mention our family gatherings and dinners with friends. When the merry-go-round of delicious diversions stopped abruptly, then we came square up against a question we might have postponed for years. “Who am I? Now?” Not my resume, or reputation, or in my comfortable niche in my social group, but who am I when there is silence all around me and I’m not going any place?” The virus forces us to “take stock” of ourselves. And that is natural and also necessary.
Where is our place in this pandemic? Sheltering-in-place is our place. Our quiet inward struggles during this quarantine is where we wage our most powerful battle against the virus. Our warfare will never be newsworthy, but it will always be consequential. Our bravery in battle is enjoined in the silence of our inward selves, at home. Here is where we accept that the pandemic is real.
The second category of an interior outline is this:
How to Cope in the Coronavirus Pandemic
On Saturday mornings at Burlingame Country Club in the golfing “Gang,” I am often playing in a three-some with Gus Benz and Mike Armacost. All of us well over 80 years old! Between us, we have lived over 250 years. Who am I to lecture Gus and Mike on coping in a pandemic? The same goes for the audience that is listening to me now.
Some of you have lived through World War II, through the polio epidemic, through serious hospitalizations, the death of loved ones, through the Korean and Viet Nam Wars . . . the drug culture and various addictions . . . and radical swings in your financial status. You already have well-established survival instincts and coping mechanisms.
Erik van Dillen tells me, “I’ve fallen in love with reading again.” Others have cleaned closets and drawers. The brave and the really bored have even ventured into the garage with a broom. Some have adopted exercise regimens. Some take walks. Favorite movies and Netflix shows are making the rounds. Old friends from ages past are getting in touch, and we find ourselves in unhurried conversations. Walter Heyman says, “I used to be more into ‘doing,’ but now I am more into ‘being.” I translate that comment into this gorgeous Springtime . . . instead of merely glancing at the budding, we actually take the time to savor the beauty.
The big news for Mary and me last week was Peter Dunn’s 90th birthday. Peter lives at the other end of Pepper Ave – the “high rent district,” as we say. Background: Mary and I haven’t quite mastered “Instacart,” so recently we received a gallon of dill pickles, 20 pounds of flour and 8 quarts of chicken broth. So, to celebrate Peter’s birthday, we decided to make him a care package. A large jar of pickles, 5 pounds of flour and a quart of chicken broth. I suggested that we throw in a roll of toilet paper, but Mary said, “Look, we love Peter, but not that much!”
When I feel excessively confined to our house, I think of a sign that I saw recently that said, “Anne Frank and 7 other people lived in a 450-square-foot attic for 761 days trying not to be noticed.”
And on the radio recently I heard this scenario: “If you were in a bank, and a robber came in and began shooting, and he shot you in the arm, would you say: ‘Was I ever lucky! He could have hit me in the heart and killed me.’ Or would you say, ‘Why me? Of all the people in the bank, why was I the one who was shot?’ The moral of the story was that you, alone, have control of your own narrative. You are the only one who decides to choose the negative or positive way to make sense of your life, especially now in a pandemic. You choose!
Today the streets are silent. Airports are silent. And you and I are silent, a lot. What we do inside our quiet selves matters greatly. So, breathe slowly and deeply, meditate, pray, sing, write a journal, ask for help. Revisit the places you felt closest to the Divine. There are invisible resources are all around you. If you aren’t cultivating an interior life, then start now. We all need to get better at coping. “Old dogs: new tricks!”
The final category of an interior outline is this:
The Big Picture
Here is a “big picture” story from a past pandemic, one that I was involved in, i.e. the AIDS pandemic. When that outbreak occurred, lots of Bay Area parishioners, whom I knew, suffered and died. Even deacons and priests. And when the front-line AIDS physicians in San Francisco learned that I had a close relationship with George H. W. Bush (a former parishioner of mine in D. C.), they asked me to go to Washington and pass on their advice. Which I did, while he was Vice-President and later, President. The doctors would give me an AIDS plan for the nation, and I would go to the White House and present it. The President would always surround me with Dr. Anthony Fauci from NIH, Dr. Burton Lee of Sloan Kettering, and Dr. Everett Koop, Surgeon General. I would present a nationwide approach, the others in the room would critique it, George would take copious notes, and eventually he came up with this nation’s approach to the AIDS pandemic. It was the big picture, for me, in the midst of a pandemic…
Here’s a second “big picture” story. A few months ago, I heard someone on the radio say, “I am 90 years old. And in not so many years from now, I won’t be here. And in not too many years after that, there will come a time when no one on earth will have ever met me.” He went on to say, “Here is what life is about. You get on the bus. You ride on the bus. The bus stops, and you get off. And the bus goes on.”
What the old man’s words did for me was to place the “big picture” subject of death squarely in front of my face. Just like the coronavirus does. It demands that we think about death . . . certainly our own death. If I do that personally, my first thoughts are: “I don’t want my wife, Mary, to die of this virus. I don’t want to suffer long if I get it. What exactly is next? After I go, what will happen to the people I love most dearly and the causes I care about most passionately?” Those are my first thoughts about death. What are yours? The coronavirus causes us to consider “the big picture.”
Here is the biggest “big picture” story to come out of the coronavirus – and it goes beyond the end of the virus. This “big picture story” has to do with the new world that could be forming now that “the good old days” are passing away. We get glimpses – for the better - of what life on this earth might become.
Today, many people of India are seeing the Himalayas for the first time in their lives – even though they live not far away from these 27,000-foot mountains. Today, in Yemen, an unthinkable and fragile ceasefire is holding on. And a peace treaty for Eastern Ukraine is being negotiated . . . because of the coronavirus. Today, rivers are cleaning themselves. Today, we have a new insight into the vital importance of public health. Today, we are concerned about distributing food to the starving in Pakistan and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in South Sudan and San Antonio, Texas. This world is in need of a course correction, and the coronavirus is providing us with an array of promising directions for a new “big picture.”
Today, every country in the world is unified in fighting the same common enemy. The world is unified! A virus has done what no leader could have possibly produced. It leapt over the boundaries of religions, nations, and cultures to show us that “we are all in this together.” Can we hold on to this deep global revelation and build a more humane world? We have been given a brief glance at a new earth. And . . . if you have seen it, then you are deputized by the moral force of the universe to build it. Viruses have consequences! Hope springs forth in the big picture.
So that’s it. Three categories: accepting, inwardly, that the pandemic is real . . . coping with the pandemic . . . seeing the big picture in the pandemic. Again, I thank you for inviting me to speak and thus forcing me to arrange my thoughts. Your invitation was good for me.