16. Happiness During the Coronavirus
Thanks for reading this transcript! Each transcript involves a small amount of shorthanding of some points, designated by [brackets]. To learn what was discussed there, by all means listen to the podcast.
Hello! Welcome to Journey On. I’m Dave Schmelzer.
So if you’re listening to this at all near to the time that I’m recording it, you’re dealing with all the implications of the coronavirus. So God bless you and yours! I hope you are safe and somewhat less stir-crazy from social distancing than many of my kids are, as we now all pack into a space that’s just a little smaller than is needed for our large family to be sequestered at home all the time. What a crazy experience for all of us, and for the whole world.
I had another aspect of this journeying spirituality that we talk about here to chat about this week, but it got scrapped as I looked back at great spiritual teachers who came of age during their own pandemic--in this case a much more serious one, God willing, that happened several centuries back and which ended up forging some of Christendom’s most enduring spirituality.
So we’ll learn from Julian of Norwich and from two modern teachers who’ve had to lead their nations through major upheavals. We’ll think through what it means that these leaders, who’ve guided whole people groups through such challenging, gloomy times nonetheless remain so committed to being happy.
We’ll look at the four-part prescription for equanimity during times of crisis that these great teachers suggest to us. And we’ll consider some of the ins and outs of this powerful marriage between centering prayer and chatting with God.
Again, Grace and I and all of our friends connected to Blue Ocean Faith wish you and yours great care from God during this pandemic. I’ll pray for those of you who’d like prayer at the end of this podcast.
Many people are finding great comfort and connection by joining in with one of our two online communities that meet each week:
One on Wednesday nights at 9pm Eastern time and the other on Sunday evenings at 6:30pm Eastern. The communities are pretty great! Join us to check them out if they draw your interest.
Okay, kick us off, Ryanhood, for Happiness During the Coronavirus.
[Ryanhood theme music.]
So a big part of the spirituality we talk about here came together in a pandemic, of all things--a worse pandemic than we’re experiencing at least as I record this--knock wood!-- the bubonic plague of the 1300s. Half of England died in it and a third of the continent. And an explosion of writers like Julian of Norwich, Catherine of Siena, Thomas a’Kempis, the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing and several others each, seemingly on their own, started writing about how adding a contemplative experience to the faith teachings that had dominated in Christian teaching until then was a big deal.
So, just as a teaser, here’s a passage from Julian of Norwich.
[Give background on her.]
People suffer such terrible evils that it does not seem as though any good will ever come out of them. We consider this, sorrowing and grieving over it so that we cannot find peace in the blessed contemplation of God as we should do, and this is why. Our reasoning powers are so blind now, so humble and so simple, that we cannot know the high, marvelous wisdom, the might and goodness of the Holy Trinity. And this is what he means when he says, ‘You shall see for yourself that all manner of things shall be well,’ as if he said: Pay attention in this now, faithfully and confidently, and at the end of time, you will truly see it in the fullness of joy.
Checking in on how people like Julian counsel us to do well spiritually during a pandemic, I’ve noticed a few things, some of which let’s touch base on today.
First, they’re very into happiness as the goal.
In that sense, they’re not like the Puritans, who so shaped American spirituality, who put happiness very low on their list of priorities.
These folks go so far as to put finding happiness even during a pandemic as high on their list, saying that at the very least that it’s impossible to care for other people when we are miserable.
Second, they’re very anti-fear.
Like everyone, in this pandemic, I’ve woken up some mornings feeling fear about what this might mean for my family and friends like yourselves--not just in terms of health--though we just canceled a trip to see my 83-year-old mom because of this--but in terms of financial security and other life possibilities, but, as I’ve gone to prayer and meditation and have been able to notice and name the fear, it’s receded and, sure enough, I’ve suddenly realized that there are real possibilities for all the parties in question nonetheless. These teachers are anti-fear, even in their own very profound pandemic.
Third, their first goal for us is equanimity.
We’ve talked about equanimity here.
So where happiness and joy is in fact their end goal for themselves and us, they start by having us shoot for equanimity, as a gateway to that happiness and joy even under the stresses they and we face. And, this is just me summarizing, but they seem to suggest a four-step pathway to equanimity, which I’ll put this way:
So let’s look at acceptance.
A classic scripture for this would be what the risen Jesus said to Paul in Acts 26:14: “It is hurting you to kick against the goads.”
While we don’t have goads anymore, the image seems to be that Paul is fighting REALITY at that moment, he’s kicking hard against a brick wall that’s not going to go anywhere.
One of the challenges we all face is our news feeds, some of which in my case have articles telling me that I need to limit the input I’m taking in from my news feed.
I used to enjoy my news feed! I’d get some entertainment news, which I enjoy. And lots of sports news, which I enjoy. And, sure, some political news, which I enjoyed less, but which seemed important in some doses. But now there’s only one story in any of those places!
And I can feel angry at what strikes me as our political mess and how that’s not helping us move quickly to limit the damage of the pandemic. But these teachers would all encourage me--this punts to the “practice” tip--to, with God, accept reality as it is.
I read one teacher talk about the importance of forgiving political leaders during times of crisis, even as they said that didn’t mean we shouldn’t oppose whomever we need to oppose. But they talked about holding onto the sins and blindnesses of our leaders as kicking against the goads. Whether or not they should do better, in a time of crisis, however they do is however they do.
I went back to the book Archbishop Desmond Tutu did with the Dalai Lama--called The Book of Joy--since they’ve both gone through such societal upheaval, and they talk a lot about acceptance.
When we grow in the spiritual life, we are able to accept anything that happens to us as part of the warp and woof of life. The question is not: How do we escape it? The question is: How can we use this as something positive?
The Dalai Lama says:
Stress and anxiety come from our expectations of how life should be. We react rather than accept and so stay locked in judgment, criticism, anxiety, and despair. It is impossible to experience joy this way. The ability to be present in each moment is nothing more and nothing less than the ability to accept the vulnerability, discomfort and anxiety of everyday life.
One of the great pop culture looks at acceptance comes in the Steven Spielberg/ Tom Hanks movie Bridge of Spies.
[Show clip, starting at 00:59 and going to 01:32]
So if the starting point of this desirable equanimity is this kind of acceptance, how do we get it?
Well, we start by wanting it, by forgiving as we need to, and so on.
On the forgiving point, here’s something from the Dalai Lama:
If you are filled with negative judgment and anger, then you will feel separate from other people. You will feel lonely. But if you have an open heart and are filled with trust and friendship, even if you are physically alone, even if you are living a hermit’s life, you will never feel lonely. The only thing that will bring happiness is affection and warmheartedness. Which seems to have things to offer us in times, say, of social distancing.
But then the kind of practice we work on here is central to every teacher I look at, certainly to the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu, and equally certainly to Julian of Norwich and her contemporaries.
So there’s that. Our online groups talk together about the power of twenty minutes of centering prayer. Something we’ve talked about frequently on Journey On. The idea is that we take some time each day--or, some of these teachers suggest, even twice a day--to get still before God. To follow our breathing and then, when thoughts come, gently return to our breath. Last time I talked about this way of “welcoming” those thoughts or emotions, good or bad.
And I’ve mentioned that the centering prayer innovation is to ask God for what these Trappist monks call a “sacred word”--a one or two syllable word that God suggests to you that you’ll internally say when you’re trying to return to your breath after thoughts have taken you away. So it could be something like “God” or “Jesus” or “love” or whatever.
Okay! That said, I want to poke around at the other part of practice which we circle here every now and again, which is talking with God and hearing God talk back. I often call it chatting with God. It’s a key step towards the happiness and joy that the great spiritual teachers want for you and me. I don’t know how to get there without it. Because I think we need to compellingly hear from God that God’s promises are real and true for us, and I think we also need to live in a relational world, starting with that most-primary relationship.
I’ve talked here about how I wouldn’t be married to the woman I’m married to or made any of the big moves I’ve made without hearing from God, best as I could figure out.
Many friends get a little flummoxed with centering prayer, because on its own they can wonder what it leads to. Yes, you’ve gotten more still and centered, and that’s no doubt good, but unto what? But stillness works great when paired with hearing God’s voice. Without stillness, we’re often reactive and stirred up, and then it can be hard to have any confidence we’re hearing God at all. But centering prayer plus chatting with God can be quite powerful.
So, in a small example: recently I woke up feeling heavy, given all that’s happening, and immediately both mindfulness and chatting with God helped me. I took a mindful moment to notice and welcome the heaviness, which absolutely helped lessen it and give me immediate perspective. But then I started chatting with God and sensed him saying something along the lines of:
“Oh, I know you feel housebound and heavy, but this is going to be an awesome day, full of possibilities and great stuff. You just wait and see and check in with me tonight to see if I’ve kept my part of the deal.”
And so it was. Mindfulness married to chattiness.
And, again, you can see this dynamic in the Julian of Norwich quote we started with. She’s pitching centering prayer throughout, talking about the importance of “blessed contemplation of God” and of, in just this sense, “paying attention.” And, of course, she gave her life to this as an anchoress. But it was in service of hearing what God has to say. This is what got her her biggest spiritual teaching, as she encouraged us to learn how to hear for ourselves Jesus saying to us, “You shall see for yourself that all manner of things shall be well.”
I mentioned last week that one way that chatting with God has stayed so central to me is that it’s been paired with contemplative spirituality, with long walks, or being paired with my twenty minutes of contemplation or meditation. In my experience, chatting with God takes some hanging in with for it to stay alive and powerful.
My wife Grace has mostly been helped in this respect by journaling.
Let me revisit the basics of this for a brief moment.
The most useful scripture, among many, for me has been:
If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do.
As with Julian of Norwich, the spiritual masters teach us that this pairing is what leads to promise.
As we’ve mentioned on previous Journey On podcasts, this is a big biblical theme. We get told the great hero of faith, Abraham, was called righteous by God because he believed what God told him. Peter, in his second letter, tells us that believing God’s so-called great and very precious promises to us is what lets us, of all things, join in with God’s “divine nature.” So it’s a big deal!
This goes back to the anti-fear point about the great teachers.
A large part of the choices Grace and I have made have started with a promise from God that he’ll cover us financially if we take risks. Well, to take such steps, you need, as per Julian of Norwich, to be pretty persuaded that the promise in question actually comes from God. But, as the Bible teaches us about Abraham--who we’re told is the most powerful model we have as “the father of the faithful”--faith is about exactly this.
You can see why this would be useful in a pandemic like the one we’re facing. We’re in the middle of something bigger than any of us. If we’re banking on smart government people making sure nothing bad will happen to us or those we love, it appears to be bigger than them as well. And that’s anticipated in the Bible and in the life experience of Julian, who was going through her own pandemic.
But when you find, as a faithful centering-prayer-and-chatting-with-God person, that you do compelling hear what God’s promises to you are and that, just as good, you believe them, Suddenly the road from fear to happiness, even under such a threat, starts to come into view.
Which leads us to the final step from the masters: love.
Happiness research has really flowered in the last generation.
And maybe the most famous researcher is U.C. Riverside professor Sonya Lyubomirsky.
She writes that:
The three factors that seem to have the most effect on increasing our happiness are: (1) our ability to reframe the situation more positively, (2) our ability to experience gratitude, and (3) our choice to be kind and generous.
So perhaps our discussion of acceptance would tie into her number one of reframing the situation more positively, as would hearing God speak to us about the situation. Perhaps gratitude would be a part of both centering prayer and chatting with God.
Which leads us with being kind and generous.
We’re told that an enemy to our happiness is self-absorption, obsessing over what we want and avoiding what we don’t want.
Jesus of course was the great example of this, as we’re told he was, quote, “made perfect” through suffering. So he wasn’t self-protective, but was forged by what was.
And the verses immediately preceding the passage on asking wisdom from God and getting it is exactly about this, as if it’s tied to hearing God’s voice:
Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have a perfect result--EQUANIMITY, perhaps!--so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing. (James 1:1-4)
The Dalai Lama says:
“The more time you spend thinking about yourself, the more suffering you will experience.” Look at Stalin’s or Hitler’s picture and compare it to the face of Mahatma Gandhi or Archbishop Tutu. The person who has all the power, but lacks compassion can never be happy. They do not have sound sleep. They always have fear. Gandhi’s face was always smiling.”
South Africa has a word ubuntu which argues that a person is a person through other persons. And Tibet has a related concept--mudita--which is the opposite of the German word schadenfreude. Rather than rejoicing in someone else’s misfortune, it's regarding anyone’s good fortune as your own.
One Tibetan prayer ends: “Bless me so I may take joy in others’ happiness.”
One very non-Puritan virtue that the masters say fosters love and compassion is humor, even under stress as if this is a positive, powerful spiritual choice towards both love and happiness.
In my high school days, I was an amateur atheist debater--I’d pick fights with religious friends. But one of my friends then was a dedicated churchgoer. And I remember being afraid to meet his parents, thinking they’d be the sort of stern and unpleasant people I associated with being dedicated churchgoers. But it turned out they were remarkably joyful people. They had all these little jokes between one another that on occasion I’d be invited into.
I remember one moment when the mom shook her head with a sigh as she nodded to the dad and said to me, “Oh my goodness, Dave. He’s started talking to strangers in elevators…” And then they both burst out laughing.
My friend told me one day that, on a vacation, his mom had badly broken her leg, a spiral fracture, and now she had, if memory serves, a full leg cast. When I went to see her, she again burst out laughing, almost to the point of tears. “Dave, it was so stupid! I was backing up to take a picture and I stepped off a step I hadn’t seen and here I am!” And she laughed some more.
One of the things that most struck me in my atheism was their laughter when things went wrong. I was no less of a committed atheist when I moved off to college, but it was clear to me that I wanted what they had in that, because I couldn’t imagine how real suffering wouldn’t lead me to misery, and the prospect of finding joy there was really appealing.
We’re all in this pandemic together.
But your acceptance, practice, promise and love can offer your world the great service of your happiness, which then can overflow in a time when others are so desperate for it.
Bless you and your family during this pandemic and beyond. We’ll make it though together, with God.
Let me pray for you and yours for a moment:
That’s it for this Journey On. See you soon.