Brave New World

I had to dig out my purse and wallet this morning. I haven’t needed them lately.

With the exception of going to my in-laws’ house for a couple gatherings and a close friend’s house for dinner, I have not ventured out in public since Monday, March 31 when Jordan drove me home from Wesley Woodlawn Hospital after my 12-day stay in ICU. As I stared out the window that still-crisp day four months ago, stunned by the view from the central mini-highway that shoots east to west through the heart of Wichita, my jaw dropped. The trees, releasing beautiful new reminders of Spring, were the only typical sight from the car window. Other than the welcoming signs of spring on the heels of my near-death experience, everything else seemed eerily silent and still. Parking lots looked like abandoned slabs of concrete. The buildings seemed to offer a hollow echo with the emptiness apparent from afar. Quarantine was in full-swing, and my recovery from Sepsis and lung collapse was met with something that felt a little bit like the death of society.

The governor cautiously and gradually lifted the stay-at-home order a couple months into the quarantine for the sake of the economy, emotional health of the community, and because shutting down the world even for the safety of the people has massive consequences. The society was flat-lining in the economic realm, emotional realm, social realm, mental realm, and medical realm while the ICU was filled with intubate COVID-19 patients flat-lining from humanity’s current deadliest threat. With both realities held up in juxtaposition to one another, in our flesh, society has embraced the insanity of polarities, villainization of opposing viewpoints, and the most hostile environment our current generation has ever faced.

Many individuals have ventured out, and though in this season, masks are required in public settings, with the stay-at-home order lifted, I sit in my living room and watch cars back out of driveways and go to work, shopping, or on various outings. I have seen pictures of filled up restaurants, heard stories of the brave new world of community in the midst of covid, but I have yet to experience it for myself……

Until this morning. As I rummaged through my purse, still heavy with random items brought home from my stay in ICU, I laid hands on my wallet for the first time in four months. I grabbed a mask, a bit excited to have the opportunity to wear it. I pictured myself standing outside the barbed-wired, electric fence of a prison, as the door heavily slammed shut behind me: A long-term prisoner now released to the real world, unsure of my next steps.

Don’t get excited. I was actually riding to a medical imaging appointment at the very hospital where I had spent 12 days fighting for my life. I had agreed, reluctantly, after cancelling and rescheduling, to some testing that my doctor strongly encouraged during our most recent telemed appointment. And so, as Jordan pulled into the parking lot of this building that housed the tiny ICU room that I grew so accustomed to in late March, the one that was separated from the less acute areas of the hospital by mechanical, locked doors to protect the incredibly medically fragile, I shuddered.

With the reality of no visitors allowed, my beloved dropped me off at the door with a worried look and a warning: “Don’t touch anything. Also, don’t lick anything.” I promised to obey one of those commands. Now would be a great time to acquire telekinesis.

I stuck my tongue out at him from underneath my mask and approached the door. It was this point at which I realized that I now probably possess the symptoms of the compulsive side of OCD. Over half of the world may, in fact, be displaying these symptoms at this point in history.

“Oh crap. How do I open this door without touching the doorknob?”
“Okay. Here’s hand sanitizer. I’m just gonna to scrub up to my armpits for good measure.”
“The guy taking my temperature in the entrance way is learning a bit to close to me for me to feel safe.”
“Oh wait. I have to touch this ipad screen to register? Are we sure it has been wiped down?”
“Chairs….hmmmm…..i don’t know for certain that these have been appropriately sanitized.”
“Where do I place my purse without contaminating it?”
All of these frantic questions darted through my head within the first minute of entering the hospital waiting room.

This whole going out this is much more complicated than it used to be. It appears that I cannot actually entirely avoid risk even in hopefully sterile medical settings. It also appears that I’m not missing much by staying at home.

While I do struggle with anxiety and OCD, I have never battled with phobias around germs and contamination. Now it seems that the type of lifestyle that was once typical only for those with extreme phobias in the norm for anyone who desires to stay healthy in this world that seems to be closing in with threats on all sides. I sighed a massive breath of relief when we made it back home.

I was required to schedule another in-person medical appointment next week, and I am struggling not to enter into the space of worry and fear as I consider the process of going back into a public space in about ten days.

Did we ever anticipate the world that we face during this crazy year of 2020? We are baffled, timid, and conflicted. As I converse with others about our internal world in light of the external threats, I continue to hear that many stable and confident people are feeling helpless, like there are no “good” decisions. Many are sharing that they feel like they are having to choose between bad and worse, not between good and bad. Many are confused as false information is circulating along side true information, and no one knows how to discern the difference.

And here I am, on July 22, 2020, reeling in the aftermath of tasting the massively altered world that exists outside the confines of my home.

I know that not everyone feels this way when they leave the house. Some feel unshaken, unthreatened by COVID-19. Others feel even more terrified, even if they are not medically compromised. Still others are holding parties, trying to “catch COVID.”

But I do know this: Stepping into the hospital this morning, the one where my life was saved, I witnessed many individuals who are choosing to go into the hotspots, to work to care for others despite the personal cost, and stand up in resilience day after day, even as they witness the results of COVID-19 at its worst. They came in with brilliant smiles peeking out from under their masks, making kind conversation, and offering encouragement and empathy. Without these people, many would be dying alone, not getting the care they need in the midst of this pandemic, and lost in the ocean of illness and suffering. I’m thankful for these people, for my doctor, who has an autoimmune illness of her own and chooses to continue to march in on the front lines and care for patients, including me. I watched home health nurses going in and out of a neighbor’s house this week, as they cared around the clock for a young man on hospice as he breathed his last breaths.

The world may look incredibly different than it has ever before. It may feel terrifying and foreign. We may feel like the threats are closing in on all sides of us, but as I ask God for eyes to see, I still see the helpers. I still see those who are continuing to care for others despite the “monsters” out there. I still see those who face fears that they never envisioned having to face because their calling does not go on vacation in crisis. And so I thank my God for these brave warriors. And I will intercede on their behalf as they face greater danger than ever before.

Also, I’m going to stay in as much as possible and seek God’s calling on my life in this season of life behind closed doors as long as my doctor recommends that I remain quarantined. But if I must go into public (for medical reasons), I will take lots of deep breaths from under my mask and offer continuous breath prayers to the Lord of peace. He’s still bigger than this threatening world and remains sovereign over it all, even when that statement itself feels like it does not make sense.

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Pastor Al Gilbert

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