I began writing these letters 250 days ago, on a cold March morning in Kent, Ohio. At that time, I had muted the words “coronavirus” and “COVID-19” on my Twitter feed, tired of reading headline after headline about it. 250 days later, and the headlines seem to be worse than ever. My family has cancelled our Thanksgiving plans, my roommate is quarantining with her family, and on Monday I cried on my couch while watching a video of inmates in Texas (who had been brought in because of hospital staff shortages) moving dozens of dead bodies to a refrigerated mobile morgue.
250 days ago, I hadn’t planned on writing any more letters at this point in the year. Instead, I would have predicted I’d be writing my annual Christmas letter, perhaps dedicating a few paragraphs to the pandemic, but expressing relief that it wasn’t as bad as we thought it could be. 250 days ago, I thought the virus would be gone by summer. By the summer, I thought maybe it would be gone by the fall. Oh, how plans have changed.
At the start of 2020, I didn’t think I had too ambitious of plans for 2020. I hoped to find a counselor, start my new job, and become a regular at the climbing wall at my local gym. I laughed with my roommate while listing out my plans, saying that my “stretch goal” for 2020 was to go on a date (!!) Those seemed like plenty enough plans for the year, given that 2019 picked me up like a tin can in a tornado.
As planned, I did find a counselor and start my new job. But pretty quickly, I realized everything else was clearly not going to happen. My ambitions to become a cool climbing kid proved to be not possible, and my date-hopes were dashed when I discovered that Mark L., my Great British Bake Off Crush™, was married! Since I couldn’t have my ideal 2020, I made a new plan 250 days ago: my pandemic plan. I’d read more books and send mail and make cookies for friends and do push-ups every hour while taking breaks from work. I’d call my grandma and learn new things and make people laugh. I’d write inspirational letters to various people groups that would encourage and uplift them. That’s what I’d do. I would “make the most of this pandemic.”
Throughout this pandemic, I avoided thinking about that ideal “alternative existence” — AKA, life-if-COVID-hadn’t-happened. But what I didn’t realize was that the trappings and temptations of idealism do not dwell exclusively in my imagination—they also exist in my everyday life and my well-meant plans.
Though I never would’ve called myself an idealist, this year has taught me that what I want—no matter what is happening around me—is for things to go how I want them to go. AKA, for my ideal life to be my real life. 250 days into my experience of this pandemic, and I can confidently say that the real is not ideal. The days have shortened and the numbers are rising. The adrenaline of the election has worn off. I’ve lost my pandemic optimism. I couldn’t keep it up anymore. In many ways, I am disappointed, disillusioned, and downright frightened. Maybe you are, too.
If you’ve found yourself disappointed in the place you find yourself today, I do not know much of what to say. But I do know what I want to do: I want to reach out and extend my digital hand to you, because I’m there, too. Perhaps you’re ready to take my hand, to wave your white flag of surrender, to admit you cannot be a pandemic optimist any longer. But perhaps you’re not. Perhaps you’d like to be a pandemic pessimist for a while. I get that, too. There is no reason to rush through the grief you feel. It takes time to and will continue to take time to process through these last 250 days: all the changes plans and dashed-dreams, all the hopes and expectations for change and progress and unity and peace. I encourage you to take the time you need.
But I’d also encourage you to not think you have to take it alone. In a book called This Too Shall Last, the author K. J. Ramsey writes these words:
“I want to live in the equidistant place between truth and sorrow, the place where pain dwells companionably with mystery….I wondered if this is the surprising way of Jesus, the man who so fully honored our pain that he took it into his very body and carried it to the cross. I wondered if his is a story we can’t fully remember on our own, if it takes phone calls and gentle prodding to be honest and be seen to spot through the rushing storms of today that our stories are still part of his. I wondered if finding grace when suffering lingers requires moving from hiding to honest, from naked to clothed, from withholding and ashamed in our singular stories of suffering to being held in a shared story of God’s solidarity with our pain.”
Consider this blog post your gentle prodding, friends. I invite you to come stand with me and countless others whose years have not gone according to Plan A or Plan B or Plan ZZ. As we all stand here together, I want to propose an idea: let your dreams for what the last 250 days—and maybe many before that, too—could have been fall and fade, be swept aside and taken away. “Listen to carrion — put your ear close, and hear the faint chattering of the songs that are to come,” Wendell Berry writes.
Maybe the disappointments of this pandemic are creating the fertile soil from which something healthier can grow. Maybe the pessimism we’re feeling invites us to think bigger than this moment, bigger than ourselves, our particular dream worlds, imagined-ideal-existences. Maybe the shortcomings in our well-laid pandemic plans would be a reminder that we are not our successes or our failures.
Maybe this will end soon and maybe it won’t. But of this I am certain: God was not lying when he promised us that he would never leave us or forsake us. That is not a promise from and for an ideal world, an ideal you. It is a promise that exists right here, right now: for me, for you.
In the chaos of 2020, this promise may sound only like a faint chattering. But it is there. Listen close.