Like most quarantined folks, I enjoy regular FaceTime chats with family and friends. In these moments of unity, we seem to forget about the crisis swirling around us and take comfort in each other’s company. For a brief moment in time, we are transported back to the days when face to face visits were common occurrences. How easy it was for us to take something like small group gatherings for granted. I don’t think we anticipated that this essential encounter for human flourishing would be taken away from us so easily.
Most folks gain strength from being in the company of other people. I am no different. Despite my poor spine health, I try to have regular encounters – even brief ones- with people in my community. These include volunteer work (at a women’s prison and non-profit which supports homeless women), PT and OT appointments at the Pain Clinic, ministry meetings at my church, trail walks with friends and outings with family. All of these activities enrich my life deeply and provide an authentic experience of happiness. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, I have not been able to engage in any of these things thus my ability to experience true happiness has diminished. A lack of varied human connection has caused me to struggle in a myriad of ways, including the endurance of deeper pain levels.
St. Augustine, a fourth century Catholic philosopher and theologian, said that our most basic human desire is for a happy life. But I’ll admit that in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, I have been struggling a lot with this desire for a happy life. To be honest, I’ve felt guilty by thinking about my own need for happiness when so many others are suffering and even dying in cities just twenty miles from my home. It all seems so wrong. My heart bleeds for every family who has lost a loved one to this virus, for every healthcare worker who is struggling to put in another 14 hour shift, for every laid off worker who is worried about paying bills and for every small business owner who is distraught about a possible closing. “Where is the justice in all of this?” I wonder and pray.
In these days of quarantine, I’ve found that solitude has become my constant companion. Most days, I take my dog on long walks in the beautiful woods near my home and leave behind my family who is virtually connected for school and work. Regardless of the weather, I always enjoy these escapes and enter the woods ready to listen and pray. I take all of my worries and fears about this virus with me and ask God for enlightenment and understanding. My extroverted self has learned to pray alone and listen to the beautiful sounds of nature in quiet contemplation. In the silence of the woods I usually meditate on what I’ve read that morning in scripture or heard during the online Mass – but sometimes, my mind just races from one thought to another. Either way, I just try to be present to the beauty around me.
During these quiet moments in nature’s cathedral, I often receive responses to the longings of my heart. It’s hard to explain but on a recent walk, when I gazed upon the beauty of some yellow spring flowers growing wildly amidst a group of pine trees, I realized that all will eventually be well in the world and we will find lasting happiness again. You see, the night before my walk, we had a nasty rain storm which caused towering tree limbs to break and land along the wooded trail. But these dainty flowers, growing randomly in the dense woods, retained their unique shape and beauty – not one was crushed! I realized that if these arbitrary little flowers could remain unscathed amidst that terrible storm, then surely God can guide us safely through this current corona tempest.
The image of the flowers has stayed with me and brought joy to my heart. My mom loved the elegance of fresh flowers, especially yellow ones. I don’t think it was a coincidence that I stumbled upon those resilient flowers in the woods. I think God wanted to remind me – all all of you – that happiness is always available to us, even in the storms of life. It may not come in the ways that we are used to, but it comes all the same. During a difficult time in her life, when my mom was receiving chemo treatments, she was able to derive real joy from simple things like a vase of fresh cut flowers. I learned that it resulted from her positive attitude and definition of real happiness. Mom’s life was tough at that time and she absolutely struggled but she chose to seek beauty, goodness and truth each day – this is how she experienced periods of happiness in the storm of cancer.
I think St. Augustine is correct – we all seek a happy life. But during these challenging times, perhaps we are being invited to extend ourselves toward a deeper understanding of happiness. It may come from something simple like a beautiful yellow flower or it could come from something more, like making an extra special dinner for your family, increasing your patience with unruly children, offering a kindness to a stranger, dedicated daily prayers for doctors and nurses or simply giving thanks for the blessings in your life. I know that it’s not easy – and some days are harder than others, but I personally accept this challenge as I trust it will help me to become a stronger and happier person. In the meantime, I’ll continue to pray for all those folks who are struggling, especially our heroic healthcare workers. I’ll continue to lovingly FaceTime my family and friends. And I’ll remember to always give thanks for the gift of beauty in my life, like the yellow flower which reminded me that all will eventually be well.