So, we’ve been in the self-distancing and self-isolating modes for more than a month now. As one of my students recently noted, it started out okay and people were fairly tolerant of it, but now, emotions are fraying a bit and people are getting more and more weary of being alone, or with people they aren’t used to spending so much time with, like parents, siblings, spouses, or roommates. It’s all starting to get a little much, and the murmurs of dissatisfaction and impatience are growing louder and more numerous. People are clamoring to get back to normal.
The desire for a return to normalcy is understandable, but do we really want to return to our normals, or at least as they are to most of us? The running to and fro, the stress to fit all we can into a day, the continual noise, the social media relationships that replace real ones, and the lack of stillness in our spirits?
My wife is from South Africa and American culture has always been a puzzle to her. Unlike her native land, Americans are always on a schedule and have little time to develop deep friendships. One time, during a visit to South Africa, we were waiting to meet an international student who had studied at our university for a semester. We were in a shopping area, with a lot of cafes. I noticed there was a Starbucks and I was curious what it looked like, so I popped my head in. There sat about a dozen people, sitting alone, and all on their laptops. My wife surmised they were likely all Americans, as we were near a diplomatic area, and South Africans usually don’t sit alone in cafes. Instead, they sit with friends, or colleagues, and talk, sometimes for several hours. And the cafes are typically packed, as they are in Europe, regardless of the time of day. Living in America has often been lonely for her because of what she had been used to in her homeland.
Even before self-isolation became the norm of our lives, loneliness among Americans had grown by epidemic proportions. College students, who are the most connected on social media, were no different. Sadly, loneliness is more the norm for our culture. And, obviously, busyness is not a remedy because there are few cultures where being busy is more highly valued. Busy, but lonely. Connected, but feeling so disconnected. Is this the norm to which we desire to return?
I recently read Psalm 46 where the writer describes life turned upside down—creation is in an uproar; nations are, too. One can almost imagine the noise and tumult from the writer’s description:
…though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.
Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall; he lifts his voice, the earth melts. (vss. 2-3,6)
This is likely how most of us feel right now. Our lives and our routines have been upended by this pandemic. Fear and dismay are natural reactions. Yet, in the midst of the turmoil, God speaks and says, “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” (vs. 10)
This is, I believe, a major challenge to us Americans. For so many of us, our validation and sense of self comes from being busy, so much so that we fail to connect on a deep level with others and with God because we don’t believe we have the time. There are too many priorities ahead of forming deep relationships. This is normal in our society.
But what if God is directly speaking to us in the midst of this tumult in our lives: “Be still, and know that I am God.” Can we do it? Are we willing to do it? Can we integrate stillness into our lives so that we can have the time and an environment conducive to know him more deeply?
I am a typical American and I have always struggled with this. My wife over the years, and through exposure to her native culture, have shown me that the American way is not necessarily the best way. I have been slowly working toward a more quiet, less busy life, but the pandemic has created the ample opportunity to truly integrate it into my life. I am spending more time in the Word and in prayer. My wife and I are reading and praying together every night as opposed to sporadically as before.
I am liking the direction I am going, even if I still have a long way to go. I do know one thing, however. I don’t want to return to my old normal. What a waste and tragedy that would be. There are many lessons to be learned in the midst of this pandemic, but perhaps the greatest one is our normal is not normal, at least from a divine perspective. There is something far better if only we can see it. The coming months are a perfect time to do just that.
© Jim Musser 2020 All Scripture references are from the New International Version 2011