Learning to Choose Peace Over Panic

Well readers, I have been working on two writing projects recently. I have been working on a memoir I planned to self-publish about my experiences in choir, with a broader theme, ironically, that if our society at large came together to sing more, we would be healthier physically and mentally. But as the COVID-19 epidemic became a pandemic, and medical experts encouraged social distancing, I could no longer find inspiration to keep working on that. The other project was a blog post with my thoughts on the Democratic primary race, but this too seemed irrelevant in the face of this crisis, as if written in another world. But today, I am inspired to share some of my thoughts on this COVID-19 situation.

My mom’s paternal grandmother lost her first husband to the 1918 flu pandemic. She and her infant son also contracted the flu but survived. A few years later, she met the man who would become my mom’s paternal grandfather. He also lost his wife and had three children. They married, forming a blended family, and had five more children together, the oldest of whom was my grandfather. In 1943, when my maternal grandmother was twelve years old, she contracted whooping cough and the city of Cincinnati where they lived at the time put the whole family under strict quarantine. A sign was even posted on their front door indicating they were under strict quarantine orders, and food was dropped off on the porch. When she returned to school, she was not allowed to bring her old books back for fear they would still be contaminated by the virus. My grandma recovered with no lasting complications, but she also had a baby brother and when he contracted whooping cough, it caused him to become deaf. My mom likes to share this story when she hears people oppose vaccination. So pandemics/scary viruses are part of my family’s history. But to be honest, I never imagined we would experience a serious pandemic in my lifetime. I knew we were at risk for one, given our interconnected world. I have heard news commentators warn for years that we need to take diseases seriously, no matter where in the world they are, because now that there is so much travel between countries, an outbreak that for most of human history would have been contained to one locality could now easily spread across the world. But I heard people freak out a little bit over SARS which I think was in the news when I was in seventh grade. But it was contained with no disruption to American life, and then largely forgotten. In 2009, swine flu came on the scene, and a couple schools were closed briefly, a few people were quarantined, but it was contained pretty quickly with no major disruption to American life. In 2014, people freaked out over ebola, and I actually freaked out a little too, feeling a little queasy, but recognized it was a psychological symptom because I have underlying medical conditions that make stomach bugs especially dangerous for me. (With respiratory bugs, if I spike a fever, I have to take a higher dose of one hormone that my body cannot make naturally due to the brain tumor which damaged my pituitary gland as a baby. But I haven’t had a fever in years, and once I take this medicine, I am no more miserable than anyone else.) A couple people in this country contracted ebola, but it was quickly contained and soon faded from the news. I assumed COVID-19 would turn out the same way.

I don’t believe anything President Trump himself says, and was appalled when I heard that clip from the rally when he called COVID-19 a Democrat hoax, and when he wouldn’t let the passengers from the cruise ship off the coast of California come onshore because he couldn’t have the numbers (of confirmed cases) going up. But I did kind of wonder if COVID-19 was being over-hyped, just as the weather reporters where I live so often over-hype snowstorms that turn out to be nothing. In February when a New York Times reporter interviewed on The Daily, a podcast I listen to regularly said the vast majority of cases are mild, and then I heard talk of nationwide quarantine, I admit I was a little confused, and my first thought was “Wow, have we become such babies all of a sudden that we cannot handle a little fever and coughing anymore?” After all, referring back to the snowstorms, when I was in school, it seemed like the superintendent at that time set the bar way higher for how severe a snowstorm had to get to warrant cancelling school than the current superintendent. Of course I cared about vulnerable populations like the elderly or immune suppressed. Both of my grandmothers are vulnerable, especially since they live in close proximity to other people in assisted living facilities. I was aware that the coronavirus was a new virus for which there is no vaccine or treatment, and that the fatality rate of this virus is estimated at 3.4 percent, much higher than the fatality rate for the seasonal flu. Still, I hate to admit it, but perhaps I was indirectly influenced by the Trump administration which downplayed it, and couldn’t fully grasp why there was all this talk of quarantine to slow its spread. Wouldn’t it be sufficient for assisted living facilities to just disinfect a little more often, and maybe prohibit staff or visitors for a few weeks if they, or anyone in their household had recently traveled to China where the virus originated? Also, I don’t want this blog post to get political, but I would be remiss if I didn’t point out this virus would have been a good motivator to require all employers to provide paid sick leave so that staff could stay home if they contracted this, or any other virus that would endanger the vulnerable people they serve. As for people with underlying medical conditions who do not live in assisted living or nursing home facilities, experts could ask people who have recently returned from China to keep their distance from any acquaintances in their life who may be more vulnerable to coronavirus and encourage everyone to wash their hands and disinfect more diligently. But closing college campuses because one person on campus tested positive for coronavirus? Was that really necessary?

But last Wednesday March 11, when the World Health Organization declared this virus a global pandemic, that spurred me to start paying closer attention to coverage of this virus. I knew a lot of the people in China who contracted this virus had to be hospitalized, but in one of my college classes, I remember watching a video about how a high percentage of China’s population has chronic lung conditions like asthma due to smog pollution in this rapidly industrializing country. Maybe in areas where the air is safer, coronavirus wouldn’t have such a devastating effect. But then the day after coronavirus was declared a pandemic, I heard of how hospitals in Italy had to make heartbreaking decisions because there weren’t enough hospital beds or ventilators to accommodate the massive surge of patients with this virus. I had the privilege of getting to go to Italy with the Milwaukee Children’s Choir the summer after eighth grade, and I remember being impressed by how most people either walked or drove extremely fuel-efficient compact cars. Their air seemed very clean: I wouldn’t be surprised if it is cleaner than ours. And I learned that the doctor in Wuhan who first tried to alert people to this virus, was censored by the government, and then shortly thereafter died of the virus he tried to warn people about, just 34 years old. This showed that while the odds of not surviving this virus increase with age, the virus was killing young people as well. The final lightbulb of understanding for me came with the introduction of the phrase, “flatten the curve.” If we didn’t take aggressive measures to not necessarily stop the spread, but make sure that large numbers of people didn’t contract the virus simultaneously, we would be on the same devastating trajectory as Italy, or maybe on a worse trajectory because this country has fewer hospital beds per capita than Italy. Last Saturday as I ate lunch and caught up on a couple episodes of The Daily that I had missed, my understanding of the seriousness of this disease was re-enforced when the New York Times reporter apologized for unintentionally misleading people like me when he first said 80 percent of cases were “mild.” He said he got that term from data China had collected on the virus, but for purposes of their data, mild simply meant the people were able to recover without medical intervention like a ventilator, but some patients classified as mild still got very sick.

So last Thursday March 12, when unprecedented, indefinite cancellations of everything from my choir rehearsals, to church services, to schools and even the March Madness tournament were cancelled, it was jarring, but I understood why it was necessary.

On Monday as Dad drove me home from work reporting there was hardly any traffic, I couldn’t resist a little dark humor, and started singing “It’s the end of the world as we know it.” Dad, from whom I inherited my appreciation for dark humor, laughed and joined in singing with me.

But in all seriousness, I recognize the gravity of this situation, both in terms of people’s health, and the economic impact. Over 100 Americans have already died of COVID-19, so this is a very difficult time for the families of these people. For the elderly who are so vulnerable experts advise families not to even visit them, this must be an incredibly lonely time, especially if they are like my paternal grandmother and never embraced the idea of getting a computer and learning to use the internet. Like many people, I have largely abstained from using social media in recent years, disillusioned by the negative impact it has had on civil political discussion. But this week, I have developed renewed appreciation for the value of social media which has allowed us to stay connected in this strange new life of social distancing. For millions of households in which both parents must work to make ends meet, there has been tremendous anxiety about how they will care for their children now that all schools have closed, and still pay the bills. Small businesses, especially bars and restaurants that already had slim profit margins before being required to close face an uncertain future, and I heard this past Thursday morning that some have already had to lay off employees. There is also tremendous anxiety for contracted employees who counted on the business generated by big events like March Madness for their livelihood. I recognize that I am incredibly blessed that none of these situations apply to me. In fact, I have actually kind of enjoyed this time. I look forward to when this pandemic is history and I can return to bible study Tuesday mornings, choir rehearsals Tuesday evening, swimming at the gym and errands with Mom on Thursdays, getting out of the house bright and early for my apologetics class and church on Sundays. But in the meantime, this abrupt halt to the busyness of life has almost felt like an unplanned holiday, a chance to rest, to have more uninterrupted writing time, to reflect.

With this time to reflect, I found myself thinking in a new way about Romans 8:28 which says “And we know that in all things, God works for the good of those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.” As explained by multiple pastors at my church, this passage is not saying the multiple forms of suffering in this world are good, or that if people going through hardship in their lives don’t put on a happy face, they don’t have enough faith. What this verse is trying to say is that if we trust God, we can find internal peace and joy, and God can use even terrible situations in fulfilling His purpose. That being said, I believe good can, and in some ways already has, come from this COVID-19 pandemic. It has been so interesting listening to news coverage of this pandemic, and following Facebook posts from friends. Both platforms have shown really inspiring examples of people coming together even though we have to be physically apart, in this country and around the world. From the video of people coming out to their balconies to sing the national anthem in Italy, to volunteers that have stepped up to make sure children who rely on school meal programs still eat now that schools are closed, to artists offering free concerts and free dance lessons online to lift everyone’s spirits, and my facebook friends sharing resources or words of encouragement, it has been inspiring to see how people have come together, showing one another that even if we have to be socially isolated for awhile, we are not in this alone. Ironically, back when the world was normal, we never heard of the term “social distancing” yet we could be in crowds of people yet feel alone. When life is going smoothly, I think we all, myself included can get lulled into obliviousness, focusing on our own problems, or own busy schedules and not even notice the needs of our neighbors and friends. But this crisis has definitely woken me up to the fragility, the uncertainty of life, and I find myself caring more about how family, friends and neighbors are doing. It has also been inspiring to see evidence of renewed appreciation for simple or old-fashioned pass-times that the busyness of normal life leaves no time for. One Facebook post I saw was from a mom who was making cookies with her kids, not using pre-made, pull-apart dough, but from scratch, something she said she hadn’t done in years. Another person was asking for friends to send their addresses if they would like to receive a letter because her family decided to spend the afternoon writing letters. In the old world, virtual learning was a growing trend, but still far from the mainstream. But with schools closing indefinite, forcing online learning into the mainstream, parents are becoming more involved in their children’s education, and I would imagine forging stronger bonds in the process. I think social good could come of this pandemic if it leads to a lasting re-alignment of our priorities. While activities like sports practices, tournaments, music rehearsals and concerts are fun and valuable for children, and create special memories for parents, I think good could come of this pandemic if, when the world returns to normal, families will look back with nostalgia on these days when all was cancelled, slowing down the frenzied pace of life, allowing families to actually spend time together, and strike a permanently healthier balance of activities, prioritizing family time, and simple pleasures like baking cookies on a Saturday afternoon.

But most importantly, I think this pandemic will lead to a revival of Christianity, and a deeper level of faith for those like me who have already accepted Christ. I have already noticed transformation in my life.

Literally the only times I left the house last week were to go to work Monday and Wednesday, and on Wednesday I only worked until 2:00. Starting this past Wednesday, until at least April 3, the law firm where I work has reduced business hours, only being open 8am to 2pm Monday through Thursday for purposes of social distancing. But this week, I am not working at all. The office is still open and I am not sick. But as the number of confirmed coronavirus cases increased sharply each day, with Milwaukee county where I work seeing the most cases statewide, my parents and sister pleaded with me this past weekend to stay home. All weekend, I felt conflicted. My family feared that given my underlying pituitary condition, the outcome may not be good if I contracted coronavirus. I have always pulled through respiratory bugs well with just an increase in one of my medications, but I knew I shouldn’t get a big head as this is a new virus that has killed young healthy people. I have become more diligent about using hand sanitizer at work these past two weeks, and my company has taken this virus seriously. I would hear people going around multiple times a day disinfecting all surfaces, and actually a couple weeks before “social distancing” became a household phrase, several people who used to sit on my side of the office switched to different desks in another room, so I already felt socially distanced from people. I am ashamed to admit on Friday, I found myself arguing uncharacteristically with my parents because I felt like they weren’t listening to me, didn’t believe me when I explained these precautions. (Later when I had calmed down, they assured me they did believe me, but even with all the right precautions, I could still contract the virus from someone I didn’t know was sick.)

Before life changed, the office where I work was not equipped for anyone in my department to work remotely, and because Social Security only sends paper documents, it is impossible for the work we do to be done 100 percent remotely anyway. But on Wednesday, I observed one of the attorneys installing software on the computers of a few of the case managers that they hoped would allow them to work remotely, but he wasn’t sure if the software would work with my assistive technology. I wasn’t sure either. I might have given the software a try in the normal world, but under these strange circumstances, I decided not to press the issue. I was 99 percent sure that Vision Forward, the agency that has helped me with technology issues in the past would be closed–when I got home I confirmed it was–and I could tell everyone in the office was overwhelmed and didn’t need anything else added to their plates. So I decided I would continue going into the office to file the appeals unless or until the governor issued a mandatory shelter-in-place order requiring the office to close. I am blessed to work in a company with a casual, kind culture. Even so, I couldn’t help worrying about what people would think of me staying home when I wasn’t actually sick and I had never brought up my underlying medical issues before, and whether this could have negative repercussions for me in the recession that is sure to follow this pandemic. Back when the world was normal, I sang songs passionately about trusting God, and occasionally said prayers for God’s guidance, but through this experience God has shown me that I actually didn’t trust Him. I liked being in control of my life. I also liked certainty, so it gave me anxiety that I couldn’t really even give my boss a firm date as to when I would be able to return to work. (This morning when I texted him back to thank him, I told him tentatively I could return April 6, the tentative date the company set for returning to normal business hours.) But even the company acknowledged this could change based on what happens with the virus. Experts say the pandemic could disrupt our lives for months. It could go dormant in the summer and have a resurgence in the fall, requiring quarantine again to flatten the curve. But since it is a new virus, no one really knows. I have never experienced such uncertainty before. But then as I was sitting in my room listening to a hymn on Family Radio, the station I enjoy having in the background while I write, I remembered a wonderful quote that I first heard Tuesday, which took on a whole new level of personal significance for me.

“It takes just as much energy to worry as it does to pray. One leads to panic, the other leads to peace.” I am ashamed to admit it has been a couple years since I uttered a personal prayer for a situation I was facing. Life was humming along smoothly with no major issues, everything under control. But Friday, I started silently praying God would somehow tell me what I should do.

Then Friday night, I had a dream that my mom went to bed with a fever. In analyzing the dream the next day, I remembered something experts had been saying that I had forgotten, which was that people can be asymptomatic carriers of the coronavirus, and pass it to someone else unknowingly causing them to get very sick. If I were to contract it, that would be bad, but worse for me would be the anguish of potentially losing Mom or Dad to this virus. Then on Saturday night, I had a funny, light-hearted dream that I came to work and was chatting across the room to one of my coworkers, venting about how they didn’t want me to work, and she exclaimed with a cheerful but firm voice, “what are you doing here! Go home!”

I was almost convinced, but still couldn’t shake the worry about what my coworkers would think of me putting them in a bind as they would have to reschedule all my appeals, maybe even call the clients themselves depending on how long I had to be out. And then yesterday’s sermon livestreamed from our church was on Acts Chapter 5, in which one of the themes is to warn of the consequences of seeking the approval of others rather than fully obeying what God asks of us. Just as Ananias and his wife died, I could die or lose my parents just to hold onto my reputation at work. That was too many signs to ignore. With a wonderful sense of peace, I sent my boss a text about my situation. Self-doubt returned briefly when my boss didn’t reply until later that evening and the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Milwaukee had not been updated. But when my boss did reply, I could tell he was genuine and fully understood my situation. Then this morning, Dad hollered up to my room that the number of cases had been updated from 281 to 383, 205 of which are in Milwaukee County where I work, and a large concentration of those in the very neighborhood where I work.

I don’t know what the future holds, but now that I have re-acquainted myself with the value of prayer, I am not worried about it anymore. I know in my heart I did the right thing. Another excellent quote I heard on Family Radio states, “90 percent of what we worry about never happens, and the other 10 percent is out of our control.” If I contract coronavirus, I can take comfort in knowing this was out of my control because I didn’t insist on going into an environment I was warned could be dangerous. Most likely, I won’t lose my job, but even if I do, I can take comfort in knowing it was out of my control. And I know from past experience that when one door closes, God always opens another, which often turns out to be better than the one that was locked.

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