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Patience During the Pandemic

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By Patricia Bruininks

What day is it? How long have we been doing this?

We are heading into another week of state mandated self-isolation and social distancing with no clear end in sight.  Life with no school, no playdates, no eating at restaurants, no shopping for non-essentials, no sporting events, no worship services, and even no fishing has become the new normal. 

There are varying predictions for how long the new normal will last.  Weeks, months, a half-year or more have all been bandied about, with these predictions changing almost daily. We look to epidemiological models based on what is known about the virus and the track it has taken in other countries for answers.  But the fact is no one really knows when life will return to pre-virus normal, nor if it ever will completely.  When will unemployment lines shorten, classes resume, and increased pressure on hospitals and healthcare abate?

Some individuals and businesses are doing what they can to mitigate the crisis. Uber Eats is helping local restaurants stay afloat by waiving their delivery fee.  Dyson has designed a new ventilator and plans on producing 15,000 in light of the exponentially rising need by hospitals. Local distilleries are producing hand-sanitizer. Anti-viral treatments and vaccines are being fast tracked for testing  with hopes that FDA approval will come quickly.

Most of us, however, can do very little to expedite an end to this crisis.  All we can really do besides following the “stay home, stay safe” order from our governor is to be patient.

Patience.  Ugh.

Patience is a virtue.  As with all virtues, it must be practiced often before it takes root and becomes our default response.  Our consumeristic culture makes this particularly challenging. Our economy is driven by inventions that lessen or eliminate idle waiting; over time we have become more and more accustomed to getting what we want now.  Thus, we have had limited opportunities to practice the virtue of patience.

In an excellent piece by Tim Suttle, he states that the way our culture defines patience is “waiting without complaint.”  One way to do this is to distract ourselves from the current situation (i.e., a watched pot never boils). Since most of our usual distractions, such as sports, are inaccessible at the moment, many of us are turning to outlets such as Netflix and other streaming services to fill the void.  Internet usage as a form of distraction is nothing new, but it has greatly increased with more and more people under lockdown.

Another motivation for seeking distraction is increased mortality salience. As I write this, the invisible virus has killed over 22,000 Americans and nearly 115,000 people worldwide. Each day the death toll rises, and, unless we have blocked out the news completely, we cannot escape the dread and fear that comes with realizing that one day we, too, will live on this earth only in others’ memories.

We are motivated to seek distractions that occupy our minds until life-as-we-knew-it resumes, so that we can wait without complaint.  These distractions also help us forget, albeit it temporarily, what is happening. Streaming shows and movies in particular not only help us bide our time; they also allow us to enter worlds where COVID-19 does not exist.

Relieving fear anxiety through distraction is not all bad. However, it may be robbing us of an opportunity to grow closer to God.

The theological definition of patience involves allowing oneself to fully experience the discomfort that comes with not knowing how long or in what ways this virus will plague us or how it will change our society and our world.  This patience also allows complaint, or lament.  God is just fine with us asking how long will this last because this is awful.  He listens to us express sorrow over unemployment, illness, and death.  He hears our concerns – and even anger – about the lack of leadership that is making the ramifications of the pandemic even worse.

Our culture is fast-paced and future-oriented.  Because of this, it sometimes feels like no higher power is listening to our laments because the situation is not getting better on our timeline.  People keep dying, hospitals continue to be overrun, and there still are not enough ventilators or PPE for health care workers.  But just because life did not return to normal by Easter Sunday does not mean that God is not listening.

In the book of Romans, Paul instructs us to “rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, [and] be constant in prayer” (Rom. 12:12).  God wants us to continue to share our worries, sorrow, and anger with Him, knowing that pain and injustice will be vanquished, even if we cannot see the shape that victory will take.  Taking time to enter into the discomfort we are experiencing can illuminate what we are truly missing in our lives, such as the physical presence of others, and it can reveal silver linings that bring us hope for the world that is to follow.

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About Patricia Bruininks

Patty Bruininks grew up in northeast Tennessee. She left the South to attend college in Michigan and graduated from Hope College. She pursued her doctoral work in social psychology at the University of Oregon, becoming a lifelong Ducks fan. Before moving to Spokane, she taught for five years at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas. Now at Whitworth, she teaches courses on the psychology of poverty and consumerism as well as a course on love and forgiveness. She also studies and conducts research on the emotion of hope. Dr. B (as her students call her) is married to Mr. B (Jim); she has two grown sons, two daughters-in-law, one granddaughter, and a rescue dog. Her hobbies include camping, photography, and spinning. She is in her 13th year at Whitworth University as a Professor of Psychology.

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