One of the things I treasure about being a historian (well, a literary historian) is the frequent reminder that nothing is new under the sun. Recently I’ve been re-reading John Donne’s Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, which I was planning to use as the basis of the final chapel service this term. Donne’s wild and evocative meditations on his own experience of an epidemic fever are a reminder that others have been through ‘this torment of sickness’ before, and will be again. It’s not the truth that this too, shall pass that comforts me (although it will pass), but rather the fact that four hundred years ago Donne tore through nearly every emotion that shakes us in these troubling times. We, too, ‘wrap a hot fever in cold melancholy’, making our illnesses harder to endure by imagining symptoms that have not yet appeared, and may not appear. We too, lay awake when we should rest, unable to get the sleep that calms and heals. We, too, feel the loneliness of illness and self-isolation, which Donne calls ‘an outlawry, an excommunication upon the patient, [that] separates him from all offices, not only of civility but of working charity.’ And we, too, can in the midst of our worries suddenly remember to feel grateful for the what we have, and recall that there are many who will have precious little with which to fight off this disease.
Social media is currently full of advice about how to cope with coronavirus anxiety. Much of it is excellent: restrict your consumption of the news, turn off alerts on your phone, try deep breathing or mindfulness, go outside and stay in touch with friends. But these are unprecedented times, at least for all of us alive now; the last time a pandemic made such a swift global progress was 1918. It’s important, then, to allow ourselves to acknowledge that our fear and anxiety is natural and normal, something that human beings have experienced in the face of epidemics for many centuries. Trying to cope with our anxiety can become another way of trying to control what we cannot control, and, if you’re that sort of person, another way of punishing yourself for not being strong enough. Yes, most people will be okay. Yes, we will get through this. Yes, the economy will recover, and we may emerge stronger and more resilient as a community. But it is also terrifying. And that too is okay.
God of all grace, giver of every good gift, though we go through fire and water, you hold our soul in life, and will not suffer our feet to slip. When we travel on lonely ways, grant us patience as we wait for your lovingkindness, and the courage to reach out to those in need. For you are our God for ever and ever our guide in life and through death to the everlasting mercy of your Son, our Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.