Meaningful Living in a Smaller World during COVID-19
Most of us have experienced our personal worlds becoming smaller in the past few weeks. As of this writing, much of the U.S. and the rest of the world is living under restrictions or advisories affecting personal movement (stay at home, shelter in place, etc.) These restrictions are especially limiting in regions very hard-hit by COVID-19 and communities of older individuals at high risk of a serious form of this illness. Regardless of our particular circumstance, it is important to be attentive to the possibilities for deep spiritual growth during this experience of living in a “smaller world.”
While this is a unique experience for each of us, it has important parallels with that of men and women we interviewed as they entered the “smaller world” of influence, authority, or recognition in retirement (1, 2). These individuals expressed feelings of loss, sadness, or lack of purpose or direction as their world became smaller in one or more of these ways. These feelings can also be associated with many other events of adult growth, such as midlife, illness, and physical limitations associated with aging.
Moving from a larger to a smaller world is by no means unique to our time. In 1809, at age 65, Thomas Jefferson went from being President of the United States to overseeing his estate, Monticello. A Monticello tour guide noted that Jefferson reportedly said that he got more satisfaction from “tending his Monticello garden” than from being President. In other words, he found beauty and fulfillment by observing and experiencing the richness of a smaller world.
We can look even further back to gain insights into living with meaning in a smaller world, specifically to the Old and New Testament. Surprisingly enough, it’s often in a “smaller world” that we see God speaking most clearly to individuals. Take for example the apostle Paul, a Jewish leader and a Roman citizen, who forsook his larger world as a widely-recognized religious leader to follow Jesus. Galatians 1:16-21 describes Paul’s years following his conversion. They were spent in relative obscurity and solitude in remote parts of Arabia and Damascus and additional years in Syria and Cilicia. Only then did he assume a place of prominence in the early church. Some of us may feel like we’ve been knocked off our horse as Paul was (Acts 9:1-9), yet it was in this downward movement, followed by years of relative obscurity in a remote place, that God worked deeply in the life of Paul. It was in this “smaller world” that Paul seems to have received the remarkable insights about God’s work of grace that he writes about in his letters to the early church.
Exodus 2:11-4:17 provides another example, in the life of Moses. Because of a crime he had committed, Moses went from the privilege and prestige of a king’s son in the Egyptian capital to the life of a fugitive in the very remote region. The Scripture makes clear that it was here in this “smaller world” of the desert, that Moses first encountered God. It is almost as if Moses had to get away from the distractions and expectations of the larger world to be in a position to hear God clearly and subsequently, to see God work uniquely in his own life.
Finally, consider the account of the angel encountering Mary in Luke 1:26-38; 2:1-7. In this case, the point is not that Mary herself had gone from a larger to a smaller world. Rather, it is how God chooses to work in what seems like a small or insignificant world. While the gospel writer refers to the larger world of Caesar Augustus and Pontius Pilate, he makes it clear that God was about His most important work in Mary’s smaller world of everyday life and poverty. God is at work, but not always in the places that we imagine.
In each of these examples, a “smaller world” provided the context for God to do a new and significant thing. These examples encourage us to be sensitive to new things that God may be doing in us in our seemingly smaller COVID-19 world. For most of us, this will mean leaving behind some pursuits we have considered important prior to COVID-19 in order to give ourselves more fully to what God has for us in the next phase of life.
The spiritual practice of “letting go” will be particularly important for this journey. “Letting go” may not seem like a spiritual practice. After all, we all have to let go, sometimes reluctantly and sometimes with pleasure. Yet, in this time, we may become uniquely aware of things we routinely do that in fact get in the way the next thing God has in store for us.
In her book How Can I Let Go If I Don’t Know I’m Holding On, Linda Douty (3) provides very helpful insights into both the “why” and the “how” of the spiritual practice of letting go. Douty suggests three steps in the process. First, make a list of your losses. At first, that may seem simple; but probe a little deeper. What do you miss during this time? Perhaps it is the frequent, in-person interactions with friends, neighbors, and strangers. Maybe it is the regular gathering of your congregation for worship or your small group for study and fellowship.. What else do you miss? Maybe volunteer opportunities you normally participate in, that give a sense of accomplishment and of helping others.
The second step is feeling the pain of the loss. Some of us have trained ourselves to stay away from our feelings. That training may have helped us be task-centered, problem-solving professionals. When we slow down, feelings are more likely to surface, and for some of us this may be very uncomfortable. It’s okay to take some time with this and let the feelings come. Douty’s advice and ours too, is to take time to experience some of the feelings that surface as you name your losses. Keeping a journal can be a helpful tool in the process. And you may want to talk this over with a trusted friend or Spiritual Director as you work through these feelings of loss.
Once you’ve named the losses and given yourself time to feel the pain, the third step is asking God to help you resolve your feelings. If there is anger or resentment, ask God to help you begin the process of forgiveness. Forgiveness is a process; it takes time. You may want to write out your feelings, directed at the person or situation that caused your hurt. Here again, keeping a journal can be a valuable practice. (If you write a letter to someone, you may want to set it aside and return to it later or rather than mailing it immediately and regretting it later). Many people find it helpful to write a prayer or a letter to God; God knows and welcomes all of our feelings, including feelings of betrayal! If you have unexpressed gratitude, now is the time to acknowledge something beautiful in your heart and mind. That may be a good letter to send!
Finally, ponder how you can be helpful to others in this new reality. Are there friends or fellow church members that you can encourage by regular phone calls or video chats? Are there a services project you can be a part of while maintaining required social distancing? Can we engage in new, virtual forms of worship, discipleship, and ministry as a part of our church family? Remember that you are limited only by your own willingness to think and act in new ways.
Throughout the process of entering a smaller world and letting go, we can be confident that we that we are on a journey to the next good thing in life. Or, paraphrasing the words of Loretta Marshall, “When I am on what seems to be a set of dead ends and winding paths, openness to the surprises of God’s Spirit can move me from lostness to a highway of grace.” (4)
(1) Joyce Rupp, Little Pieces of Light…Darkness and Personal Growth (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1994.)
(2) R. Jack Hansen and Jerry P. Haas, Shaping a Life of Significance for Retirement (Nashville, TN: Upper Room Books, 2010)
(3) R. Jack Hansen and Jerry P. Haas, Retirement as Spiritual Pilgrimage: Stories, Scripture, and Practices for the Journey, (Amazon Books, 2016)
(4) Linda Douty, How Can I Let Go If I Don’t Know I’m Holding On: Setting Our Souls Free (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2005.)
(5) Loretta L. Marshall, The Upper Room Disciplines (Nashville, TN: Upper Room Books, 2010) pg. 354.
Spiritual formation leader Jerry Haas is co-editor of this article as well as co-author of Shaping a Life of Significance in Retirement