Last spring, when the pandemic hit, I felt the ground shift under my feet. All at once, what I thought was solid footing slipped and shifted. My assumptions were shattered. I assumed nothing would close the church doors. Then for everyone’s safety, we moved worship online. I assumed children had to go to school. All at once, schools closed. I thought seeing family and friends was part of the bedrock of our lives. Then seeing those we love in person became impossible. We were not standing on solid ground. It was shifting sand all along.
I know many of you have faced even harder displacement. You’ve lost loved ones to illness. You couldn’t be with your family members in nursing homes when they needed you. You’ve lost jobs or you’re worried that job loss is coming. You’re trying to do your job remotely when all your training is to do it in person. You’re caring for young children or elderly family members at home. In addition, we’re all living through the heightened anxiety of the presidential election, and the ongoing crises of racism and environmental destruction. None of us know exactly when these hard times are going to end.
When we are going through hard times, I find it helpful to think about what we can control and what we can’t. Our first, panicked reaction to a crisis is to want to control everything, to play out every possible scenario, to make every contingency plan. But in reality we can only control a few things. Figuring out what they are, and what we need to leave to providence, can help rein in our anxiety and focus our response.
So I ask myself, what can I control during the pandemic? I can control the risks I choose to take, choosing to see friends outside and not gather in crowded spaces. I can control how we offer programs at church, making sure that our activities promote connection and safety. I can get out for walks and exercise. I can cherish my family and get enough sleep. I can return to my spiritual practices, which matter now more than ever. These are things I can control.
Yet there is so much I can’t control. I can’t control the government response to the pandemic. I can’t make more stimulus money appear, or save jobs, or give every worker the option of working from home. I can’t make online school be as effective as in-person school, or ensure in-person school is safe. I can’t personally rewrite the laws for policing, or put out wildfires, or foil the genetic drive of the coronavirus. I can’t control my own body’s immune response. If I get sick (and eventually I will get sick with something), I can’t control the course the disease will take in my body. I can’t avoid my own human mortality.
In the face of so much we can’t control, we have to find trust. We are not all-powerful. We always need other people, and other people need us. We are called to trust in people and powers beyond ourselves. I trust my family, and I trust the community of First Unitarian Church. I trust other people in Massachusetts and beyond to wear masks and reduce the spread of coronavirus. I trust at least some of our political leaders to work for the common good of the people. I trust in the spirit of God, whose love never goes away from us, who always calls us toward our best selves.
Trying to control what we cannot control leads to anxiety and harm. If I need control of other people—let alone biological and geo-political forces—I am doomed to anxiety and failure. I try only to control what is mine to control, and trust others to do what is theirs. And to help the engine of trust build up steam and power, I can try to be a trustworthy person in turn. From the little things—like following through on the task we said we’d accomplish—to the big things—like turning out to vote and working for the greater good—when we are trustworthy, we create a more trustworthy world.
We control what we can, but all of us need trust in others. In the words of the Serenity Prayer, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” In that wisdom may we find and become trustworthy people.