By Trish Sullivan Vanni
Apr 8, 2020
Many years ago, I was in a weekend long workshop with a wonderful spiritual teacher. Most of the people there had faced tremendous loss and hardship. After ny folks had shared the burdens they were carrying, the teacher smiled at all of us and said, “Ah, life! It’s a train wreck, but it’s wonderful!”
We all burst out laughing. She was right. Most of our stories had been stories of fairly epic disasters. Some were of our own making, some were not. And I never forgot that phrase because it resonated so deeply with me. My life has been beautiful, vivid, joyful. It’s also had moments that were mind numbing and spirit stopping in their challenge and sadness.
Now the better part of two weeks into physical distancing and sheltering in place, most of us are feeling the effects of isolation. Fear. Frustration. Paranoia (I’ve had a cold for a week!). Some of us have friends and family members who have come down with COVID-19, and many of us have loved ones in cities where the pandemic is in a full surge.
I admit that some days, it’s been feeling a little bit like a train wreck.
I’m doing what I suspect most of you are doing to counteract negativity. Trying to stay productive in my work and ministry. Meeting with people and causes I care about virtually. Praying, meditating, and staying close to members of my faith community. And breaking up the isolation with lots of walks.
After Mass on Sunday, I had my spouse drop me by Purgatory Creek so I could hoof it home the three miles to my house. I was feeling preoccupied about all sorts of stuff, and I figured fresh air and an audiobook could turn the tide. As I walked, I tried to be cheerful and greet each person, couple or family that was biking, running or walking by.
As I passed a dad and his two young sons, my greeting was returned with equal enthusiasm. So I thought I might scoot six feet forward and then turn around and ask the boys, both young elementary schoolers, “How are you doing?!” I had noticed that their dad had been periodically cajoling them to keep moving.
“Terrible!” one shouted, but with an enormous grin on his face. I burst out laughing. “I know, me too sometimes,” I replied. Then, the dad said to me, “You know, I have told them that when I was their age, I was in the middle of the war in Somalia.” He then expressed his gratitude for his life, even in the midst of the health scare.
We talked for a few minutes and I thanked him for helping me stay right minded and grateful. Then we parted.
As I walked, I reflected on his resilience, and the resilience of many of my neighbors who came here as refugees from war-torn regions of the world. I also thought about my meditation teacher, whose joyful disposition and peacefulness are the byproduct of decades of practice inspired by his commitment to overcoming PTSD after Vietnam. I thought about my childhood friend Jennifer’s grandfather, who had a concentration camp tattoo on his arm. I thought of my friends with African American heritage, whose ancestors had the grit and strength to live through the degradation of enslavement.
So many forebears who had epic strength and faith in the face of adversity.
Maya Angelou expressed the resilience of her people in an unforgettable way in the poem “Still I Rise:”
“Leaving behind nights of terror and fear/ I rise/ Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear/ I rise/ Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave/ I am the dream and the hope of the slave/ I rise/ I rise/ I rise.”
We’re challenged right now, but I deeply believe that we are all strong. We are resilient. Every one of us can point to someone among our ancestors who made it through. Through the loss of land, language heritage. Through famine and war. Through economic strife and physical challenge.
For Christians, this is Easter week and for Jews it is Passover. In both those holy celebrations, we are reminded of the power of the human spirit to move beyond limitations and embrace freedom. At their Seder tables our Jewish neighbors will remember that they were once slaves in Egypt but that a forthright prophet with God’s help defeated a recalcitrant pharaoh. Christians will move through grieving a beloved rabbi lost to capital punishment by the state into the mystery of the resurrection, in which we proclaim him Lord and through which we embrace our new life with him.
So, yes, life is a bit of a trainwreck right now but so were building the pyramids and laying the beloved Lord in an umarked tomb. We are not captives. We are the people who dream, and hope and believe.
And we rise.