I bet for a lot of us, these difficult times turn our minds to Father Dan. What would he be saying and doing in the face of Covid 19? How would he cope? What would he advise us?
I keep returning to a frequent Father Dan trope. He used to say he imagined a space in our brain, like a room, reserved for worry. Serious concerns can certainly fill it up. Maybe we lost our car keys, our child has become a rude, snarling monster, and we’re awaiting the results of a medical test. Plenty to worry about! Our “worry room” is crowded, and we are hanging out there 24/7, unable to sleep or relax. Then imagine that we find our keys, our kid is just a normal moody teenager, and our text results come back negative.
Guess what? Other worries rush in to fill the void. These days, we are seeing money flying out of our bank accounts (if we’re lucky enough to have bank accounts) to cover rent and food, we can’t do our job well at home, our kids will never go to college because they refuse to do long division at home, and what’s going on with this tickle in my throat?
In other words, in the best of times and the worst of times, that little room in our brain is going to keep filling up. Once we recognize this, we can exercise some executive functioning. We can try to stay out of the worry room, knowing that no matter how serious or trivial our concerns, it’s always there to remind us of them.
The alternative to worrying is to make ourselves present in this moment. In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard describes stopping at a gas station in the midst of a long drive, where she gets out of the car to pet a beagle puppy. “My mind has been a blank slab of asphalt for hours, but that doesn’t stop the sun’s wild wheel. I set my coffee beside me on the curb; I smell loam on the wind; I pat the puppy; I watch the mountain.” She’s fully present in the moment. “The air cools,” she writes. “The puppy’s skin is hot. I am more alive than all the world.”
Dillard goes on to quote from Stephen Graham’s The Gentle Art of Tramping: “As you sit on the hillside, or lie prone under the trees of the forest, or sprawl wet-legged on the shingly beach of a mountain stream, the great door, that does not look like a door, opens.” Dillard explains, “That great door opens on the present, illuminates it with a multitude of flashing torches.”
Part of Father Dan’s discipline was to keep that “present” door open as much as he could. He strove to be present to the person in front of him, present in prayer, and present at a concert or play. He would always say, ”The past is over, the future is unknown, and all we have is now.” In the now, we might be chopping carrots, listening to our favorite music, or feeding our cat. We might even be suffering from Covid 19 or nursing a loved one. We have to keep the worry room door closed and the present door, with its flashing torches, open.
This is not a one-and-done decision. It’s a process. Even Father Dan, who seemed to do it so well, worked at it. His method was to give his worries to God. If matters were out of his control, he prayed about them. Then he began looking around to see whom he could help, or call, or write to. Good advice for right now, for us.