Settling into the Strangeness: Pandemic Life as Exile

Parenting in Covid and Shots of Budweiser

Sam Bush / 9.14.20

Everyone is born a king, and most people die in exile.

– Oscar Wilde

With each passing season, the pandemic somehow feels fresh and new as it claims yet another area of life that had been previously untouched. This year’s Easter, lacking its usual fanfare, somberly came and went. Months later, a gloomy Fourth of July quietly followed suit. Now, with nary a yellow school bus to be found, the fall has had its first taste of COVID-19. With it comes a new stage of grief, albeit a much less dramatic version, now that many of us seem to have adjusted to a new way of living — Instagram posts of children wearing masks on their front stoops with signs that say “First Day of Preschool” are strangely cheering — but I’d be lying to say this season feels anything like victory. We’ve all been holding our collective breath for seven months now and, with college students being sent home and classes turning virtual by the day, it feels like we might not get a chance to exhale anytime soon.

Jessica Grose’s New York Times article, “The Pandemic Is a ‘Mental Health Crisis’ for Parents,” feels a bit late in the game to call breaking news (“Parents are struggling right now? You don’t say …”) but with it comes some staggering research about parents of young children since quarantine began. Before COVID, anxiety and depression affected between 10 and 25 percent of women during pregnancy and in the year after childbirth, but one recent study reported the rates of depression increased to 40 percent and rates of anxiety rose to 72 percent, nearly three times higher than its pre-pandemic level. Again, this comes as no surprise, as financial stress and lack of social interaction have been wreaking havoc on millions since March, but it’s worth mentioning in order to take our current situation seriously lest we forget that “the new normal” is anything but normal.

What’s more interesting is how Grose suggests parents adapt. “What kind of self-care is realistic for you now, not six months ago?” she writes. “The old coping mechanisms you had may not be available any time soon, so if you can even take a tiny break for yourself every day, that’s better than nothing.” She then suggests a five-minute yoga video on YouTube or a five-minute text exchange with an old friend. If a 50-minute video session with a therapist isn’t realistic, how about a therapy app which allows you to message a therapist?

I’m sorry, but a five-minute yoga video seems about as satisfying as a shot of Budweiser. Yes, a few minutes of solace is as much as some parents are going to get, and it’s best to be realistic, but — oof — can’t we just dream of the days of yore instead?

The idea of surrendering to the new normal is not unlike a version of exile. In exile, you may settle into a new routine, but you don’t feel totally comfortable. You can’t relax. You may adjust to a way of life but your heart is still homesick. Alexis de Tocqueville once wrote about how exile immobilizes the minds of those who suffer it, saying, “It imprisons them forever within the circle of ideas which they had conceived or which were current when their exile began.” So it goes for many of us longing for the days when we could see the bottom half of each other’s faces. We’d rather go in circles than move forward.

The Bible notably speaks of Christians living in a constant state of exile. The cloud of witnesses who have gone before us were still “living by faith when they died.” Abraham and Sarah were called to a Promised Land but lived nomadically in a land that was never fully their own. They were promised innumerable offspring, but they had just one son together. Yet there was little they could do but hope and trust that God would be faithful down the line. Hebrews says,

They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. (11:13-14)

Being in exile is often our most real situation as people. According to the Bible, we are all strangers in a strange land. You might not always feel like you’re in actual exile, but the feeling of exile can take on various forms. It can happen when you are quite at home. It can happen when you return to your childhood hometown only to realize that both of you have changed. It can happen when you lose a loved one. Oftentimes, the past makes the present feel like exile.

And yet, throughout our exile we receive little glimpses of home. In the same article, Grose shares a study showing how parents who care for children under the age of five were finding their little ones to be a source of comfort: “Despite everything going on in the world, I can personally attest to the blissed-out feelings you can get from an unexpected midday snuggle with your sweet preschooler, who isn’t really thinking about anything except kittens and fighting with her sister right now.” Even if it’s just for a few minutes at a time, everything feels OK somehow.

In the book of Jeremiah, God encourages His people — literally exiled in Babylon — to settle into the strangeness:

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare (29:4-7).

Halloween, Thanksgiving, and even Christmas very well may fall in line with everything else tainted by the pandemic, giving us a further feeling of exile. Even still, there is hope. For the God who sends you into exile is the God who is with you in exile. His love, found in the most unexpected of places, guides us along. One day we will see that He has prepared a city for our ultimate homecoming. In the meantime, He welcomes us to settle into the strangeness.