As a family doctor doing Urgent Care, I am seeing many patients who are concerned about the coronavirus. They ask me when a vaccine will be available. I tell them I have no earthly idea. I just read an article confidently predicting that a vaccine will be available later this fall. Then I read another article, equally authoritative, saying that a vaccine might not be available until late 2021, or 2022, or never. The only certainty right now is uncertainty.
Uncertainty is unnerving. How can I make any plans when I don’t even know whether my daughter’s school will be open this fall? When I have no idea what my income will be in three months, or six, or twelve? When I can’t even be certain, as a late-middle-aged man with high blood pressure, that I will not succumb to the virus myself? How can I plan for the future when I am faced with so much uncertainty about the fundamentals?
More than fifty years ago, the man who would become Pope Benedict XVI wrote about uncertainty. In his book Introduction to Christianity, Joseph Ratzinger observes that the believer “has been assigned the ocean of uncertainty as the only possible site for his faith.” According to Ratzinger, “the believer does not live without doubt but is always threatened by a fall into the void.” He further recognizes that all humans, believers and unbelievers alike, must live with uncertainty. Ratzinger understands that, however much the unbeliever may assert that he “has long left behind him supernatural temptations and weaknesses,” he can never be free of secret uncertainties. Maybe religion is true after all? “There is no escape from the dilemma of being human,” he concludes, by which Ratzinger means the dilemma of having to choose and to act in the face of uncertainty, not only in religious matters but in every aspect of our existence. [Translations are the author’s from the original German.]
C. S. Lewis likewise addressed this kind of existential uncertainty when he spoke to students at Oxford on October 22, 1939, less than two months after the outbreak of World War II. In the address later published as “Learning in War-Time,” he begins by asking how it is possible for life to continue as usual at the university, “when the lives of our friends and the liberties of Europe are in the balance?” He answers: “The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice.” Substitute “the pandemic” for “the war” and Lewis’s assessment remains valid.
In Luke chapter 12, Jesus tells a parable about a successful farmer after a bountiful harvest. The farmer is pleased. He can top off his 401(k). He is now all set for a comfortable retirement. He can take life easy from now on. The farmer tells himself to “Eat, drink, and be merry.” Not so. “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you.”
War threatens us with death and pain. No man—and specially no Christian who remembers Gethsemane—need try to attain a stoic indifference about these things: but we can guard against the illusions of the imagination. What does war do to death? It certainly does not make it more frequent; 100 percent of us die, and the percentage cannot be increased. . . . War makes death real to us: and that would have been regarded as one of its blessings by most of the great Christians of the past. They thought it good for us to be always aware of our mortality. I am inclined to think they were right. All the animal life in us, all schemes of happiness that centered in this world, were always doomed to a final frustration. In ordinary times only a wise man can realize it. Now the stupidest of us know. We see unmistakably the sort of universe in which we have all along been living, and must come to terms with it.
Kenneth Pargament, professor emeritus in the Department of Psychology at Bowling Green State University, recently commented regarding the coronavirus: “There may still be some atheists in foxholes. . . . But the general trend is for the religious impulse to quicken in a time of crisis.” Pargament and his colleagues have studied the effects of religious belief on coping with stress, specifically the stress of medical illness. It is a cliché to say that religious faith helps people to cope with stress. As with many clichés, this one is both true and false. How one uses religion to cope with stress is key.
Pargament distinguished between “positive” and “negative” religious coping. He and his colleagues found that positive coping was associated with a significant boost in spiritual outcomes and stress-related growth. Examples of positive coping included seeking comfort through assurances of God’s love and care; trying to give spiritual support to others; doing what I can, and putting the rest in God’s hands; and confessing my sins. Negative coping was associated with a significant decline in outcomes. Examples of negative coping included wondering what I did for God to punish me; trying to deal with my feelings without God’s help; thinking that some things are beyond God’s control; and questioning God’s love for me.
Pargament’s research is helpful to me. I reflect on the positive coping strategies and I try to engage them. I consider the negative coping strategies and I try to avoid them. Most important, I have come to recognize that my own desire for certainty is a temptation. As with any other temptation, I ask for God’s grace. Then I return to my work, to the task at hand, and to my family.
This means that I avoid looking for the latest updates on vaccine development. If and when a vaccine becomes available, I will research it as part of my job. I resist the impulse to read salvos from the left and the right debating the responses to the pandemic by state and federal governments. One can waste untold hours following those battles. C. S. Lewis, in “Learning in War-Time,” recommended the study of the past in just such a time as this, not because the past has any magic about it, but because we “need something to set against the present.” Lewis believed that the student of the past is “in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.” That cataract surely continues to gush today. I have been reading Erik Larson’s engrossing history The Splendid and the Vile, about Winston Churchill and his family in the dark days of 1940–41. By July 1940, the German army had conquered Denmark, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, and France. Many expected the imminent invasion and conquest of Britain. The Nazi war machine seemed unbeatable. That indeed is “something to set against the present.”
All responsible adults have a duty to prepare for the future. But worry is not helpful. When I feel myself slipping into worry, I whisper Matthew 6:34: “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”