Lately, I have been remembering a sermon my friend Mike preached nearly 40 years ago. Mike had recently experienced an acute health event — a heart attack. He had come through it well, had healed and was determined to use the moment of his brush with mortality to its maximum effect: he vowed to enjoy every day, every moment, to its fullest — to not let a day pass unnoticed, unappreciated.
Yet much to his astonishment, just a few weeks along, the feeling was already beginning to fade. Old complaints and grumpiness were returning. No matter how much he reminded himself that his very life had been snatched from the precipice of death, he seemed, day by day, to be slipping back into old ways, old habits. He couldn’t stop himself, and he was saddened anew as he proved incapable of holding onto his awakened state.
Perhaps that sermon has returned to me now for a good reason. As we emerge from our months of life-with-the-pandemic, when ordinary life has been turned on its head, I have wondered: What will we carry with us from this time? Many of us, I imagine, long for the most ordinary of things we have missed — a hug from a grandparent, a casual handshake of meeting and greeting, a mug of coffee handed by a waiter and shared across a dinner table. These quotidian moments are the stuff of life, and not being able to have them during the pandemic has left gaping holes in our sense of what is “normal,” and stolen a real sense of enjoyment of life. If we are fortunate, we will remember to not take these moments — or the people that help make them happen — quite so for granted when routines begin to return.
But there are also larger, deeper questions prompted by this pandemic time when the specter of death has drawn near to us all. The Rev. Dr. Forrest Church wrote, “Death is central to my definition of religion: Religion is our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die.”
As humans, we carry with us this consciousness every day — alive, and also someday, some way, dying. We can duck and dodge, deny and decry, but that doesn’t change the truth. Rev. Church continues: “Knowing that we must die, we question what life means. The answers we arrive at may not be religious answers, but the questions death forces us to ask are, at heart, religious questions: Where did I come from? Who am I? Where am I going? What is life’s purpose? What does all this mean?”
It seems to me that an important legacy of life-with-the-pandemic is that these questions are made both less abstract and more urgent. True, as we have been focused on simply putting one foot in front of the other, getting through the days of changed, well, everything, there was little space to engage the Big Questions of Life. Elders needed care. Children needed support. Neighbors and strangers needed a helping hand, or were fortunate to be able to offer one. But now? It’s time to hear the call of the pandemic to our very hearts and souls.
Like Mike after his heart attack, we, too, have the opportunity to embrace life anew, brushed as we have been with the reality of mortality so very close to hand. Will we be as determined and reflective as he — and try our best to hold fast to our awakened state? And yes, it will be good to return to routines, to hug and touch and share our days. But may we also choose to live the questions gifted to us merely by our being alive, on this glorious planet, in these most amazing days.
As the poet Mary Oliver writes, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
The Rev. Alison Cornish is a Unitarian Universalist minister living in Shelburne Falls. She recently served as the Leave Minister for First Parish of Northfield, Unitarian.