Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, has led the state of New York with a daily news briefing where he has updated the state of the course of COVID-19 and the challenges facing New York day by day. This past Saturday, Governor Cuomo noted something that caught my attention. He said, “We’ve seen an increase in mental health issues all through this period. anxiety stress, economic stress, stress of personal relations. Mental health issues have gone up. Domestic violence has gone up. Substance abuse has gone up. Alcohol related issues have gone up. This has been a highly stressful time all across-the-board.
Watching myself and others I have come in contact with, I know what he means. The onset of the pandemic and these weeks of quarantine have been bumpy and full of anxiousness. The psychiatrist Murray Bowen has said, “Anxiety is the emotional responsiveness of a person to situational stress.”
What could be more situationally stressful than a pandemic? A pandemic by its very nature calls everything into question. The son of the Colombian novelist, Gabriel García Márquez, who was the author of
Love in the Time of Cholera
, recently wrote a letter to his departed father. He said, “You said once that what haunts us about epidemics is that they remind us of personal fate. Despite precautions, medical care, age or wealth, anyone can draw the unlucky number.”
The pandemic has focused our attention of the briefness, uncertainty, and randomness of our own lives and briefness, uncertainty, and randomness are all anxious making.
At different times and places people have handled this stress differently. In medieval times, there was an entire literary genre of the
– the "art of dying," People believed that the major purpose of the Christian faith was to help a person die well. In the eighteenth century, the English evangelist John Wesley praised his Methodists saying, "our people die well."
Modern people would like not to die at all. How many times has someone said to me, “If I die... “
”If”? Isn’t it more like “when”?
In the Middle Ages, cancer was the death of choice. For cancer, unlike a heart attack, or falling off your roof, gave a person time to die well, time to get affairs in order, time to pay off old debts, time to bless the children. Today, to the extent that any of us think of our own end, we pray for a quick, instant death so we can die without knowing it, believing that death is some kind of generic experience.
The pandemic has reminded us all that all of us will some day die. So the anxiety we are feeling in these terminal circumstances is an opportunity to think about the question of how to die well.
The story of Jesus Christ which we're called to live and die by is one of risk engaged, and death absorbed. Jesus calls us to walk the narrow way. He calls us to take up a cross with him. Now, taking up the cross of Christ is frightfully risky business. Just ask that illustrious company of martyrs who brashly parted with possessions, security, and even life itself, preferring to be faithful in death rather than safe in life. But taking up Christ’s cross is also incredibly adventurous, and exceedingly invigorating.
On Easter morning, Christ has overcome humanity’s great enemy: death and in doing so can conquer our anxiety. Claiming Christ as Lord means that our lives can make a difference because we can live as people who share in Christ’s victory over death and show forth things anxious lives cannot muster.
The pandemic produced anxiousness is a chance to be clear that the significance of our lives is found in our fidelity to the Christ who has snatched the last word away from death. We are at our worst when we vainly act as if it were up to us alone to make sense out of our lives, to give our days significance by our own efforts. People who are fearful, frightened, and anxiety-ridden are victims of death rather than victors.
Jesus has given our lives meaning as opportunities to share God’s love, healing, and forgiveness. In Christ, the death-defying love of God raises us above the anxiety swirling about.
As Paul told the Christians in Corinth, "Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ".
Christ’s victory can sustain us and ennoble us in the face of death itself.