This is a particularly tough time in human history where the new coronavirus has many people worried, unsure as to how to act and often undermined by fear. There can be for some a tendency to behave in a selfish or irrational way, where emotions can often override good decision making. Already we have seen examples of people behaving irresponsibly in panic buying or hoarding, ignoring social distancing or hand sanitising guidelines. Others dream up conspiracy theories and some even spiritualise the problem as a divinely sent plague, naively believing that religious faith alone will protect them from contracting the virus. However, we have also seen examples of great heroism (especially in front line staff), good will, human solidarity and courage. There is always a way through, people in darkness always find their way to the light.
St. Ignatius Loyola was a survivor, he survived a major life-threatening injury, convalescence, life begging on the road and times of great uncertainty. He developed an approach to ‘living through difficulty’ based on his experience and using certain rules of thumb. Based on these insights, I humbly offer some reflections and practical advice which may be of help.
Five Tips for Coping with Coronavirus
1. Living in the Real; The first thing is to accept this new reality which has overtaken us. This is a painful transition as we try to hang on to the past, finding such radical change hard to accept. Things that we took for granted such as shaking hands, socialising and even going to school or work have radically altered. The Ignatian catchphrase ‘Finding God in all things’, challenges us to find peace in inhabiting this new, unasked for reality. The primary thing therefore is to accept the new reality or ‘new normal’. Different rules apply and all of us are asked to change our behaviour to protect ourselves and crucially to protect others, especially those classed as vulnerable or with an underlying health condition. It’s a no brainer that medical science has to dictate our approach, even given that the medical institutions are also scrambling to get a handle on this too. Now is not the time for private theories, alternative approaches or untested methods.
2. Face Your Fears; Though fear, anxiety and worry are normal responses to the current situation, it’s important to not let them take over. Fear is not a good counsellor or guide, taken to its extreme it is crippling and immobilising. Ignatius recommends acting directly against unhelpful forces such as fear that can motivate us to make poor decisions. His term for this is ‘agere contra’, which means ‘to act against’. The key thing to get here is that Ignatius is urging us to push back, to be proactive and not to give up. This could be summed up as: ‘feel the fear and do the best thing anyway’. Contemplate your mortality and the fragility of life that this crisis points to. The paradox is that accepting this fact allows us to really live and to act appropriately. Every day is a gift, a loan from the future. It’s a miracle that we exist at all. Normally we are so busy ‘living’ that we take the gift of life for granted. We are held and loved by the divine. Take a moment to let this life-giving realisation sink in. There is nothing to be afraid of. In fact, we have a chance to put our affairs in order here, to take stock, to acknowledge failures and triumphs, and to see the hand of the Spirit here. Reflect on the question posed by poet Mary Oliver, “What will you do with your one wild & precious life?”
3. Avoiding Extremes; Extreme situations tend to bring out extreme reactions. One extreme is to be so overwhelmed that you are almost paralysed with fear and incapable of practising sensibly the recommended guidelines for dealing with this virus. The other extreme is the temptation to deny or to underestimate the risk involved. You can maybe feel ‘bullet proof’ as a young person or apathetic and demotivated as an older person. In both cases the unhelpful question, ‘what do I care?’ may be driving your actions. In between the two extremes is the space that most of us are called to inhabit. There we can take all the precautions necessary and find a way of ‘living within the limits’ that has self-care balanced with concern for others. The goal is acceptance of the situation and taking reasonable responsive measures, hopefully being able to find meaning and purpose in this new reality. Ignatius uses the word ‘discernment’ to underline how to make good decisions. This involves taking time, being aware of the pull of the extremes and trying to find more reasonable options. It also includes carefully weighing choices, getting advice and evaluating outcomes.
4.Focus on the Light; One of the central Christian insights is that when darkness is all around, we are called to keep faithful and focus on the light, no matter how dim it seems. Remember the dynamic of the Cross. In moments of darkness and apparent abandonment, God works most powerfully. God is with us in the mess of things. The joy of the Resurrection always follows the anguish of the Cross. It’s important to recognise we still have choices here and how we act is important. We need to take responsibility and act wisely, without being paralysed by fear or alternatively, driven by a rash impulsivity (panic buying for example). There are now new opportunities for solidarity, supporting others and building community. Ironically, smart phones and social networking present perfect solutions to ‘distancing’ while being able to communicate in a way that people feel your presence.
5. Keep Yourself in Balance; In times of crisis or storm it is really important to anchor yourself so that you don’t get blown about by the winds. Ignatius recommends keeping your eyes on the path, one step at a time, moving steadily on. It’s the image of a journey or pilgrimage where you attend to your feet and trust in the trail. This means getting all the basics right – rest, structure, diet, exercise, appropriate socialising and keeping oneself busy. The problem with this time of great social upheaval is that people can become scared, upset and irrational. We can get distracted from getting the basics right, taking our eyes off the road to look at the storm. It is understandable that this would happen, but we also have the power to take control of our own behaviour, and our physical and mental well-being. This means paying attention to our basic human needs and responding in a healthy way to them• Eat well, avoid snacks and junk food.
• Get some exercise, avoid long periods of sitting around.
• Stay connected with people, don’t get too isolated.
• Try to make good use of your time by putting new structures and habits in place.This is challenging but not impossible, normally it takes 6-7 weeks to set up a new routine. Setting up good habits will see us through. Take it gradually, walk one step at a time, but keep moving.