Social Distancing and Beth March

“There are many Beths in the world, shy and quiet, sitting in corners till needed, and living for others so cheerfully that no one sees the sacrifices till the little cricket on the hearth stops chirping, and the sweet, sunshiny presence vanishes, leaving silence and shadow behind.”

Anyone who knows and loves the book Little Women knows the story of Beth. Beth is the third sister, quiet and shy, not quick to pour herself into social occasions like her younger sister, Amy. And though Beth is timid around a lot of people, she is quick to notice those who need help. Above all, Beth is kind.

The story begins at Christmas time. Beloved Marmee has gone to visit a poor neighbor family, huddled in one room with sick children. Later on in the story, when Marmee has to leave to go be with her wounded husband she charges her daughters to not forget this family. The only one of the sisters who remembers and is willing to go see them and care for them is Beth.

Beth ends up with scarlet fever, a disease that she caught directly from the family she had been assisting. It was an illness that we know now is untreated strep infection and includes a sore throat, high fever, and a bright, red rash that covers the body. For her kindness, she ends up teetering between life and death. The family desperate to see her well again, and she does recover from this initial illness. But scarlet fever can carry with it some residual damage, and she later dies from complications of the disease.

Does Beth’s kindness kill her?

History is full of people who die helping others. The “Chernobyl Three” who stepped into a radioactive area to drain a pool, and in doing so averted another explosion; Annalena Tonneli, who fought TB in the Horn of Africa and ended up killed by terrorists; Corrie Ten Boom whose family helped Jews escape by hiding them in their home – there are far too many to count.

We are in an unprecedented time in this century. A global pandemic has been announced and “social distancing” has been strongly advised. As a public health nurse, I agree with this approach. It slows down the spread of the virus, giving hospitals and health care workers opportunity to catch up and be able to treat those who are the sickest. But those health care workers – doctors, nurses, pharmacists, community health workers, physicians assistants, nursing assistants – they don’t have a choice. They work to keep the rest of us safe. They don’t have the luxury of “social distancing.” Some of them, inevitably, will get the virus. It’s the price they will pay for helping. My prayer is that they will not die, but will instead be cared for by people who are as kind and dedicated as they are.

Social distancing is something of a privilege – a privilege reserved for those who live in single family dwellings, a privilege for those who have the resources to stock up on many months worth of supplies. Millions around the world don’t necessarily have this privilege. Maybe we also need to rethink the phrase “social distancing” a public health term used to apply to actions that a health department deems necessary to slow the spread of disease. Could we change that phrase to physical distancing instead? Social distancing gives us room to ignore the other, caring only for ourselves, all in the name of containing a virus.

A culture, like the United States, that prides itself on individuality could happily distance themselves physically and socially, but maybe some of us need a little prodding to go help others. There may be a neighbor who is really suffering, and you may be the one to help them. There may be someone who needs a ride from the airport, and you need to go pick them up. There may be families that need you to not socially or physically distance yourself so that you can bring them food and supplies.

This social distancing may be the right thing for the majority of the population, but there may be some of us who will be called upon to give up that distancing and help others.

It will be easy, if that happens, to opt for fear, to use social distancing as an excuse. I’ve said it before in this space – fear is not good currency. Fear is more viral than the virus itself. There is, and will always be, something to fear.

In the past 24 hours, I’ve watched some of my family members and friends come together to help another part of our family who have been rerouted from their home in Thailand. They are tirelessly gathering clothes, food, a car, and other resources that this family needs. Any one of them could have said “No. We have our own families to care for, to feed, to stock up for.” None of them have done that – they have stepped up and they have stepped in. I am beyond grateful for this coming together, moving in to help instead of moving away.

Please hear me – I don’t advocate being foolish. I don’t advocate walking in to harm’s way just to be noble. But I do think there are times when we need to put others above ourselves, and in this country, we have a lot to learn about what that looks like.

Social distancing may be the kindest thing for some people; for others, we may have to step up and move in. May we recognize the humanity of the other more than ever. May we have wisdom on what is needed, and above all – may we fight fear and be kind.

And these thoughts from C.S. Lewis are apt, though written long ago:

It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

CS Lewis

This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds. CS Lewis on the atomic bomb

A Life Overseas – On Safety & Sanity

Safe passage cannot be bought. We have no holy passport to protect us and so we venture forward, fragile maps in hand, flying our banners of courage and of hope.”

CALL THE MIDWIFE, SEASON 6

When life feels like it is too much, and I can’t make sense of our broken world, I turn to Call the Midwife, the television series based on a midwife’s memoir of working in the East End of London. I’m only half kidding when I say that.

News on the world stage is of quarantines and evacuations because of the new coronavirus, a virus affecting world economies, social structures, and everyday living for millions of people. News in your particular area may not only be coronavirus, but also local storms and tsunamis, civil war, or other threats to your safety. 

In the midst of any of these, the questions for many become what will happen next and how do we keep sane and safe? 

These are both good questions. The first we have little control over. Anyone who has lived overseas for even a short time knows that there are things you have no control over. From viruses to visas, you enter a life where you are regularly asked to give up your timetable and your control. If you insist on keeping them, they will mock you during a night where you toss and turn in your bed. The reality is we don’t know what may happen next. 

The second question may seem to offer a few more options, but there is much unknown there as well. 

Rachel Pieh Jones, writer and longtime contributor to A Life Overseas, writes about safety in a stunning essay called “The Proper Weight of Fear.” In the essay she describes having to flee Somaliland after three expatriates were murdered at the hands of terrorists. At one point in the essay she describes questions that she and her husband were asked before leaving for Somaliland. “The second question after weren’t you afraid was were you safe? Of course we were safe. Of course we were not safe. How could we know? Nothing happens until it happens. People get shot at schools in the United States, in movie theaters, office buildings. People are diagnosed with cancer. Drunk drivers hurtle down country roads. Lightning flashes, levees break, dogs bite. Safety is a Western illusion crafted into an idol and we refused to bow.

“Of course we were safe. Of course we were not safe.” are perhaps the most honest phrases that describe a life overseas. My first memories in life are of blackouts during a war between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. My parents’ had the only room in the house that did not have a window so it was safe to have the light on. We would gather and listen to the BBC World Service and drink hot cocoa, after which my mom would read to us until we fell asleep. Safe? Not safe? Who knew? 

How do we keep sane and safe during coronavirus warnings, wars, evacuations, and sometimes just plain traffic that seems to disregard human life? When it comes to decisions on safety, our lives stopped resembling those of our peers a long time ago; even so there are times when events happen that urge us to think more seriously about where we live and and weigh the inherent risk in staying or leaving. 

Here are a few things that may help: 

Start with the Psalms. If ever there was a model of crying out to God in times of despair and in times of hope, it is in the Psalms of David. They offer the full spectrum of feelings and responses to life and death situations. Reading these regularly is a good practice. You are not alone. You have never been alone. CS Lewis says  “We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade the presence of God. The world is crowded with Him. He walks everywhere incognito.” The Psalms are a comforting reminder of that truth. 

Connect with those you trust and those who can help you work through your feelings and decisions. You may want to reach out to your parents or other family members in your passport country, but you know that their worry will cause you great stress and make you second guess your decisions. As much as you love them, they may not be the best people with whom to review your options. Pick the people that you share with wisely. Make sure that they can walk you through your decision making without passing on their own fear over a situation that they may not fully understand. 

Keep as regular a routine as you can. Whether you have young children or older teenagers, keeping a routine is critical. Particularly at bedtime so that everyone can get a good sleep. Family meals (even when food may be rationed), bedtime stories, gathering together for games is critically important during times of uncertainty and crisis. Keep those routines going throughout the time of crisis. 

Be careful of the amount of news you discuss in front of your children. Our world is over saturated with news and information. It makes people miles away from a crisis afraid, let alone you who are directly affected. Discuss the news in age appropriate ways with your kids. With older children, answer their questions with concrete information. Don’t have the news going nonstop on either a radio, the television, or your phone. It will not keep you sane – it will make you crazy. Keeping current on information is important, but there are ways to do it that preserve your sanity. 

Policies are your friends. If your organization has a policy, then trust that it was made for a reason. Let it be your friend. Let it guide your decisions. I say this to health organization supervisors all the time. “Let policies be your friend.” They don’t exist to be mean and arbitrary, but to guide and protect when you may not have the strength to make the decision on your own. You may disagree vehemently with the policy, but policies are often made to keep people sane and safe for the long term, not to burn them out in the short term. Rachel and her husband Tom did not want to leave Somaliland when they had to leave. They had only been there a year, and their lives were turned sideways. But they trusted a policy, and they left. It was the right decision. 

Don’t make decisions out of fear. Fear is not good currency. It will bankrupt you quicker than you can imagine. Make decisions based on reality and with regard to your organization’s policies, not based on fear of the “what ifs.” 

End with the Psalms. Start with the Psalms and end with the Psalms. They are good bookends. They keep all of life together in a clear image of human struggle and response. 

“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
    How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul
    and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

Consider and answer me, O Lord my God;
    light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,
lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,”
    lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.

But I have trusted in your steadfast love;
    my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
    because he has dealt bountifully with me. – Psalm 13, ESV

I don’t know what is going on in your world. I don’t know what your struggles are, what threats may assault you from without and within. What I do know is that you are infinitely precious to God on this life journey. I offer these words of traveling mercy from my friend Robynn: 

When the ride gets turbulent, when oxygen masks dangle in front of us, reassure us of your nearness and help us to breathe. Thank you that you travel with us. Thank you that you promise to meet us at baggage claim. Thank you for the hope of our Final Destination. But until then, we ask for your traveling mercies.Christ in your mercy, hear our prayer.

ROBYNN BLISS

May you venture forward, flying your banner of courage and of hope.

A Fog of Tragedy

There is a fog over the Charles River. While the sun is trying to burn through the mist, the fog is heavy and solid.

I wonder if this is what it is like for those families affected by another school shooting. The fog of disbelief and anger so heavy; the gut-deep sadness and nausea overwhelming. Everything a blur of loss and tragedy.

Where is the sun in that fog?

While most of the country was focusing on chocolate, roses, and chalk hearts with stupid sayings, a community was facing a nightmare of violence.

This is America’s true brand of terrorism, but we clothe it in politics instead of common sense and being on the same side – the side of life, the side of protection, the side of making hard choices.

I am more and more convinced that the “individual rights” that are so highly valued in our culture are dangerous. Both my intuition and my experience tells me what is really important is community and caring for others; what is really important is giving up my rights and my right to be right for the sake of others.

But no matter what I think, there are people who are hurting and planning funerals. Young life is extinguished and parents and friends are hurting. They are broken in their grief, and even though I don’t know them, I must stand with them.

I stand with them as one who mourns a broken world and longs for redemption. I stand with them as one who cries for the moms who will no longer hold their children; the moms and dads who would beg for just one more hug, one more ‘I love you.’ I stand with them as one who prays that the sun’s light will penetrate the fog, a glimpse of God in the midst of a fog of tragedy.

Our world is not as it should be. And though we see beautiful glimpses of redemption that startle and amaze us, we still face all that is part of this broken world.

So I stand as one broken – broken by sorrow of death and loss, by pain, by the weight of difficult relationships. And in the silence of the broken I know God is near.

If you are weary of sorrow and pain, if you are face to face with tragedy and death, with the broken bones of a weary world, know that you are welcomed into the arms of God.*

Learning Our Enemy’s Stories

Everyone has a story

“An Irish proverb says, ‘It is in the shelter of each other that the people live.’ We can give shelter to each other by telling stories of what it means to be human, and by listening generously.”*


A few years ago I had a long conversation with a physician. The physician was ethnically Indian, but had moved to the United States, become a citizen, and had built up a primary care practice in a suburb of Boston. She came up to me after I had given a talk on the importance of culture and health care.

She relayed the story of some Brazilian patients that came to her practice. “I didn’t like them” she said. They were noisy, always had a lot of questions, and came to appointments with lots of family members. She would dread it when she looked at her daily schedule and saw that one of these patients was coming. She just knew that visits from these patients would put her behind schedule and cause chaos in her brain and her office.

Then one day, she unexpectedly had a bit more time. She stepped away from her computer and stethoscope and into the realm of human dialogue with a Brazilian woman. This wasn’t the first time she had cared for this patient, but it was the first time that she had asked her about more than her symptoms. She ended up in a conversation about family, about Brazil, and about how the woman came to the United States. Instead of the appointment ending in a sigh of relief that it was over, she found herself reluctant to say goodbye. The next time the patient came, the doctor did the same thing. She ended up learning more of the woman’s story, and then the story of her family. She stopped seeing these patients as a bother, and began seeing them for who they were and the stories they carried.

It wasn’t long before the entire community had learned that this doctor was different. This doctor cared. This doctor liked them. Go to this doctor, they said to each other. She’ll take good care of you.

Our world faces a massive empathy problem, an inability to listen to, much less like, those who see the world differently. The story of this doctor shows that when we take a step back and really listen, really get to know someone, our attitudes can change. It is not the only story like this one. In fact, there are many more that tell of how perceptions and feelings toward people changed, once they heard the story behind the person.

A recent article in the Plough quarterly called Meet a True Story talks about the resurgence in storytelling in the United States. The article begins with these profoundly true words: “Technology feeds our insatiable hunger for stories, but fails to satisfy our need for human connection”

The article goes on to talk about a couple of different storytelling programs that serve to help build empathy. One of these is a program that helps people inhabit another person’s story. The idea is simple: You listen to another person’s story – not with the intent to respond to it, but with the intent to retell it as your own story in first person pronoun. It changes the dialogue completely because in order to do this you have to live in the story of another; often another who you don’t agree with or like.

Dismantling our enemies requires at least three steps: proximity, curiosity, and humility. We must be close enough to listen, curious enough to want to know more than we already do about the other’s story, and humble enough to wonder if perhaps we’ve been wrong about the other all along. If we can….get close enough to hear the story of our enemy, we may be able to subvert the narrative of fear that has controlled us for far too long.

There is a lot of fear in our world. I see and hear the fear every day. It is fear of the other, it is fear that “our way of life”(whatever that may mean) is going, and it is fear that the views of others may hurt our tightly held beliefs.

In the case of the doctor that I relayed above, her life and her practice became richer as a result of her willingness to move from prejudice to really getting to know someone. In really listening to her patient, she began to empathize. When she stopped seeing her Brazilian patients for the chaos she felt they caused, and instead entered into their stories, her attitudes and behavior toward them changed. The last I heard, she had decided to break down a wall in her practice to make more room for family members to come to appointments. She is beloved and trusted in the Brazilian community.

This can be us. If we take a step forward to listening to the story of another, we can learn and grow in respect and love for those who are different from us. We can begin to love the respect the one who is other and love the one who we used to fear. People are more than the views they hold. They are mothers and fathers, daughters and sons, friends and co-workers.

As the quote above says, there are three ingredients. We must be close enough to listen, curious enough to want to know more, and humble enough to admit when we might have been wrong. The ingredients are simple, but the work is hard. Can we do it?

If we want to change the current climate, I don’t think we have a choice. 


*From Plough Quarterly “Meet a True Story” – I highly recommend this article. It is excellent and goes much more in depth on what it means to hear and inhabit the story of another.

Look at My Face


Years ago I was flying from Calgary, AB to Hamilton, ON. It was December the skies were grey and the outside temperatures were formidable. The lady sitting next to me was visibly nervous. She fidgeted with seatbelts and arm rests. She adjusted the seat back several times trying to ensure it was in its full upright position. As the airplane doors were closed and the engines started up she clutched the arms of her seat and stared straight ahead. Her breathing was shallow and she seemed suddenly pale. I couldn’t help notice this frenetic anxiety building in her. I turned towards her and casually asked, “Do you fly often?” I already knew the answer but it seemed a good conversation starter and I thought it might help dissolve the visceral vibe. She turned to answer, her eyes full of unleashed fear, “No. Do you?” Even as she answered, the plane did a little jig and she startled.

I smiled, “Oh yes! I’ve been flying my whole life.”

She tried to smile, her lips stiff and strained. “Is that normal?” she asked as again the plane groaned and shifted into reverse. We were only just now leaving the gate. It was going to be a long flight for sure. I nodded using a reassuringly pleasant expression. “I’ve been flying since I was 8 years old when we moved from Canada to Pakistan. I can’t even begin to tell you how many flights I’ve been on, how many times I’ve traversed the globe. How about you watch my face? If I get nervous you should get nervous but if I’m relaxed you can relax. I’ll let you know if there’s anything out of the ordinary going on.” She nodded. Her eyes filled with tears. “Thank you,” she managed to whisper.

And then I started chatting. I asked her questions. I told her stories. I pulled out humour and anecdote galore. When the plane lurched, when the engines roared for take off, when turbulence tickled the plane’s underbelly, I would quickly reassure her, “That’s normal, we’re fine. That’s what happens. Those are the engines. We’re still ascending. That’s the beep indicating you can take your seatbelt off. That’s a little rough spot. Totally normal. Nothing to worry about.”

For three hours and forty minutes she watched my face. She never stopped looking the entire flight.

When we landed in Hamilton and the plane had come to a complete stop at the gate, she took off her seatbelt and stood up. She turned to me one last time, her eyes filled with tears again, and she hugged me! “Thank you so much. I couldn’t have done that without you. Thank you so much.” And she was gone.

Three weeks ago we had two back-to-back tornado warnings. Kansans are very laid back about such things. They take storms in stride. Many seem to love the cloud formations and the drama that unfolds in the sky. I, however, feel oddly queasy every time a storm comes to town. I feign a calmness that isn’t mine for the sake of our children but inside my own climate begins to change. I battle nervousness and fear each time. Panic piles up like the clouds. My insides turn that strange shade of green the skies embrace during tornado time.

I learned several years ago to watch Lowell’s face. When he’s relaxed during a storm I relax. Often I ask him several times during a storm, “Are you nervous?” He reassures me and I carry on. There have been a couple of times that I can see nervousness creep on to his expression. He gathers a few more emergency supplies. He calls out for us all to get shoes on our way to the basement. Then I know it’s serious and I pray different prayers.

I’m so grateful for people who have more experience than I do—people who’ve lived through things. I’m thankful for my friends who’ve survived the infancy, the middle years, the teenage years of their kids. I can tell them things and watch their faces and know we’re going to get through this. Some friends have already emptied their nests and I’ve seen the loss and the loneliness days pass and they’ve learned to live quieter with joy. I’m thankful for those who’ve survived financial fits. I can live simply, pray like crazy and study their faces. It’s going to be okay. Our needs will be met. God will give us this day our daily bread. I have friends who have survived menopause and mid-life crisis. I have friends who have lived through dark days. Some of my friends live with people with anxiety disorder or depression. I’ve watched their faces and I’m reassured. God is still faithful. We will get through this. I know others who have endured deep tragedy. Still others who have ridden constant waves of transition and change and they’ve come through. It helps to have someone who’s been through it lend you their face and their reassurance. Their story might not look exactly like yours but in many ways, in significant ways, they understand. And they know, because they’ve lived it, that it’s going to be okay. 

Even when I walk through the darkest valley, I will not be afraid, for you are close beside me. My eyes are always on the Lord, for he rescues me. My heart has heard you say, “Come and talk with me.” And my heart responds, “Lord, I am coming.” I love the Lord because he hears my voice and my prayer for mercy. Because he bends down to listen. –And so I walk in the Lord’s presence as I live here on earth keeping my eyes and my heart forever fixed on Him. (Ps 23: 4;Ps 25:15; Ps 27:8; Ps 116:1,9)

 

Podcast -On Refugees, Fear, and Politics

Good morning!

After an incredible weekend with my people at Families in Global Transition, I am sending you to a podcast that Anita Lustrea did with me last week. We talked about Pakistan, refugees, fear, politics, and how America needs a spanking.

I would love to have you take a listen and let me know what you think!

More reflecting on the weekend will be coming, but today I am still in the glow of connection that happens when you get together with people who have lived across the globe and love the world.

Thank you!

Click here to listen!