COVID-19 has pressed the pause button on our “Have To” lives
Dogs are being walked. Exercise is being done. Take away coffee is being drunk. Families are out cycling. People are walking to the shops. Conversations are being had between strangers - at socially appropriate distances of course. Those who would barely glance at each other pre-COVID are suddenly full of bonhomie and smiles. It’s as if we all slowed down just enough to notice each other.
Here’s why. Huge swathes of the “Have To” life has been shut down almost overnight. All those sentences that began with “I have to” have been cut off mid-sentence. COVID-19 has pushed the pause button on so many of our “have to’s”.
And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There’s a great line from the Ron Howard movie, Parenthood in which the harassed, middle management, too-many-mouths-to-feed husband and father snaps at his wife who has just given him a list of “have-to’s”; “My whole life is “have to!” To which a whole bunch of harassed, middle management etc. parents shouted “Amen!”
And if you were or are one of them, chances are that some of those have-to’s have been stripped away. And you’ve got some time to breathe a little, even if you are making less money that before “have to” suddenly became a Prime Ministerial: “Just don’t do it!”
For there’s a lot to be liked about the COVID-19 shutdown. If. If you live in the right kind of country. If you live near the right kind of city. If your home is in the right kind of suburb. That is what my family has been blessed with anyway. Our suburb, a gentrifying one not far from the city of Perth in Western Australia, has great pathways, is close to a river, has takeaway coffee, shops within walking distance, and plenty of parks.
And given that Perth-ites live, on average, much further away from each other than those in Rome, New York or London, we seem to have dodged the deathly bullet. We don’t do over-crowded houses or suburbs so we don’t do overcrowded ICU wards.
There’s a sense in which many people are asking themselves, “Why hasn’t this been the pace of my life in the past? What was so important that we were rushing off in two cars in different directions in the morning to jobs that kept us on the emotional edge, with children in private schools that kept us on the financial edge, and with “have-to” social occasions that kept us on the psychological edge?” It’s like that Gwyneth Paltrow movie, Sliding Doors, where another reality is available to us that we could, collectively at least, have chosen.
And it would have to be collectively, because in the pre-COVID world, to choose that slower pace was to “opt out”. Now it’s the norm. There’s not opportunity to opt in or out. This is what we must do.
Oh and speaking of celebrities, we’re not! Not speaking of celebrities, that is. Sure they tried to do the whole moralising, self-righteous or self-congratulatory (and always self-promoting) thing in the early days of lockdown, but honestly who can be bothered? When a wealthy movie star with a sixteen-bedroom house with its own swimming pool, tennis court, basketball court and sauna implores us earnestly to: “Stay at home people!”, it’s as if the scales fell from our eyes and we saw the huge game for what it was. Don’t sing “Imagine no possessions” to those who don’t have to imagine it. For those living - and dying - locked inside a one-bedroom flat with three kids, and a husband coughing his drowning lungs up.
You see, if you live in the wrong type of suburb where no one has any intent on being friendly before and sees no reason to do so now; or the wrong type of city where thousands have died in cramped quarters, or the wrong type of house, the COVID-19 lockdown can be hell.
And by the wrong house I don’t simply mean its design, or that it’s too small and has no swimming pool, but wrong in the sense of those who occupy it. Social health experts have said that domestic violence issues have increased, and plans have been put in place to utilise empty hotel rooms for victims to escape to. Lockdown with a violent partner feels more like lockup.
My wife is a clinical psychologist and she believes that the second wave of this virus will be the emotional, psychological and physical damage wrought on those with mental health issues, grief issues (especially those being denied access to a funeral of a loved one during this time), and of course DV sufferers.
And in the midst of it all, ordinary life - and death - continues. In this lockdown period so far, a student from my daughter’s cohort (graduated 2018) has been killed in a car crash, a student from the year below that was also killed the same way, and the young teen friend of a girl from our church also killed in, you guessed it, a car crash. It’s an actual car crash out there.
I have even had to take a long walk - with another one scheduled - with a friend who often runs with me, and who has just been diagnosed out of the blue with metastatic cancers. COVID-19 is the least of his worries. The biggest is that he will die and leave a young family behind, and that the much-needed surgery is being delayed due to the lockdown and worries over infection. Life - and death - goes on.
The question on everyone’s lips, of course, is when will the lockdown end? When can I get back to being super-stressed by busyness? When can I gain back my life in which I am too agitated, frantic and distracted to exercise, walk the dog, cycle with the kids or walk to the shops instead of taking a three-minute drive in the car?
Of course, no one is asking those questions, and for many the need to return to work is imperative, as is the need for the economy to be stabilised again. But I can’t help thinking that the new normal of a slower life, of a bit more reflective time, is something that many of us will lament when it’s snatched away again by the old normal, for you can most assuredly believe that it will go back to normal. The roads will be snarled, the train carriages packed and the deadlines will rack up. The “Have To” life will return. And just like that, that feeling of rest, afforded by a deadly pandemic, will drain from us.
There is an alternate of course. COVID-19 has made a lot of us sit up and take notice. To ask ourselves, “Is this it? Is this all there is?” Questions of life, what it’s about, and of course, questions of mortality and our demise, are on peoples’ minds and lips. And this period of rest has shut down the white noise that drowned those questions out.
We’ve just had Easter. A quiet one indeed. Quiet enough for many of us to reexamine the words of Jesus. Have you managed to do that? One of the things Jesus said in the Bible to weary people, storm tossed and anxious was this:
Come to me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28).
Sure, things might go back to normal. The restless world will start to churn again. But perhaps it’s a good time to ask the bigger questions. To ask if Jesus meant it when he said he could offer us rest, even in the midst of a restless world. And to ask if Jesus not only meant it, but could provide that rest. The rest we are so desperate to have, and which we have indeed glimpsed on that twilight walk with the dog on a balmy evening along our suburban street in which the noise of overhead planes and passing cars has been silenced.
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Stephen McAlpine works both as a pastor at Providence Church in Perth, and for City Bible Forum. He writes and speaks on matters of culture, theology and the church, and blogs at stephenmcalpine.com. Stephen and his wife Jill have been involved in church planting in Perth for more than a decade, while Jill also runs a Clinical Psychology practice and trains churches and other organisations in establishing good models of pastoral care. They have two children, Sophie and Declan.