Improvising in a Pandemic


I was commiserating yesterday with a friend about COVID-19. As improv buddies, we’re well-versed in the language of yes-and—of taking what’s offered on stage, however off-the-wall or even unpalatable it might be, and building on it in a helpful or life-giving way. I noted how hard it is to yes-and when what’s being offered on stage is super vague. A scene partner who says, “Hi there” and then looks at you expectantly is not helping you as much as the person who says, “Hey! I was hoping I’d see you at this high-school reunion.” 

Regarding coronavirus, most people I know are ready and eager to yes-and this, if only we knew the full extent of the “this.” Some of the vagueness around the virus is by design—a president who seems to want to keep numbers artificially low, who says things that aren’t true, who insists that tests are more readily available than they are. But the vagueness also comes from being in the early stages of this situation. We simply can’t know how bad things will get, although other countries are giving us some pretty compelling data points, and the experts aren’t encouraging

As someone whose livelihood depends in large part on face-to-face events with groups of all sizes, I am preparing for the possibility of losing quite a bit of income this year. How much? I have no idea. It’s impossible to know which groups will proceed, reschedule, or cancel outright. I don’t know, because the planners don’t know. Meanwhile, now is the time I normally start booking events for the fall and winter, but groups are understandably focused on other, more pressing matters. Will our family weather this OK? Yes, and it motivates me to do something I’ve wanted to do for a while, which is brainstorm alternate ways to share ideas and build community, like online courses or webinars. (And hey… anyone need a coach?) Many people have greater worries than I do. Still, this is a real thing, with real effects for everyone.

I’m figuring this out as much as anyone, but a couple spiritual nuggets have been helpful:

The serenity prayer. I’m a broken record on this, but that’s only because of how helpful and centering I’ve found it:

God, grant me the serenity 
to accept the things I cannot change, 
the courage to change the things I can, 
and the wisdom to know the difference. 

I can’t control whether the college class our teen wants to take this summer in another city will happen or not. But I can stock some extra spaghetti, rice, and soups, and encourage my kids to wash their hands more often. My husband is on the board of our HOA, and they’re circulating a survey to collect info from people who may need more assistance in this time, and people who can provide it. 

Part of what’s frustrating about the ambiguity in messaging (on the federal level, at least) is that people want to be useful—we just don’t know how. Which is hard. As CJ says in an episode of The West Wing about a potential outbreak of mad cow disease, “In a crisis, people need to feel like soldiers, not victims… Information breeds confidence, silence breeds fear.” If nothing else, a serenity-based approach means we do what can with the info we know and the resources we have, and then we go from there.

Go until no. Years ago, my Ragnar running team was preparing for the 200-mile relay from Cumberland MD to DC. Hurricane Joaquin was starting to move into our area, but it wasn’t clear whether we’d be hit directly. Meanwhile the event was still proceeding as far as the race director was concerned. (Ragnarians are a hardy bunch.) Our team had a lot of conversation about whether to pull the plug, and ultimately decided to “go until no”: not to shut things down prematurely, but to proceed wholeheartedly until it became abundantly clear that we needed to stop, even if that meant bailing mid-race. It turned out to be a soggy mess, but it created amazing memories and bonded our team like nothing else could have. And we completed the entire 200-mile route.

So. I’ve got a writing retreat with some friends in the works for the summer. Will it happen? Who knows. All we can do right now is “go until no”—to proceed with plans until it becomes very clear that they shouldn’t happen. Of course, it’s hard to know when the “no” is clear, and it will differ from person to person. Non-refundable fees, perhaps? We’re keeping two kids home from school today. The other had a test and a project, so we’re letting her go and finish those assignments. Is that the right call? Who knows, it’s #WorldsOkayest around here for sure.

We will get to the other side on this. We have to keep living. We just need to do so thoughtfully, armed with as much good information as we can find, so we can recognize the “no” when we see it.

Be each other’s angels. I recently led church retreat. During the discussion, a woman reminded us of the beautiful David Lamotte tune, written by Chuck Brodsky, “We Are Each Other’s Angels.” (YouTube below)

Like many pastors, I find the term “social distancing” truly chilling. In a culture that’s scared and anxious, the last thing we need is to be isolated. And yet we must practice sensible social distancing. And now is the time to do that, because now is when we can slow the spread of a virus that may not be dangerous to you personally, but it will be for many… and it’s proven itself to be outstanding at spreading exponentially.

So we’re living in some tension here. We need to find a way to keep vulnerable populations safe, while remaining community for one another. A lot of the precautions are personally inconvenient, and for some people, the coming weeks may be economically devastating, to say nothing of the physical harm that may ensue. But we are doing it to be angels for one another.

My friend Joe Clifford, pastor of Myers Park Presbyterian in Charlotte, reminded me this morning that “in the days of the early church, a plague of dysentery racked the Roman empire. When people contracted dysentery, they were put out of their homes and left for dead. In the midst of this, Christians would take in those with dysentery, keep them warm and give them fluids--which is in fact the treatment for dysentery. It turned out to be the greatest evangelism effort of the early church. People thought it was a miracle. It was simply loving care, which is in fact its own miracle.

We need to balance loving care with health and wholeness. We can do this. Soldiers, not victims. Confidence, not fear… for “perfect love casts out fear” (I John 4:18).


Photo is of Jude Law in the 2011 movie Contagion. Apparently this flick is really doing the business on streaming services. No thank you.

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Published on March 12, 2020 04:40
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