We are surrounded by numbers right now. We always have been, but now numbers carry a different kind of weight as I scan through statistical graphs of how many people have contracted COVID-19 around the world. My eyes follow projected curves rising, flattening, and numbers point to the losses we have already experienced and the future we desperately hope for.
There are other numbers too. Numbers in bank accounts that many of us fear because we don’t know if we will have enough resources to get through this crisis and provide for our loved ones. Phone numbers of friends and family we can’t be physically present with right now, and how that can hurt. The numbers of those working faithfully on the front lines to deliver goods, produce our food, keep up essential businesses, and care for the sick.
These numbers can be as small and intimate as the participants in my family Zoom meeting, but they are also large and looming as this virus impacts millions of people. It has disrupted all our lives down to their foundations, and for myself, this crisis challenges me to reflect upon what my purpose is when there is so little I have control over out there.
Action Plans and Angry Tears
During the first week of quarantine, I drew up an action plan. I outlined all the tasks and goals and projects I wanted to tackle while I stayed indoors, and once I was done, I felt a little thrill of accomplishment. For a moment, it was like taking back some control when everything else outside the walls of my apartment was so uncertain. And my action plan is full of good things: checking-in with friends each day, becoming fluent in Spanish, doing spring cleaning, cooking every week, progressing in projects for my job. But then last Tuesday, I broke.
There’s no other way to put it. One moment I was finishing an anime movie (to be fair, it was a sad one so maybe my reaction was inevitable), and the next moment I felt this swelling, choking block in my throat, and I realized I was trembling. I’ve felt this sensation before, and usually it comes at the most inconvenient times-like before a student meeting at work or when I’m walking on the sidewalk-and so I shove the emotions deep down into myself and wait for them to subside.
This time, I let go…and I cried. After 5 minutes I thought I was done, but I couldn’t stop, like the sobs were being wrenched out of me, and all I could do was shake and hug my face in my hands and cry, cry, and cry more.
I realized then that it was the first time I’d cried like that since the COVID-19 crisis began. All the grief of everything going on slammed into me at once, and I finally let myself feel the full brunt of it, and it was ugly. I’ve cried many more times since then.
I know I’m not the only one who feels this heavy weight of sadness about all the suffering being experienced right now, the loneliness and death and anxieties about the future. It’s both viscerally personal and global. It’s also too much to hold in me. There are too many numbers I can’t control that are shaping my life and others’ lives.
My action plan, while great in giving structure to my day and articulating what I want to prioritize in the days ahead, cannot soothe that deep grief. It cannot grant me lasting peace during this pandemic, and neither can it give me the security I crave. I can’t even put my trust wholly in people or humanity right now because we’re all so overwhelmed that even in our best efforts, we can’t be everything people need or fix all their problems.
You can’t and you don’t need to. That is what I heard from God as I sat in my abuela’s cramped, dark office and cried out to him. You don’t need to do everything. Trust me.
There was little resolution to what I felt. God met me in my anger and grief, but he didn’t make all the sadness go away, and neither did he bring an end to the pandemic that night. But as the shaking in my body slowly ebbed, that reminder from God stayed with me: I don’t need to be in control of everything right now.
In a time of crisis, this is such a difficult concept to grasp. I want to feel purposeful, like I can DO something to make life better for myself and others. And to a degree, I can. I do have control over my actions and can act in ways to encourage and support other people. I can donate money to relief funds and share online resources and reach out to friends. I can do these things and much more, but what God is reminding me lately is that my sense of purpose does not rest in what I can do but in what he can do.
Numbering Our Days
I want to share with you this passage that I’ve been meditating on this week:
Psalm 90:12-17 New International Version (NIV)
12 Teach us to number our days,
that we may gain a heart of wisdom.
13 Relent, Lord! How long will it be?
Have compassion on your servants.
14 Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love, that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days.
15 Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us, for as many years as we have seen trouble.
16 May your deeds be shown to your servants, your splendor to their children.
17 May the favor of the Lord our God rest on us; establish the work of our hands for us—yes, establish the work of our hands.
Relent, Lord! How long will it be? I feel that so keenly right now. How long will it be until this pandemic is over? We are all asking this.
This passage reminds us that when this psalm was written, the people of that time were not unfamiliar with uncertainty or trouble. The people of Israel knew what it was to grieve, to worry, and to question what the future would hold for them.
The writer of the psalm asks God to relent, to have compassion on them because sometimes the pain is just too much. But with that also comes the writer’s recognition that whether the obstacles or suffering are removed or not, God will satisfy them with his unfailing love and his constant presence. God’s favor will continue to rest on them, despite the years of trouble they have already experienced.
Look at what the psalmist is saying: “…that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days. Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us.” Wait. How the hell can I be glad for these days when so many people are hurting? Doesn’t that feel dismissive, like hanging a pretty curtain over all that pain?
But the writer of this psalm is not making light of the suffering of their time; he is recognizing God’s sovereignty over it. He is declaring that because only God transcends whatever afflicted days we are going through, it is God alone who can make it possible for us to be glad, grateful for all the days we have been given. God has numbered our days, knew what they would look like and what we would experience before we were even born, and whatever work he has called us to do, He will establish it and use it to bless ourselves and others.
We can look at how he has shown up in our lives in the past; we can see the evidence of his deeds in how he interacts with people in the Bible, and through that we remember his faithfulness and learn to trust that he is actively working in our present and our future.
We can make all the action plans we want, but if they are not rooted in our intimacy with God and the understanding that He, not us, is in control, they will not bring us any comfort that can endure this crisis.
I Will Not Pass This Way Again
I have a special notebook where I write down quotes that are meaningful to me, and I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the following quote is written right below Psalm 90:
I shall pass this way but once; any good that I can do or any kindness I can show to any human being; let me do it now. Let me not defer nor neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.” – Etienne de Grellet
We will only pass through this crisis in this way and at this time once. The tragedy of this situation strips away whatever we grounded ourselves in and challenges us with questions of who we are and what is our purpose during the darkest times.
There is so much need around us–the numbers reveal that. And we cannot neglect our responsibility to consider and care for those experiencing racial inequity, abusive situations, accessibility issues, unemployment, homelessness. We cannot defer this responsibility for later. If I see myself accountable for and connected to other people, each of which God created and loves dearly, I suffer when they suffer. Their loss is our loss. So let me do what good I can now for I shall not pass this way again.
We are not called to productivity but faithfulness. We ascertain our areas of privilege and leverage our resources to share them with our neighbors. We also acknowledge our areas of marginalization where access and support is difficult, and we make our needs known to others who can help us and demand systemic change.
We are also allowed to recognize our limits and when we simply need to grieve and be comforted.
Even as I seek to be faithful to the good God has charged me to do, I am not called to bear all the burdens of this world: Jesus already did that and died for it. I get weary. I get overwhelmed. Sometimes the biggest victory of my day is getting out of bed, taking a shower, and sitting in the quiet with my grief. Taking those moments to just be does not equate to a day wasted. God is just as present with us on those days as he is on the days where we feel like we are getting a lot done.
I often confuse business with purpose. Our capitalistic system reinforces the idea that my productivity measures my worth. That is how I do my part and how my days are numbered: by my output. But God’s love doesn’t burden us with that kind of pressure. When we put our trust in Jesus, our worth is measured out by his unconditional love for us, and so the good that we do in the world emerges out of our experience with that liberating love rather than the pressure to perform or meet others’ high expectations–even our own.
The numbers around us threaten to drown our hope, but we are not helpless. We have this choice: to number the days given to each of us, much like Gandalf reminds Frodo in one of my favorite lines from The Lord of the Rings.
We do this by recognizing that God is the one who has established every day of our lives, and so we can invite God’s guidance into how to live them well. Living our days well doesn’t mean that we just complete more tasks, make more action plans. It doesn’t mean that we always look like we’re “living our best lives” on the surface. Instead, we can ask God for help in living our lives with a spirit of gratitude as we seek good. We can ask our Father for the reassurance we need so we know that he is at work in us no matter our levels of productivity. He will give us the wisdom to know how to move forward–one day at a time. That’s the best we can do, but oh how much more can our God do…