I’ve only experienced an earthquake once. I was a seminarian at the English College in Rome. We were in the common room on the second floor and the whole building started to sway, very slowly, from side to side. It wasn’t like in the films. The chandeliers didn’t rattle; the walls didn’t shake. Everything was moving at the same time, so you couldn’t actually see the movement. You just felt your stomach lurch. It was incredibly disconcerting.
The last few weeks of the virus have felt like this. It’s not just the very real difficulties that people have been going through: sickness, bereavement, isolation; worries about work and money and family; the empty high streets and the closed churches. It’s a deeper sense of unease and insecurity. Things we took for granted seem to have disappeared. We don’t actually know what kind of world or Church will await us when the lockdown ends.
The US politician Donald Rumsfeld famously spoke about the “unknown unknowns”. The known unknowns are easy. There are thousands of things we don’t know, but we can learn as we go along, or make peace with our ignorance. Rain or shine this afternoon? I haven’t a clue, but I can hedge my bets and take an umbrella. Either way, I’ll be fine. Even the big questions – career, relationships, family, vocation – at least I know what the options are.
But the unknown unknowns are more dangerous. They are too hidden to worry about. They are not even on our radar. So when they come, out of the blue, we are completely disorientated. It’s not that my world is turned upside down, it’s that I’m in a world I didn’t know existed before.
How can we cope with uncertainty and insecurity? It’s not easy. But here are four useful tips.
First, we can name our fears, put them into words. Sometimes we walk around with a vague sense of unease or dread. It’s much better to identify this and bring it into the light. Very often Jesus asks someone to put into words what they want or what they are experiencing. He says to the two disciples of John the Baptist, “What are you looking for?” He asks the blind man, “What do you want me to do for you?”
On Easter morning, at the empty tomb, Mary Magdalene says to Jesus the Gardener, “They have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have put him.” She expresses her anguish. We don’t have to be strong all the time. We can express our honest fears: to ourselves and to the Lord.
Second, we can pray. The prayer of intercession is so important. Some people are uneasy about asking God for specific things, as if he has more important things to think about. Intercession can seem selfish or unspiritual. But Jesus teaches us to pray for our “daily bread” in the Our Father – the ordinary things that we need at each moment. St Paul says to the Philippians, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”
The prayer of the disciples is very direct. When their boat is nearly over- whelmed by the storm, they say to him, “Lord, save us! We are going to drown!” We need to pray not just general prayers (“Thy Kingdom come!”) but also specific prayers (“Help me with this problem!”). He always listens, even if his answer might not come in the way we expect.
Third, we can act. We can’t change everything, but we can change something. It’s easy to get paralysed with fear or uncertainty. It’s much better to focus on the things that are within our control, however insignificant they may seem.
Noah couldn’t stop the flood, but he could build the ark. And when the flood finally came and the future seemed so unsure, he could care for his cargo and wait for the waters to recede. Caring and waiting: that’s a lot to get on with.
And finally, we can grow in trust. So many things are beyond our control, and we need to trust in God’s goodness and in his providence. This is not a form of passivity. We can actively hand over to God and “offer up” to him everything that is beyond us – all the uncertainty and insecurity, all the known unknowns and also the unknown unknowns.
Mother Teresa said: “Make sure you let God’s grace work in your hearts by accepting whatever he gives you, and giving him whatever he takes from you.” Accepting the reality of our situation, whatever it involves; giving ourselves in love, to God and to our neighbour. This is enough to see us through the uncertainty of each day.
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