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The Gift of Disruption

How to learn resiliency and new ways of living from the pandemic’s ‘refining fire’.

These days, when I call someone, the first thing I ask is, “How is your COVID life?”

For many of us, COVID-19 has brought dramatic disruption. At first this was a novelty, like snow days as a kid. It was exciting to think about regular life being cancelled. The idea of a slower pace and less obligations was appealing. But gradually the sober reality and permanence of the situation has sunk in. Without my itinerant travel and teaching schedule, for example, about 80 percent of our organization’s funding is gone. Part of my happiness comes from anticipating and planning for exciting opportunities in the future. But right now, there doesn’t seem to be any future, or at least not a future that I can predict or control. Every day feels the same. Wake up. Read the news. Work. Go for a walk. Make dinner and decide what to watch on television before heading to bed.

As habitual creatures, we like our lives to be stable and predictable. But being comfortable is rarely good for our souls. Stability and affluence can make us complacent and self-absorbed. It’s instructive to remember that the people of Israel were at their best when they were wandering in the wilderness or displaced in exile, and they were at their worst when they were comfortably settled in their own land. COVID-19 might be the wakeup call we need to snap us out of our complacency. This global pause gives us a chance to reorient and refocus our lives on what is essential. Maybe we can use this disruption to deepen our connection with the Creator, attend to our souls and emotional well-being and seek healing in our relationships instead of obsessing with what we do, earn or achieve.

I like to think of myself as someone who has opted out of the rat race; in 2013, I even wrote a book about simplicity with my wife Lisa called Free: Spending Your Time and Money on What Matters Most! But in 2019, I travelled and worked on five continents and was on the road for 144 days. My life was an embarrassment of good opportunities and rich experiences, and I kept imagining more good work to do. I was living busy but not deeply.

Surprising behavior

COVID brought all of that to a screeching halt. Consequently, most of us have experienced waves of emotions over the past eight months. Let me name a few of the most common: grief, anxiety, depression, boredom, anger, denial. Some of us have lost loved ones or have been painfully separated from aging parents or family members. Many of us are facing difficult financial setbacks. Parents and families are struggling with how to juggle work and virtual learning. A lot of us feel isolated and lonely. And the pandemic only seems to be exacerbating the polarizations among us.

Overall, I don’t think we are fully aware of the level of stress we are under right now. Some of my own behavior has surprised me. One afternoon, when infection rates in our region hit a new peak, I went for a walk with my wife and daughter, who is immune compromised. We were wearing masks and keeping social distance to protect our neighbors. As we hit a narrow patch of sidewalk, we saw three young men without masks jogging towards us. Surely they will move to the street, I thought. Instead they pushed right past us.

First I spoke calmly. “Hey, please keep social distance.”

“Yeah, whatever,” one them said dismissively.

I turned red with anger and ran towards them yelling, “I don’t think you understand how you are endangering yourselves and others.”

They just kept running, and I swore out loud. At them.

Somehow that small interaction transformed me: I don’t usually yell and cuss at strangers. I was embarrassed by my poor behavior.

Similar eruptions have happened with my family, friends and coworkers. I made an offhand joke that offended a colleague. A friend was uncharacteristically short-tempered with me. We’ve had to spend time acknowledging our missteps and making repairs. It’s easy to beat ourselves up about how poorly we are coping. But this is a time to be gentle with yourself and give extra grace to the people you live with and love.

Refiner’s fire

The disruption of COVID also provides us with the space to look at what’s broken in our society. We have a financial system that depends on constant economic growth. It’s not an accident that the murder of George Floyd in May ignited widespread social unrest and greater awareness of racial inequality in the U.S. The spirit of God and our Black sisters and brothers are urging us to use this pause to truly lament structural and systemic inequality and work to reform our public and private institutions. We are being forced to imagine an economy and lifestyles that are more financially and ecologically sustainable. I believe the Creator is using this time to reawaken our hunger and resolve to see God’s kingdom dreams realized on earth as in heaven.

Since COVID started, I’ve been calling friends in East Africa, Bangladesh and El Salvador. I’m humbled by their resiliency. Closer to home, my wife and I have been participating in a Black-led online faith community. Every week during prayer time someone shares hard news: a six-year-old neighbor boy who was shot and killed; a nephew who died of a fentanyl overdose. As a privileged white person who has mostly participated in white church spaces, much of my faith journey has been individualistic and abstract. I have a lot to learn from sisters and brothers who have discovered how to find hope in the midst of life’s challenges. The true measure of our faith and character may be seen in how we respond to difficulties.

On a good day

I want to leave you with a few suggestions for coping with the disruption of COVID-19. I don’t always practice these things, but on a good day I do, and it makes a big difference.

On a good day, I limit my news consumption. I try to avoid using language that labels, stereotypes and divides.
On a good day, I nurture my body with healthy food and some physical activity to release stress.
On a good day, I connect with people I love and reach out to family or friends I’ve lost touch with. At our house, we try to sit down together for 30 minutes at the end of the day just to be together – to laugh, cry or listen to music.
On a good day I focus on small, achievable tasks that help me navigate the uncertainties of the future.
On a good day, I spend some time with God. I journal or go for a short meditative walk in the morning.

I invite you to discover God’s presence and care right now, even when many things in our lives don’t make sense. I love that Psalm 73 also speaks of this: “When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered . . . you hold me by my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory. . . My flesh and heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”

  • Mark is the cofounder of Reimagine, a center for integral Christian practice, and the author most recently of Belonging and Becoming, Free, and Practicing the Way of Jesus. He teaches at Fuller Seminary and lives with his family in San Francisco.

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