Do You Feel Less Useful?

These days my twenty-eight year old daughter calls me daily, at least once. We are uniquely close, but normally talk by phone just a couple of times per week. Sometimes less. Yet here she is, a single, social-distancing millennial whose world, like that of many, has been upended by COVID-19 economics, and who has discovered the limits of social connection via app. As an introvert, part of her relishes alone time (or time alone with her dog who couldn’t be happier about her at-home status). But we all need connection, especially during crisis. So every day, my phone rings.

Like her, I am serious about social distancing. Because of chronic illness (adrenal insufficiency) that compromises my immunity and puts me at greater risk of contracting viruses or becoming ill, I currently hug my house quite closely. On the surface my life hasn’t changed much due to the pandemic—unlike many lives. Since January, I work from home as an editor, leaving the house just a few times a week. In a sense, stay-at-home has been my norm since 2020 began.

The year 2019 looked entirely different, however. In the latter half of 2019, I worked both as a chaplain (intern) and pastoral care counselor-coach to a few clients. Several times a week my path crossed another’s in a substantive, intimate, helpful way. I had also been a small-business co-owner for ten years with a few employees. All of these roles ended with 2019 as I completed my chaplaincy internship, went out of business, and moved two hours inland. Much in life changed! Not only my shift to an at-home job as an editor. Even more—my psyche’s stand-off with being less obviously useful to others. Often, I feel less useful. Today I saw an announcement from a chaplain organization offering to send volunteers to hospitals needing help with spiritual care, and my heart sank a bit. No matter how much I’d like to, I cannot work as a chaplain during an epidemic. My immune-vulnerabilities make me unhelpful in the role—even a liability if I were to get sick and pass it on to others. Instead, I stay home except for 1-2 essential outings every two weeks.

Today I realized how many people are currently in a stand-off with “less obviously useful to others”—as we are required to leave work and stay home. Here we are, in a culture that defines our worth by our jobs, by what we produce or do for others, by our titles, by what we earn. Often in meeting a new person, Americans ask “What do you do?” because in our culture, jobs define us and measure our worth. And presently, due to the pandemic, many are blocked from doing what makes them feel useful and worthy. Even when not in a pandemic, some among us feel “less obviously useful” each day—whether retired people, the elderly, those with disabilities, or the un- or under-employed.

Yes, some people are finding admirable alternative occupations while heeding social distance: volunteering with Meals on Wheels, adopting a dog so animal-shelter workers can stay home, dropping off TP or groceries for the extra-vulnerable, teaching their kids at home, playing violin out windows for neighbors. These practices buoy us and help us survive. Yet, I know many of us remain uncomfortable with not doing the things we normally do to contribute. Many breadwinners don’t know how they’ll take care of their families without a paycheck. Business owners don’t know when they’ll have jobs for their workers. Teachers are bereft without students. Priests grapple with not serving Eucharist. Many who must radically socially isolate because of old age or immune vulnerabilities feel they have little to offer a world increasingly aching with need—at least little that feels tangible.

On the other hand, COVID-19 has foisted an enormous burden onto professionals such as healthcare workers, grocery clerks, government officials, and so on. After picking up a prescription the other day, I told the pharmacists, “Thanks you guys for being at work.” I don’t know what I would do without pharmacists. I wrote to my brother, an EMT, and expressed gratitude for what he and other healthcare workers do each day—under increasingly hard circumstances. Their efforts are heroic. And many in healthcare do their jobs because their work is central to who they are, to what gives their lives meaning.

Many of us are challenged at this time to expand our conceptions of who we are, of what gives our lives meaning. When things that usually define us are taken away, we are issued a challenge and an opportunity. We’ve seen this in places recovering from natural disasters—when people’s jobs and possessions are stripped away (and with them: titles, accolades, a daily measure of productivity), and they take stock of what defines them, or what is truly worthy. In these situations, people often express gratitude for simply being alive, for family and community, for simple pleasures like nature-love, or for faith or other values.

When our usual measures of worth are stripped away, who are we? What is our essence? Where does worth come from? I refuse to offer inevitably insufficient answers here, or to tell you how I answer the questions for myself. Instead, I encourage you to wrestle with your own answers.

I’m keeping my eyes peeled for how to express help and care from my own home in this time, despite isolation and immune vulnerabilities—maybe composing letters to people who need them, calling and checking in with friends more frequently (especially those most vulnerable), writing, taking good care of my partner as he is also vulnerable. But to be honest, nothing I’m doing feels like “enough” at a time like this. Probably because none of us can do enough; we can only do our small part in larger efforts that—if we are collectively diligent—make bold impacts and save lives. And whether or not we are enough is an ego-centric question when it comes down to it. We are only enough together, and only with the empowerment of spiritual and societal forces beyond our control.

Instead of either distracting myself or trying to fill time with deeds that makes me feel quote-unquote worthy, I hope to wrestle with what is actually meaningful to me and how to answer the question who am I? instead of what do I do? When we know who we are, we tend to know what actions to take in given situations; our actions being a natural expression of our identity.

In the meantime, I will keep answering the phone when my daughter calls.

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