The past month has been a dance of gratitude and fear. Gratitude that, so far, my family is healthy and together under one roof — all five of us around the dinner table each night, favorite movies flickering on the TV in the evenings, coffee sipped on the deck on those warmer sunny mornings that feel like a gift. But then, often as the sun goes down or the skies cloud over, fear creeps in and, with it, an element of despair. All the “what if….” worries start to clamor for attention, pounding on the door to my heart and racing through my mind in an endless relay. Suddenly the fear of what could be overpowers the gratitude for what is.
I’m guessing what many of us are feeling these days runs somewhat parallel to what the early disciples were feeling in the days after Jesus’ crucifixion and even after resurrection, when enemies were lurking around every corner, and believers locked themselves away, afraid that they might meet a similar end on a cross. The joy of the resurrection was tinged with the fear of “What if…” What if I’m next? What if the voices of fear are right? What if I’m not brave enough?
The reality is that none of us will get through this life on a wave of joy. Pain works its way into our lives again and again, often when we least expect it. How many of us had big events on the horizon as the coronavirus hit — weddings and graduations, anniversary trips and study abroad, new homes and new babies? Suddenly those lifetime highlights were plunged into shadowy uncertainty. To be sure, the babies would arrive just the same and the graduations would happen sans pomp and circumstance, but none of it was as planned or expected.
The crux of all of this is not that there is pain, but what do we do with the pain. Even as I write this column—pain-free compared to the many who are suffering—I feel myself sinking and there is a certain comfort there. To feel sorry for myself, to allow myself to follow the paths of doom my mind creates, has a certain attraction. It gives me an excuse to wallow, to skip the walk or prayer time, to eat comfort food that’s not good for me, to scroll mindlessly through social media. Because, poor me, poor us.
In his book “Man’s Search for Meaning,” Viktor Frankl, writing about the loss and trauma inflicted on him in the concentration camp, said: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
It is a reminder that there is power in the way we choose to respond to the pains — and the joys — that come into our lives. If we are swept away with every happiness or plunged into the depths with every sorrow, then we will live a life of seesawing suffering and bliss. As a result, we will never know true joy, because true joy lies in being with whatever is in front of us at the moment and staying true to our center. That doesn’t mean we don’t hurt or get afraid or miss people or want to hide ourselves away and eat Doritos and watch mindless TV every once in a while when things get bad. What it does mean is that we don’t stay there long.
If we make sure we retreat to prayer every single day without fail, even for just a few minutes, we can stop the seesawing. What if we turned to God every time we turned to our phone or to that unhealthy snack? What if we allowed God to fill the void? I’m going to take my own advice, and I hope you’ll join me. I have a feeling if we both stick with this plan, the fear will dissipate even if the pain does not. Choose joy.
This column originally appeared in the April 22, 2020, issue of Catholic New York.