Over the past few weeks, our world has been turned upside down. Before, we were able to visit with friends, go out to eat, attend concerts, gather with coworkers, and see our kids off to school. Now, none of those things can happen, at least not how they had in the past. Our experience of Covid-19 and the resulting quarantine has changed our experience of work, school, socialization, and community. Told to stay at home or shelter in place, our lives have become a lot smaller. In addition to our confinement, there is a thrum of anxiety surrounding us. Will we get sick? Will our loved ones get sick? Will we lose our job, our house? Will things ever get back to normal?
In the midst of the anxiety and disruption, it is natural to try to make sense of it. Why is this happening? What caused it? Is there a purpose to all this suffering? What can we learn from it? If we can find the reason behind it, perhaps we can protect ourselves and our family. If we can identify why this is happening, it means that the world does make sense and I can regain my illusion of control.
What I want to say today is that there is no purpose behind this pandemic, no greater plan that is unfolding. We live in an unpredictable world where good things happen and bad things happen. Our world is a one where viruses mutate and evolve in ways few of us can understand and no one can foretell. Covid-19 doesn’t discriminate based on any of the factors by which we try to make sense of the world – nationality, religion, age, political affiliation, income, etc. The virus’ only aim is to stay alive. We are truly in this together.
Historian and author, Kate Bowler, wrote a great book called, “Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved.” This book grew out of her experience of incurable cancer. When confronted with her diagnosis, some tried to comfort her by saying, “Everything happens for a reason.” In her book, she pushes back against this platitude. She did not get cancer to fulfill some greater plan. She got cancer because, genetically or biologically, sometimes cells divide in ways that are not healthy and that lead to disease. Her cancer is not a cosmic life lesson, but one of the unpredictable side-effects of being human. Instead of saying, “Everything happens for a reason,” Kate likes to say, “Everything happens.” (Period)
In my own life, I’ve struggled with the “God Has a Plan” talk and the “Everything Happens for a Reason” talk. When I was 26, I was attacked and raped in what could have been a fatal assault. I don’t think that my assault was part of a greater plan or that there was an underlying reason that caused it to take place, a lesson I needed to learn. Neither was there a reason that I survived when so many other women don’t survive similar assaults. I was assaulted because someone struggling with mental illness and rage decided to act violently. I survived because I was very lucky. End. Of. Story.
I don’t believe that Covid-19 is part of any grand cosmic plan. I don’t believe that the purpose of this pandemic is to teach us a lesson. There is no sense to make of it. Nothing that we say or believe will keep us or our loved ones safe. There is no controlling Covid-19. Today there are people alone, people dying, people mourning, people feeling that they’ve come to the end of themselves and have nowhere to go. Maybe tomorrow that will be me. We, all of us, are vulnerable. What we are experiencing in these days is one of the unpredictable side-effects of being human living on this ever-evolving planet. This isn’t much comfort but, for me, the only thing that makes sense is to recognize there is no making sense of it.
Now, this is not to say that there aren’t things that we can learn from this experience. This is the beautiful part for me. Covid-19 isn’t here to teach us a lesson, but there are lessons we will glean from this new reality. I think it is too early to know what these lessons will be but, if we keep our hearts open, they will come. One of the beautiful gifts that came out of Kate Bowler’s cancer was her book that has helped so many people, including me. She did not get cancer so she would write that book, but her book is one of the unpredictable blessings that came from her experience. One of the beautiful gifts that came out of my assault happened many years later when, coming to the end of myself with PTSD, I was partnered with my service dog and found the healing I never thought possible. My assault didn’t happen so I could have that experience, but living through that rebirth has shaped me in ways I don’t even understand and it is something I give thanks for every day.
We will be forever changed by this pandemic and, in that changing, there will be pain, trauma, and grief. There may also be growth, transformation, and healing. That’s the thing about unpredictability. You never know where it will lead.