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Wil Darcangelo, Spiritual Director at First Parish Unitarian Universalist.
Wil Darcangelo, Spiritual Director at First Parish Unitarian Universalist.
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I got my second COVID shot last Thursday. Unfortunately, I had some mild side effects but had kept my schedule clear for two days in possible anticipation of them, so I just relented and relaxed. It wasn’t so bad. Just a couple days of achiness and fatigue. But when they ended, it was like the flipping of a switch. It was just suddenly over rather than gradually improving. Not something I would have expected or have ever experienced from an actual illness.

I must admit I found my experience of the side effects to be a little emotionally jarring. In a strange way, I wanted it to behave like a regular illness. I wanted to be able to predict how my recovery would occur. The way my side effects unfolded, and then refolded, did not happen in a way I could predict. And, frankly, it annoyed me and made me feel uneasy, if I’m going to be honest.

One of the more fascinating aspects of this pandemic has been the uncertainty factor. Understanding that I’m creating an unnecessary burden on the word “fascinating” here, I am genuinely fascinated by it, even as I grieve the loss of so many and the devastation of people’s dreams.

As a person who thinks cosmically and maintains faith that all things happen for a loving reason, I look upon the past year with a theological eye. If I first make an assumption that there is benevolence here, despite all the sorrow around us, what might I make of the details?

You see, there is virtually nothing more stressful to us than uncertainty. Science has shown that we much prefer the devil we know to the devil whose actions we can’t anticipate. It freaks us out and sends our stress levels is through the roof.

We sip from a bottomless cocktail of stress-hormone chemicals, like adrenaline and cortisol, the longer we fixate on the unknown. We like to prepare and plan. When we can’t do that, we feel tremendous anxiety, often in forms we can’t directly tie to our concerns. Feeling agitated or uneasy. Picking fights. Losing our concentration or having difficulty sleeping. Sadness.

That’s what so unique about this current experience. Almost every other type of tragic human event has fairly predictable patterns to them. We are more experienced with them. Even the unpredictability of a forest fire has predictable components to it that help us cognize the concept and consequences of a forest fire.

But with COVID-19, every aspect of it has components that are nearly 100% unpredictable. For instance, while there are certain groups of people who are more prone to suffering mortal consequences, there has proven to be no hard and fast rule. All ages and all levels of health can and do become a victim to it. We can’t seem to predict one way or the other how it will go for those who do, either.

Those who become sick from it can have a range of experiences, from displaying no symptoms at all to organ failure and amputations. So-called “long-haulers” may yet have health consequences for the rest of their lives. Our prayers go out to all who have been affected by this horrible disease.

This is obviously no simple flu. That unpredictability factor is the birthplace of many conspiracy theories seeking to present a concrete understanding that ultimately never hardens.

And then, in consistent fashion, the vaccines, which will bring us out of this experience, themselves display a fully unpredictable possibility of side effects as well. Regardless of age or health, some people experience side effects, and some do not. Neither is an indicator of the vaccine’s effectiveness within them. Among those who experience side effects, they range in seriousness from mild fatigue to the feeling of a full-on flu.

When will get a break? When are we going to get our hands on some nice, predictable outcomes? The constant absence of surety is exhausting.

This lack of knowing makes us an easy target for anyone or anything claiming to be supremely confident in their knowledge. Conspiracy theories love the fertile ground of uncertainty. All false prophets take easy root in aggravated soil.

But as will be true with anyone claiming wisdom, true enlightenment is in finding comfort with knowing nothing, which precludes the need for prognostication and future forecasting in the first place. Put the predictors out of work by becoming more comfortable with a lack of need for prediction. Embrace the tilled earth, fertile with possibilities. No concrete is wanted or necessary here.

While he was an incredibly intelligent and wise man, the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates is a particularly good example of one who sought wisdom from a place of knowing nothing. As he quizzed his public questioners, he would tell them they would need to fully explain themselves since he knew nothing. This position presupposes no particular outcomes and asks questions entirely from the perspective of wanting to understand the things that are, but with effort placed on making no advanced assumptions.

That Socratic method had a tendency to mine the smallest nugget of truth from even the largest mountains of political spin and flowery debate. It got to the root of it all.

A facet of the secret to life is hidden in that method. The beginner’s mind. The clean slate. It turns our focus toward being more comfortable with unknowing as a platform for truth to enter. It not only sweeps away our expectations but enhances our humility. It gives our opponents a rope with which they always hang themselves if their ideas are not fully in alignment with truth. It lets truth do the heavy lifting on our behalf.

I think the truth we are looking for here is that we have found ourselves in a position where we are compelled by circumstance to look inward. We are being trained to bend at the knees just a little bit so that the shifting earth beneath us doesn’t knock us over. May we become better surfboards than driftwood.

My faith tells me benevolence is here. And if that’s true, this experience is a gift wrapped in a tragedy. I do not believe we are alone or unloved. I do not believe we are being punished. And so I draw a personal conclusion that, while this too shall pass, it will leave behind a residual of love and purpose. It will leave our world changed for the better. This will be a book whose storyline sticks with us.

The indelible imprint upon human society to be left by the pandemic holds the potential to propel it forward in beautiful and remarkable ways. As individuals, every single one of us will be changed by it. In what form shall your change manifest?

I love the game “the floor is lava.” Players pretend that the floor is made of lava and they have to get through an area via furniture or architecture without perishing in the imaginary molten rock by accidentally touching the floor.

That’s our life right now. It’s not fun and games, but the skill set is no different. Nor are the implications for the future rock that lava will become. The lava will harden and cool according to our expectations for it. Have faith that there is benevolence in this process as well.

Make a point of thinking “all shall be well“ when worrying about the unknown. It tells the lava what to do next.

Wil Darcangelo, M.Div., is the minister at First Parish UU Church of Fitchburg and of First Church of Christ Unitarian in Lancaster. Email wildarcangelo@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @wildarcangelo. His blog, Hopeful Thinking, can be found at www.hopefulthinkingworld.blogspot.com.