Sculpture by Edith Breckwoldt. The ordeal. No man in the whole world can change the truth. One can only look for the truth, find it and serve it. The truth is in all places. Citation by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
(Psst. This is not really about Dietrich Bonhoeffer)
Something Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in 1943 has been haunting my thoughts as this latest wave of COVID-Delta-Omicron-Whatever pandemic rolls in.
Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor in pre-war Germany. At twenty-four, still too young to be ordained but already having earned a PhD, Bonhoeffer traveled from Germany to New York City for postgraduate studies at Union Theological Seminary. His real education came from his experience with Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. Through his friendship with a Black seminarian and teaching Sunday School at Abyssinian, this privileged intellectual was transformed. Later he would describe it as the time he turned from “phraseology to reality.”
Long story short, by the time the Gestapo hung him days before Hitler shot himself, Bonhoeffer had led Christian resistance to the Nazi takeover of German Churches, formed a resistance church that eventually went underground, and joined the plot to assassinate Hitler. In prison he was able to secretly keep writing and smuggle out scraps of it to friends.
A poem he wrote in prison echoes today as we live lives curtailed by the pandemic:
“Who am I? They often tell me
I would talk to my warders
freely and friendly and clearly,
as though it were mine to command.
Who am I? They also tell me
I would bear the days of misfortune
equably, smilingly, proudly,
like one accustomed to win.
Am I then really all that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I know of myself,
restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
struggling for breath…
Who am I? This or the other?
Am I one person today, and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once…”
This poem, too long to include in full, speaks to the prisoner’s sense that life is going on without them. So too those in grief or any kind of pain who sense normality all around them but can’t participate in it. They can only act normal on the outside. That describes life within a pandemic bubble, too.
As Omicron threatens to push us backward or inward, we are trying to live life as “normal” in ways both similar and different. While keeping up a good show on the outside, inwardly we feel the weight of it’s costs and losses.
There can be something liberating about saying the obvious out loud when it is otherwise living silently among us. So I’ll say it: these are still hard times.
My advice is to share what you feel with those you love, and give them grace to let their held emotions speak too. Our bubbles are not prisons, they are protective coatings. There are even safe ways to extend them if we are thoughtful and willing. Most obvious of all, we are not alone and we do not have to be alone in our struggles. We can reach out, we can invite others in, we can talk out loud about what it is like for us as the news, graphs, and maps of the pandemic flash all around.
This is a reminder that there are those suffering alone within themselves, some even living among others. A willingness to give voice to our feelings, and an invitation to hear them as they share theirs, is a powerful act of kindness.