Sometimes I think I live in a bubble. On Friday night, tornados in 6 states killed around 100 people, (the count as of Sunday afternoon.) While entire towns were flattened, I was safe at home, oblivious, reading a book written in another century, enjoying the patter of rain and the unusual rumble of a December thunderstorm. It was not until Saturday morning, reading the news on my computer, that I realized how much fear and suffering had been occurring, some of it in places I had once lived: Edwardsville and Mattoon. One tornado in Kentucky travelled along the ground for over 200 miles, an occurrence never before recorded.
Furthermore, all through this pandemic I seem to be living in another bubble. Even though 120,000 people a day are coming down with it, and 1,200 a day are still dying from it, it hasn’t infected me. Since it began, 50 million people have contracted it, 800,000 have died, in the U.S. alone. But not me. My brother-in-law died from it, as did my nephew, as did one of my dad’s cousins. One of my church members died, other church members survived but will be chronically ill the rest of their lives. My daughter Alison had a miscarriage six weeks ago, and when she went to the hospital, they found out she was positive for COVID. She went home later that day to grieve, but was not allowed any human contact for ten days, not even with her husband or three-year old daughter. I would have eagerly taken her place, but all my COVID tests have come back negative. It’s that bubble.
When I was about three or four, I worried occasionally about our town being invaded by outside soldiers. A recurring nightmare of my childhood was of an enemy army marching up Benton Street in Naperville, where we lived. As a consequence, I had scouted the whole house and settled on a hiding place for myself: a make-shift closet at the end of the upstairs hallway, where my parents hung a curtain to hide things they had stored. It was only a decade after the end of World War II. What bubbles will my grandchildren fashion for themselves, I wonder.
I used to like that verse in Psalm 91: “A thousand may fall at your side; ten thousand at your right hand; but it will not come near you…no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent…” My delight in that Psalm finally wore off due to the atrocious theology of a church member I once had. She always relished the part of the worship service where we had joys and concerns. Her joys always emphasized how God had preserved her instead of others who faced the same dangers. She seemed to know people from around the country, especially from towns just struck by disaster. She exalted that God had personally saved her friends and their houses, while all those around them were felled by floods, fires, and fatalities. There was never any concern for the victims, just joy that she and hers made it through. Her God showed favoritism, a notion I couldn’t swallow. I don’t know that she ever realized how awful her joys came across. She and I did have this in common, however: we both sensed we were living in a bubble. She at least had the bliss of feeling self-righteous because of it, I only felt guilty.
It helps if we can remember three things about living in bubbles: they are part grace, part illusion, part trap. All of us benefit from the grace of a bubble from time to time. We look out and see destruction all around, but we are okay. The Psalmist calls this living in “the shelter of the most High.” But I think that God’s grace is sloppy and chaotic. I see no pattern to it, no favoritism, no justice factored in. I’m just glad for it, for its personal meaning, and for the hope it gives me. While in bubbles of grace, I want to be both thankful and free from survivor’s guilt.
The bubble is also an illusion. For example, bad things happen to my daughters that don’t necessarily happen to me. But there is something about the parent-child relationship that refuses to filter out any of their pain before it gets to me. Quite the opposite: they often handle the pain in their own lives much better than I handle it. Identification and empathy leave us vulnerable, so much so that any bubble we crawl into also contains all the people we care about, even though they are “out there” where the problems are. The bubble actually makes me feel more powerless.
It is also an illusion that the bubble has any permanence. The first picture ever taken of me with all three of our grandchildren shows us in the backyard, me blowing bubbles, and them chasing them. They had to run fast because bubbles don’t last. There is no way my own bubbles actually keep me safe, for long. An asteroid can get through any time it wants, or the IRS, or bad news, or even a housefly. Whatever time I have in the bubble, it’s best to use some of it constructively, proactively, to prepare for the inevitable popping of the membrane.
And then there’s this, bubbles can also be a trap. For Earl-the-Cat, our house is his bubble. He’s not a very manly cat, and while he does like an occasional outing, he is most comfortable staying inside where he can nap without fear of being assaulted by dogs or other tomcats, or in his case, anything more fierce than a butterfly. But this week his bubble became a trap. It all started with his litter box, a fine contraption with a high ceilinged lid for privacy. The “door” to the litter box is in the lid. When Jie cleaned it out the other day, she absent-mindedly put the lid on backward. Since the box is positioned against a wall, there was no way for Earl-the-Cat to get in. I thought it was odd that he kept trying to get out of the house five or six times a day. It wasn’t until I was doing my laundry yesterday (the room where we keep the litter box) that I noticed the problem. In Earl-the-Cat’s case, his bubble was a trap.
In our case, the bubbles that protect us can also be traps of misinformation, anxiety, and loneliness. They can cut us off from relationships and from engaging the world to make it a better place. If the world is heating up, the bubble may be the last place we want to be.
A healthy life is always a see-saw: a continuous rhythm between hunkering down and taking a risk. There is no need to feel guilty about accepting a bubble when grace sends one our way. I was grateful for my blissful ignorance Friday night. But I am also grateful that much of my life is lived outside the bubble, despite the dangers that have sometimes brought me down. For it is only when we are outside the bubble that we are finally thrown in with each other, with God, and with our own life’s fulfillment. It is, after all, a see through bubble. And true love, joy, and peace lie outside it. May God have mercy, and use each and every one of us to grace those whose sufferings have by-passed us.