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When Striving Ceases

On Sunday, October 3, Maryellen was experiencing flu-like symptoms, and tested positive for Covid. The following Tuesday, I tested positive for Covid but remained symptom-free until the end of the week, by which time Maryellen’s symptoms had abated. Then, my physical condition began deteriorating. Five days later, we made the trip to the ER. I was admitted into the hospital with Covid pneumonia, Covid-induced cardiac arrhythmia, low blood oxygen levels, and significant dehydration. For the next eight days, my life was in hospital isolation; Maryellen was at home alone.

 

The absolutely overwhelming outpourings of affection, care, and prayer from innumerable friends and acquaintances (hundreds of texts and emails, groups organizing times of prayer, individuals coming to simply sit with Maryellen) were a profound and sustaining blessing. So many will never know how great and deep the gift they gave us.

 

There are things one learns in decades of journeying towards Christ, and one of them is the power of shared joy. Shared joy is a high value in the Ambleside community. As I was wheeled into my hospital room and helped into bed; opaque mind, beset by fog; a simple thought or a simple prayer formed: “Let me share joy with whoever walks through that door.” Over the next eight days, weak but with bright eyes; “What is your name?” “That’s a lovely name.” “You are so kind to help me.” “You do such good and careful work.” “Thank you for caring for me, I really appreciate it.” “So nice to see you again.” In response, bright eyes shone through hazmat face guards, and the rough outlines of smiles showed from behind surgical masks. Though my mind was often listless, an air of joy pervaded the room.

 

Something else surprising, strange, wonderful, completely unexpected, and by sheer grace occurred – an absolute and complete cessation of striving. By “striving,” I mean the universal human experience of being driven to control outcomes in a vain attempt to protect a wounded heart from further wounding. How often a deep, unperceived fear drives us. Running below awareness and faster than consciousness, the heart says, “I will not feel something like that again.” “I will not have the rejection, the aloneness, the disappointment, the sadness, the sense of futility, the feeling of powerlessness.” And to distract the heart, our mind writes a good story of righteous ends to be justifiably pursued, and we throw ourselves after these ends, telling ourselves we are well, doing better or will be doing better soon. But all is motivated by a striving, scared, wounded heart. And it is so hard to see.

 

Perhaps it was that, under the influence of the Covid virus, my body was not capable of striving. Striving is a physiological event and requires certain physiological processes to be in play. Perhaps it was the overwhelming nature of the situation. Weakness so great, there was no illusion of controlling outcomes. I could only be and seek to bless, bring joy where I might. And perhaps it was supernatural grace. Likely all three.

 

We do not know what we do not know, and we cannot imagine what we cannot imagine. The absolute cessation of striving made for me what was a theoretical, theological possibility (even mandate) into a palpable experience. Deep in my bones, I now know what it is to strive and what it is to not strive. Life is so much better when not striving – more delightful, more fruitful, with deeper sleeps, many more smiles, and a far freer, richer connectedness with others.

 

Day by day, as strength increases and I gradually move back to “normal,” the old habits of striving suggest themselves. Yet, I am also getting better at recognizing striving’s initial stir. I name “striving” as that which ought not be. I pause and seek the bright, heavenly face whose loving gaze can quiet every heart.

 

This is my Covid blessing.