Several years ago, I struggled with chronic stomach pain. My gastrointestinal specialist prescribed a medication and told me I would be on it for the rest of my life or else I would likely develop esophageal cancer. When I told my family doctor about this new medication, the doctor gave me a grave look and said, “If you’re on that medication too long, you’re bound to get osteoporosis.”
I was stuck between two undesirable outcomes. No matter what I chose to do, my chances of developing a serious health condition increased. It left me feeling discouraged and hopeless that I would ever get better. Thankfully, I did get better, though I still take the medication prescribed by the GI specialist. I couldn’t stay in the waiting space — eventually I had to choose whether or not to continue this medication. What helped me choose was: 1) Looking for what would offer me relief in the present, 2) Offsetting the risk by taking calcium supplements and exercising, and 3) Realizing I couldn’t predict the future.
I think about this story in these days of coronavirus, especially as I consider whether or not to travel in order to visit my parents or my in-laws. Once again, I’m stuck between two undesirable outcomes. If we take the “safe” route and refuse to travel out of state to visit family until there is a vaccine, it could be a year or more before my child sees his grandparents other than through a screen. My husband and I have a growing awareness that our parents are aging and we don’t have “forever” to spend time with them. Waiting a year feels too long… and what if they die within that year? The pull toward family is strong.
But we are also aware that our parents have more risk factors that put them at risk for COVID-19 complications. And the last thing we want to do is accidentally infect them. If we took the risk to see them and they died because of our visit, that would be unbearable. The issue is made starker because we live so far away from our families. It would take several days driving by car or several hours flying to reach our parents, which increases our risk of exposure and infection.
So, whatever decision we make, we risk our parents dying — and either we get to see them in person before they die or we don’t. The weight of that possible outcome feels heavy. I’m stuck between “Seize the day, because you don’t know how long you have!” and “Wait and see. Be safe, not just for your sake but for the sake of the people you love as well as for the community at large.” Both are appealing statements for different reasons, and both have risks and associated consequences, like the ones I named above.
I suspect I’m not the only one struggling with how to move around this new landscape caused by COVID-19. Most decisions feel weighty, especially when those decisions push us out of the safety of quarantining in our homes. How do we decide? For we must decide. I’d rather make the decision to stay close to home than to have that decision made for me due to fearful inaction.
I go back to my health dilemma all those years ago. I’m helped to remember that once again, I cannot predict the future. Whatever decision my family makes, we may end up happy with the choice or devastated. I have to surrender my desire for a crystal ball and instead focus on the present. The city I’m in still has a high infection rate. This present reality moves me to choose to stay home rather than travel.
The question, then, is how do we offset the risk associated with this decision not to visit family? I’m grateful for video conferencing tools that allow us to see our parents while we talk to them — which we do almost daily. I suspect we are more diligent at maintaining communication with our parents in these pandemic days because we are not able to see them in person.
The pull toward family is still strong. And our present reality may change tomorrow (the infection rate could drastically drop or one of our parents could get sick). My decision tomorrow may be different than today. What I refuse to do is wallow in the future, fearful of the outcome of whatever decision I make. Maybe this is why Presbyterians emphasize so strongly the providence of God: perhaps it can make us less fretful about the future, because we are not trying to control the future, but allowing God to have authority over it.
RACHEL YOUNG is the associate pastor of spiritual formation at Clear Lake Presbyterian Church, in Houston, Texas. She is married to Josh, who also serves on staff at Clear Lake Presbyterian as the director of contemporary worship and media.