It’s hard not to move through the world these days feeling like toxins saturate everything. In my scattered mind, I’m actively choosing not to be afraid.
The text came at 10:39 p.m. on Saturday. It’s a girl. She is healthy, eating and pooping as newborns do, and her parents are with her in the hospital, soon heading back to their semi-country home just outside Madison, Wisconsin. As the birth unfolded, the father was the only guest allowed in the room with the mother and medical staff. They didn’t know the child’s gender before she was born, and had taken to referring to her as ‘Larry.’ That’s not what they named her.
Grandparents will have to hold off on holding her for a while. The already sterilized process of handling an infant will be even more calculated and cautious. Yet there she is, a light in the midst of darkness. The father told me that everyone there – the doctors, nurses, staff – were filled with joy for the young family. Little Lady Larry is here, ready to live.
I have a distinct memory from 2nd grade. One day, I was sitting in my assigned seat, likely a bit squirrely and bent over a book for SSR – sustained silent reading. Unthinking, I did something that I often did – I extended my pointer finger and plunged it into my nose. I rifled around for a second, found the gold I was digging for, and then – I’m embarrassed to say – ate whatever was schmeared under my nail. My teacher saw, and made a big scene.
“Eric Immel – that is absolutely disgusting!” she shouted, and the whole class turned on me. To her credit, she didn’t say out loud what I had done, but my classmates probably knew. Eating boogers as an eight-year-old is a hard habit to hide after all.
Rest assured, my friends. I was more careful about picking my nose after that.
I live in community with 60 Jesuits. We range in age from our late 20s to mid-80s. We come from dozens of countries. We’ve had knees replaced and organs transplanted. We have survived political uprisings, viral outbreaks, and shortages of food and water. We have tried to be good Jesuits, men who at our core want to go about doing our best and remaining faithful.
I say ‘we’ not to take personal credit for the incredible lives these words represent, but to remind myself that right now, nothing is about me. It is about ‘we,’ that is, us.
One of our older guys and I have a great rapport, and as we gathered for our final all-community meeting recently, I wanted nothing more than to give him a hug and let him know of my prayers. But, I had to show my love from six feet away, because that’s what we’re called to these days. That’s something that will help.
The gift of a scattered mind is that it reaches to the limits of everything I know and grasps to make sense of it. It’s the only way that a new baby girl, a recollection of old habits, a life in religious community, and a global pandemic can come together and remind me that love is greater than fear. Love is the only thing that brings my mind back to center.
There are people who need my prayers, and I’ll offer them – newborn babies and new parents, folks that are at great risk. There are new ways of living I must engage to keep myself safe. My hands are chapped from frequent washing, and I haven’t picked my nose in almost a week. As much as I want to bear-hug my brothers during the sign of peace at Mass, my love for them has to be shown through a committed distance and stillness.
Painful realities abound right now. The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has limited social visitation for people held in detention, causing even further alienation. Friends who work with nonprofits dedicated to supporting unhoused people can’t get essentials to maintain their services. I’m getting emails from lists I didn’t know I was on – Macy’s department store, the Greater Oshkosh YMCA, the AARP for God’s sake – about how they’re handling the virus and what advice they have. Friends may never teach their graduating students face-to-face again. Weddings have been cancelled. I’m sitting in my room, doubting whether I have shortness of breath or if anxiety is simply raising my heart rate.
Coronavirus affects everything. I’m doing my best to respond. It strikes me, though, that other contagions are in the air – fear, anger, sadness. I don’t want to diminish in any way the reality of this virus and what it can do. I do, however, think we have the cure to other contagions, and I think it’s time to engage them. Life, and love, must go on and win the day.