No Man is an Island (Especially Right Now)
There’s unexpected solidarity among us right now, and I have to admit, I don’t hate it.
Want to hear something kinda funny? On Ash Wednesday, I decided that I would fast from complaining. I know that’s weird; we’re supposed to fast from seemingly good things that vie for our loyalty — chocolate, Netflix, coffee, Twitter. Complaining isn’t good at any time; shouldn’t that be something to fast from year-round?
Here me out. On Ash Wednesday I was convicted that I had gotten to a place where complaint had become a weird sort-of refuge for me. I’d use it to vent, to “feel human,” to be honest and say whatever was on my mind. I’d save it up for a safe place, of course; I’m not talking about complaining non-stop, dumping it on whoever was the lucky recipient nearest me. It was usually with Kyle, the fortunate guy, or God when I managed to wrap complaint in some sort of cloak of righteous piety.
I’d complain about politics and the general situation at-large, the broken healthcare system, traffic, messes left by the family for me to clean up, people on the internet who had illogical opinions, students who continued to not read instructions, extended family members who continued to make unwise choices, the cost of airline travel, the cost of avocados, children who needed me past my own bedtime, cold weather, hot weather, Instagram influencers, podcasts that rambled for too long, dead authors who rambled for too long, bad coffee, kids who leave on every light in the house, a cat who constantly forgets where his food bowl is even though it’s been in the same place for years, the Sisyphean task of eking out a living from the internet, and more traffic.
You get the gist.
Every morning I’d still write down one thing I was grateful for, and that was never a problem — I could see good things in my life all around me. Heck, I even started a podcast called The Good List, an exploration of all the good little things in our lives. Golly day, I could recognize the good in my life! But that didn’t keep me from still harping on the bad. Somehow, I had let complaining become an unexpected idol, a refuge for me to feel righteous fury, as though God was probably mad about all those same things, too, and I was merely aligning myself with the Good Side by being annoyed by all that was Bad.
So, a fast was in order. Ash Wednesday allowed me to see that I needed to work on trusting God in the bad alongside giving thanks for the good. I shared my Lenten fast plan with the family that night over dinner, a smudge of ashes still on my forehead, and asked for extra grace as I worked on not complaining the for the following 40 days. I knew it wouldn’t be easy.
I also didn’t know just a few weeks later we’d be walking through a global pandemic, where just about every citizen on the planet would be asked to make a short-term sacrifice called social distancing in the name of the greater good.
I didn’t know that in the midst of my letting go of complaining, my kids would be home more than ever, my livelihood would start toeing the line of jeopardy, my much-anticipated travel would be canceled, and my favorite restaurants would be closed for the foreseeable future.
None of us knew it would come to this.
Now, almost halfway through Lent, and the idea of not complaining almost seems silly. My family is healthy. We have groceries in the fridge. We have a sweet dog to keep us company and give us much-needed physical affection. I work from home already anyway. We have a closet of games, a television equipped with streaming services, a cabinet of craft supplies, a bucket of Lego, shelves and shelves of books, indoor plumbing and heating/cooling, a neighborhood where we can still take daily walks, and a God who does not change nor is surprised by this.
Almost overnight, we have globally become a community that’s asked to care about the greater collective good and to make small sacrifices that pale in comparison to generations past who literally went to war to fight their common enemy.
Sure, there are systemic-wide infrastructures and leaders that have gotten no better (and perhaps have shown their true colors?), and our family’s income is on the line since neither Kyle nor I work in classically-necessary industries. According to the experts, things will get worse because the coronavirus will spread; economically things are dicier than ever. Almost everything that felt certain a few weeks ago is completely uncertain now.
But there’s unexpected solidarity among us right now, and I have to admit, I don’t hate it.
Traffic, bad coffee, and Instagram influencers seem like such silly, petty complaints at the moment. They’re irrelevant. Every morning that we each wake up and have a healthy family, a roof over our heads, and food on the table is above and beyond giving thanks for.
There’s something sacred about how in the midst of this global-wide social distancing we’re all practicing, we actually need each other more than ever. Our social distancing (or better put, social solidarity) is our way of loving our neighbors. We need each other so that we can keep going, to continue our civilization and our species, so that a year from now, baseball season has resumed and it’s perfectly safe to knock on the neighbor’s door to ask for a few eggs.
Quite literally, we need each other.
In 2007 when I was in regular therapy for my depression, my therapist suggested that, as impossibly hard a task it seemed, to consider reaching out to someone else in need whenever I felt like my own life was insurmountably hard. When it felt like my loneliness or despair would crush me, he said I should call someone else and ask how they were doing, if they wanted to grab coffee, if there was anything they needed. It would paradoxically get me out of my head and my own narrow periphery, and remind me that there was so much more around me besides my own issues.
Selflessly reaching out to others would actually help me, in other words.
I think of this on repeat these days, in light of my personal Lenten fast and all of our new reality. Being here for each other, in a very real sense, will be the thing that saves us. Thinking beyond our own selves will get us out of our own heads when we’re tempted to complain. Serving each other for the greater good will be our salvation.
John Donne once said, “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”
This feels so true right now. And this idea is one thing I absolutely have no reason to complain about.
p.s. If you’re a paying subscriber to Books & Crannies here, thank you, thank you, thank you — I feel the weight of that gratitude more than ever right now. I’ll be honest: I’m reminded in no small way these days why I prefer my work to be more reader and listener-supported than ad-dependent, because a number of advertisers are pulling their ad buys on my podcast (and others like mine) right now, out of an abundance of caution with economic uncertainty. If you’ve ever benefitted from my work and aren’t yet a paying subscriber, would you consider doing so? Or if you already are, and know of other people that benefit from my work, would you encourage them to become B&C subscribers as well? Simply send them this post via email. I know we’re all together in this economic uncertainty, so it’s not feasible for everyone right now. But just a few dollars from many people (vs. larger ad buys from only a few companies) means all the difference in the world for indie creators like me in keeping our lights on. Right now, only 1% of my podcast listeners are paying subscribers — if that number jumped to merely 5%, it’d be a complete game-changer. I can’t even imagine. And once again, if you’re already a paying subscriber, I’m crazy, completely grateful for you. Thank you!