On Finding Peace in the Midst of the COVID-19 Pandemic
By: Kassi Dee Patrick Marks, JD
The COVID-19 pandemic and the various crises (plural: health, economic, potentially political, as well as personal crises this can trigger) it has unleashed has been unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. I was feeding and rocking my firstborn when the second plane flew into the Twin Towers in New York City on 9/11. The aftermath of that struck a fear into me that I’d never experienced at that time. It was unnerving for a few days. The economy tanked (but the events that caused that were set into place well before 9/11 – it was not just because of that). We went to war for nearly two decades over (or after) it. But our day-to-day lives here in the U.S. were largely unchanged permanently, except for flying and those who had to find new jobs in the wake of the recession. Ultimately, however, we went “back-to-normal” in terms of our day-to-day lives within the week.
That is clearly not going to be the case with COVID.Even as the restrictions are easing, it is not at all clear that this disease is going away any time soon. On the one hand, we cannot stay in lockdown forever. On the other hand, the risk is still there with the very real possibility that whatever the first lockdown prevented will be felt anyway in a few weeks. Clearly, the economic damage will not be reversed as easily as lifting the restrictions. What it may do permanently politically and in terms of our freedoms also remains to be seen. There is a great deal of uncertainty left. Only time will tell how this all resolves.
All along this journey, I have been determined not to succumb to a constant state of fear, anxiety, despondency, depression, despair, or plain old anger, judgmentalism, and bitterness. I don’t want to live that way; no good will come of it for myself or for my family. I struggle with anxiety and, at times, the depression that can follow it. I have had to work extremely hard to deal with it and not let it spiral out of control(which it can) since I was five years old. I’ve learned a great deal about how to manage it and do very well most days. But a pandemic tries even the hardiest among us. And, despite my anxiety-prone nature, and maybe especially because of it, I have always been one to crave peace even in the midst of chaos. I cannot ignore how serious the situation here is and that would not be wise, but I cannot lose perspective and must maintain some balance about the situation.
I have not always been successful in maintaining this balance and avoiding these temptations these last few months, but I’d like to share with you a few things I’ve done and thoughts I’ve had that have mostly kept me going forward during this time as well as things I’ve learned through this experience. Maybe they can help you.
From the beginning, I have tried to make it a point to look for the good that can come out of all of this. We tend to see only the negatives and the new media and social media really put those in bold italics. I’ve tried to fight through that by purposely focusing on any good news I can find.But even more importantly, what good is going on in my own life?I am trying to be more mindful and thankful for every grace (small or large) that comes along.
Along these lines, I try to guard against taking in too much negativity in news, social media, and interactions with friends and family. I like to be informed; we need to know what’s going on in the news. I care about my friends. But sometimes I just turn it all off. This also includes limiting interaction with those friends and family who are overly anxious, anger, or bitter about the situation and seem to want to stay that way. I’ve found I cannot really talk most of them out of it and too often an attempt to have a “discussion” turns into a debate or argument. That’s not helpful to either of us. Sometimes, we need a break and it is perfectly appropriate to take one. I need to pray for them which is the best thing for them (and all too often I fail to do that consistently or even at all!). When they are ready, I will be here for them.
I’ve tried to look at how I can grow spiritually during this time, which our priests have encouraged. They have instructed us not to waste this “grace-filled time.”Peace is not just being calm and happy; it also comes when we are trying hard live as God wants us to when there is trouble. My husband has long said that only through pain and crisis will we really grow and make the hard changes in ourselves we need to. Crises make you take stock and re-evaluate how you’ve been living your life. I am very much reminded of this when I read Psalm 50’s words “A sacrifice unto God is a broken spirit; a heart that is broken God will not despise.” We are being humbled and God is calling us to Himself. If I try to do His will, I will have more peace.
My husband, our youngest son, and I were received into the Orthodox Church on April 27, 2019. We are still very new to Orthodoxy although we were practicing Christians before entering the Church. Going through something like this as new Orthodox Christians has provided us an opportunity to learn how to respond to crises in an Orthodox way and we have learned a lot and has greatly increased my sense of peace.
Early on our priests taught us prayers – some of them very old – for the end of a pestilence. They also taught us how to say the Typica at home – the service and prayers one would say when they could not attend a Divine Liturgy. This is something else that was new to us and that we can use going forward in times where we cannot find or go to an Orthodox parish.
Our priests also have made sure that we did not feel abandoned after public services had to be stopped. This experience has taught me to appreciate them, their direction, and the services even more. They, along with the help of my husband – I am happy to say – found ways to livestream the services. Our parish has not done this before, although we do post the homilies from each Sunday on YouTube. Obviously, this is not a substitute for going to services, but when you genuinely cannot or should not, this helps tremendously.
I have understood why we could not have public services – and supported it – but I thought I would feel a complete void and spiritual loss. I tried to keep an open mind and have been surprised to learn how much I get out of these livestreams. As I watch and participate in them, I am easily transported mentally and automatically imagine myself standing where I usually stand and praying before my favorite icons.
Even all through Holy Week and Pascha, I never felt like I had missed out. We were also provided with written texts of the services so we could follow along. When this all first happened, I thought I would come out of that most Sacred and Holy time feeling as if I’d missed it, as if it didn’t happen. I did not feel this way at all. I am very grateful and consider it a tremendous gift of grace. It has definitely increased my sense of peace.
Likewise, our priests have set up some prayer services as Zoom meetings, particularly Molebens, and even our Pascha basket blessing! There we were at 3:30 in the morning with our baskets in front of our phone cameras or computers having a blessing. Then we broke our fast together and talked. It was almost like being together physically in the same room; I suppose in some ways we were. Spiritually, we certainly were. After our Zoom prayer services, we stay and talk to each other a bit. The outreach has been tremendous and has prevented us from feeling so isolated.
Other things that have helped as well include: seeking out nature as often as possible and simple pleasures like walks, photography, bird-watching; making more of an effort to be patient and kind especially in the day-to-day activities that have suddenly become so much more difficulty; maintaining a sense of normalcy as much as we can at home from day-to-day activities to commemorating anniversaries, birthdays, and holidays; and stepping outside my own concerns and considering what my family can do to help others.
Along the lines of that last point – helping others – we Americans need to be diligent about keeping a perspective about how “bad” we actually have it right now. Food is plentiful here even if the infrastructure in the supply line is cracking a bit. We worried more about getting toilet paper than having a meal on our table. Our government – flawed though it may be – functions vastly better than most in the world.Within weeks, stimulus checks and unemployment benefits went to many who needed it as well as small business loans. We can argue about whether it was or will be sufficient, but the point is, help was quickly mobilized. We have food banks and private charities. Other countries are not faring so well. We are not facing a famine due to locusts at the same time there is a pandemic in a country where accessible, adequate healthcare is lacking in many places. Among those countries suffering disproportionately is Kenya, a place now dear to our hearts in this home and in our parish.
We were not attending our Orthodox parish very long before we learned of St. Barnabas Orthodox Orphanage in Kenya and the incredible ministry it provides for the local area. Fr. Methodius JM Kariuki, who founded and runs it, provides everything from Orthodox services to education to meals for the children that go there. They are building a dormitory and expanding all the time as the need increases. We follow things there very closely and are well aware that the need is greater than ever. Kenya is facing a second wave of crop-destroying locusts in as many months as the pandemic bears down on it. Can you imagine? We don’t really know the meaning of “food insecurity” by comparison. Food prices are increasing and supply is low.
Our priest, Fr. Seraphim Holland, is a board member of Orthodox Africa and great friend of Fr. Methodius JM Kariuki who came to visit Texas last year. It was such a treat to meet him and hear firsthand about his work. One thing that struck me – and that I have remembered during this pandemic – is that he teaches the children to be joyful in all things. Many have had hard lives that we cannot really fathom. They are joyful. Let’s remember that. We are so grateful to know of this ministry and are gratified to see the fruit that this tremendous undertaking is bearing. My husband and I, along with many in our parish, donate regularly to St. Barnabas. We believe in the mission there and want to support it with our prayers and resources. Will you consider helping out?
I cannot know what the future holds but making the present worse by handling it badly is not a solution. Finding peace in the midst of ongoing worldwide crises is very hard, but I think very necessary. If we preserve ourselves in this way, go about our present circumstances as best we can, we can be of better service to others who need us in these trying times and come out of them better Orthodox Christians and people.
Kassi Marks is a practicing litigation and appellate attorney. She lives in the Dallas, Texas, area with her husband and their three children who she homeschools.