Choice, or Lack Thereof: Lenten Reflections in a Pandemic

You have no idea how important this choice is (from The Stanley Parable)

I started a computer game last night that spoke to the times in an interesting way. No, not The Walking Dead or Plague, Inc.: it’s The Stanley Parable (and it’s free for a limited time as of this writing on Epic). Sure TWD and Plague, Inc. certainly share the paranoia and dread of today, but The Stanley Parable deals with something that has affected us all around the world, and that choice – and the lack thereof. Without giving too much away, TSP is game in which the isolated protagonist office worker Stanley discovers that he has suddenly stopped receiving directions from his boss. The parable that ensues makes you consider whether or not the choices you make are really your own and how much control do you have of the story being told – if there even is a story.

I’ve been very aware of choice over the past week, as have all of us I expect. We are all now much more limited in where we can go and what we can do. Some choices are made for us, like what stores are open, and others are made on our own. Others’ choices impact our own lives as well, from refusing to follow precautions to hoarding paper towels. The idea of choice and the lack thereof has impacted my life most significantly in my work as a hospice chaplain and bereavement counselor.

It seems difficult to imagine that a week ago our hospice was humming away as normal. I was out seeing patients and while the coronavirus was certainly on our collective radar as a company it was still very much an unknown. In the span of a few days many of the facilities we serve have gone on an almost total lockdown, where only essential personnel are allowed in. In this case “essential” means those directly related to medical care – nurses and aides – and not chaplains, volunteers or social workers. All of this happened almost overnight. On Friday the 13th I had three patients I could not see due to facility protocols, but by the following Monday morning that number had grown to nineteen with only four patients I could now see.

This was troubling for several reasons, one being that I knew those patients were not only in many cases not getting the extra help and support of our staff, but also of their own families and friends. Social isolation in the elderly is already quite profound and can lead to depression, loneliness and decreased quality of life overall. Many facilities have programming for their residents to lessen this isolation, everything from visiting yoga instructors and musicians to religious programs from area congregations. Those are now gone and it’s difficult to say when they will start back up. In some cases husbands and wives are separated even in the same senior community. I have a husband who lives in independent living who is not able to see his wife in the dementia care unit. I spoke with a daughter who visited her mother every day express concern that her mother will now forget her now that she can’t visit.

We all need to feel that we have agency and choice in our lives, but at times it becomes very clear that our ability to choose can change rapidly and unexpectedly. Perhaps it’s divine irony (or comedy) that COVID-19 struck at the same time as the Christian season of Lent, where many Christians limit their choices voluntarily as well as choose to do positive things they might not ordinarily do. Lent can help us be aware through self-deprivation of the things that others are deprived of involuntarily. Limiting our choices makes us more aware of the choices we can make, and helps us be more intentional about those choices.

Of course Lent is about more than just self-deprivation though. Limiting our choices actually can make the choices we do make more meaningful or important. It’s quite easy to follow old paths when choices are plentiful and abundant. Limitation forces us to find new paths, perhaps ones we should be going down in the first place.

But limitation and change is often hard, and sometimes quite painful. There’s always the tendency to say “God is doing this to teach you something” and perhaps that’s the case, but knowing why you’re getting the shot doesn’t make it sting less. Sometimes all we can do is witness the pain of others as well as our own. However we do still have choices. Even witnessing the pain is a choice, and an important one.

Perhaps the pandemic will help to re-align our values and make us aware of how our choices affect others for good or bad. It has certainly exposed many of our idols, especially the idol of our economy.

Wherever you are reading this, I wish you peace and safety in the weeks ahead. May you find ways to bring peace to others in a time of uncertainty. See where good is being done and go do likewise. Mourn with those whose choices have been taken away by job loss, illness and even death. May you find ways to be the hands, feet, eyes and ears of God in a world that is hurting.




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