There was a time at the start of this year when I lost my powers. Some of you know that I was struck with an almost-fatal case of pneumonia and as I lay in my hospital bed, my powers slipped away. Energy, enthusiasm, sense of humor, prayer, involvement and support for others—all these and more fell victim to a physical condition that pre-dated the coronavirus, but one that had so much in common with the oncoming pandemic.
Maybe I should have been alarmed that I didn’t have my usual engagement with life, but sickness produced its own apathy. It wasn’t until I was on the mend that I felt the frustration of the lost powers. For three weeks, it didn’t matter to me whether I was going home or not. But during those last three days, getting out of there couldn’t happen soon enough.
In fact, the first “power” that came back was anger. There was anger that those weeks of my life were wasted, when I could have been doing so much. There was anger that the doctors didn’t think I should leave yet, even though my recovery was obvious. And anger that my chief doctor took the weekend off as it seemed to me I would have been discharged earlier if he had been around those days.
Gradually, as I recovered at home, my usual powers came back. As “normal” was reestablished, I could smile and laugh again, pray again and care again. Normal wasn’t completely the same as before I entered the hospital, but it was close enough and I learned to adapt to some new realities. I could choose those realities and I was no longer restricted by well-meaning others.
I’ve been thinking of these things because I’m noticing the layers of anger that have been festering in our world these days. Otherwise kind and loving people are posting vile and hateful things on their social media pages. And it seems that if you want to bring out racial prejudice in people, all you have to do these days is mention “racial prejudice.” Then stand back as a flood of angry opinions pours fourth.
At first, I was appalled, thinking that we had lost our moral bearings as a community. But then it dawned on me that we had just lost our powers. My sense of humor was gone, as was support for others, even prayer—gone (somewhat literally, as our houses of worship were shuttered).
The creative energies that come with engaging one another at work, at school or in other venues were sapped away by rules that kept us apart, languishing in “home-hospitals,” whether we were physically ill or not. And the less ill we were, the more the frustration to get out of there was felt.
We are seeing that in some parts of the country that frustration and anger is leading to foolish and dangerous behavior. And I must admit there was a moment when I was tempted to pull out my IV, get dressed and just walk out of the hospital. Fortunately, on Long Island, most people recognize the value of facial coverings, hand washing and social distancing. But that doesn’t mean we like it. In fact those masks are covering a lot of frowns these days.
I suppose some of the inner angers in other parts of the country are manifesting themselves as defiance of the rules. In our communities maybe that’s the reason our rhetoric is so angry and divisive. It’s a way to deal with our diminished powers and our desire to get back to normal again. But not a good way.
But as I discovered as I recovered from pneumonia, normal comes slowly and never returns to what it was before. Once we come to accept that, we can decide to let our God-given powers revive again. It does involve a choice: sulk and wallow in anger or give that up and seek the joy of living again.
Father Ralph Sommer is the pastor of St. Bernard’s Church in Levittown and is an Anton Media Group columnist.