guest column:Fr Oskar Wermter SJ
IT is extraordinary that a government can interfere in the private lives of its citizens so massively, as it does just now in counteracting the COVID-19 epidemic. People cannot contact their old parents and grandparents. Children cannot go to school.
Their parents cannot control them in their cluttered, crowded flats or houses. Self-employed traders have their little businesses destroyed. Quarantined and isolated individuals almost go out of their minds in their painful loneliness.
In the United States, some psychiatrists are predicting “a tsunami of mental health cases” in the course of this pandemic. Medical experts advise government to take very strict measures in the battle against COVID-19.
The mental and psychological effects this is going to have are hardly taken into account. The resulting economic disaster is tolerated with a shrug of the shoulders as “collateral damage”. “Better die of the virus than of hunger,” starving people breaking the harsh rules seem to think.
The “stay at home” rule suddenly gives us plenty of free time. How best to use it? Some office workers can “work from home”. But most of us do not have this option. Schoolchildren and college students can be taught by computer using the internet and online facilities.
But teachers find such online lessons difficult to teach, and students don’t know how to learn anything in a “virtual classroom”.
Ask people in the Mbare flats how they like the idea. They will stare at you uncomprehendingly. Would children accept the necessary discipline to make such a “school” between sofa and cooking pots work?
Many of us dream of having “plenty of time” to do what they have always wanted to do, but did not manage in crowded timetables. I may have a still serviceable bicycle in the basement, if only I had the time to fix it.
Somebody else has for a long time been wanting to repaint the walls of the staircase, of the kitchen and bedrooms. Now is the time to do it, provided he finds a shop where to buy the paint and brushes, and has a stepladder.
Maybe parents, both working, have long felt that they had not enough time to spend with their children. Now is the great opportunity. Both parents and children are barred from leaving their home.
You do not know why your daughter has so poor marks in maths? Now is the opportune moment: tell her she needs extra lessons in maths. You will sit down with her and go through her recent homework which looks like a feast in red, with the teacher’s red pencil leaving marks all over the pages.
Time is precious. Do not waste it. Unfortunately, using time profitably and responsibly is not part of our traditional culture. “Time management” is an art and a skill. Have we never been taught how to make use of time, treating every moment as a valuable asset, productive and precious?
There are occupations which are just not worth it. There are television programmes which are stultifying rather than educative. Children have been sent to school to learn reading and writing, but now, at the end of it, they do neither.
Could we use this sudden gift we never asked for, the free time coming with this “house arrest”, to revive our “reading culture”?
Are there no books in the house that I always wanted to read, but never had the time to enjoy and share with the family?
My elder sister is now an old lady, but she still loves her garden and spends time there in springtime, planting flowers, and all kinds of vegetables. Can you not go to your little field nearby and be a “viral farmer”?
Maybe you are a student of the Bible. This “book of books”, a library rather than a mere book, takes time to read, to absorb and make your mental and spiritual property.
Have you ever read the Book of Psalms from start to finish? It is a prayer book and gives you words with which to address your Lord and Creator. Select what speaks to you, enlightens, encourages and comforts you.
“The Lord is my shepherd” (Psalm 23) you may want to learn by heart and have ready to recite whenever you “walk through a valley of darkness” to give you light and comfort. “Out of the depths I call to you, Lord; /Lord hear my cry!” (Ps. 130) is just right at this time of misfortune. — The Gospel of St Mark is short and yet rich. We should receive it as a valuable gift with both hands. Now we have the time for “faith in the gospel” (Mk 1:15).
Some of us may want to “kill time” by doing nothing. Time is dear. Do we really want to throw it away?
And yet we knew how to use time well. We used to travel far and wide to meet our sick family members. There are old parents and grandparents who are missing us. “Social distancing” forbids us to go and see them in their homes now, to embrace and hug them.
Our children have smartphones which we regard as useless luxury, for entertainment and play only. Now is the time to use them for charity, for showing compassion and confirming our love for the elderly locked away, who long to see us.
Getting in touch with the lonely and breaking down their isolation by phone at least is a wonderful medicine against their sadness and grief.
It would be a pity if we were to ”kill the time” of our “lockdowns”; may it become a time of consolation and support for those we love.