It’s interesting the things people do during a quarantine. There is a race known as the Cannonball Run, which consists of seeing how fast one drives across the United States. Last week, a team of drivers in an Audi A8 sedan left New York City and arrived in Redondo Beach, California 26 hours and 38 minutes later, averaging 106 miles an hour, a new record for the Cannonball Run. They attributed their victory to an extra gas tank installed in their trunk, necessitating fewer stops for gas, and reduced traffic on the interstates. The same day I read about that, I learned that scientists are reporting a reduction in ambient seismic noise. For the first time in remembered history, the earth is now quieter, not louder. Fewer trucks, fewer buses, fewer planes, trains, and automobiles. This is also causing declining movement in the earth’s crust. The world, it seems, is well on its way to becoming a Quaker meeting.
Around this time of year, Joan and I start sleeping with our windows open, so are usually awakened by cars passing by our house. Now we are awakened by bird song. I told Joan it felt like there are more birds than ever before, which isn’t the case. We’re just able to hear them now. Our granddaughter Madeline has been spending her days with us. When she’s at our house, it sounds like we have a lot of grandchildren, but we don’t. We’re just able to hear our one granddaughter better.
Our granddaughter is infinitely precious to us, but when she leaves each evening to be with her parents, we collapse on the couch in relief, enjoying the quiet. I’m aware, of course, that some of us are experiencing too much quiet. What is restful to some of us is discouraging to others of us.
In 1829, Quakers designed and administered the first Supermax prison in the United States, the Eastern State Penitentiary in Pennsylvania. The prison consisted of tiny cells, each containing a Bible. Each inmate was isolated from human contact. The Quakers believed the quiet meditation on one’s misdeeds would help rehabilitate the inmates. Other prisons adopted the model and solitary confinement spread to other states. The Quakers eventually discovered the silence and meditation they cherished had a disastrous effect on others. The social isolation led to an increase in mental duress, which in turn created a more harsh and violent environment. What was restful to some was discouraging to others.
I’ve experienced both elation and depression these past several weeks. I’ve caught up on things I’ve left undone and getting them done is very satisfying. But I miss terribly the daily routines that carried me out in the world, that brightened my day, that gave meaning and shape to my life. A recent article in Psychology Today said social isolation poses a more significant threat to our physical well-being than alcoholism and obesity. That same article suggested we ditch the term social isolation for geographical distancing.
I like the sound and feel of that. Socially isolating ourselves from one another feels depressing and lonely. Geographical distancing feels prudent and helpful. When you read stories in the Bible about Jesus slipping away to pray in some quiet place, he wasn’t socially isolating himself. He wasn’t cutting himself off from human relationships and community. He was geographically distancing himself so he, and those he loved, could remain healthy and well. You see how that works? Sometimes it’s all a matter of how we look at things.
I know some of us feel socially isolated. Especially if we live by ourselves, or if people near and dear to us have died. I’m not in that boat, my wife and granddaughter are here with me most days, so I’m in no position to offer advice. Except maybe to suggest that instead of feeling all alone, you can remember that you have a church of people who love you. Right now, we’re geographically distant from one another, but we’re not isolated. We might be living by ourselves, but we’re not alone.
I’m coming to appreciate the 23rd Psalm in a new way. That part about God leading us beside still waters, as if to remind us that stillness carries within it the power to heal. The Hebrew word used here for “still” translates as “a quiet place to rest.” We learned this week that one of our own, Dawn Sheets, has been diagnosed with COVID-19. She is being tended to, she is, metaphorically and literally, in a quiet place to rest. As are so many of us these days.
Others are experiencing turbulence, and yearn for those still waters—our health care workers, our grocery store workers, our delivery drivers, our factory workers manufacturing essential goods. All of us know them. Some of them are in our very meeting. May those of us who find ourselves beside still waters offer our prayer and support to those experiencing turbulence. One day, soon I hope, our walk through this valley of the shadow of death will end, and goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our lives.