This Season of Ashes (A Reflection on COVID-19)

This year, instead of doing Lent, Lent is doing me.

In my faith tradition, Lent is the spiritual season observed in the days leading up to Easter, during which the faithful commit to fasting and giving up certain luxuries. These sacrifices are meant to replicate Jesus’s 40-day withdrawal into the wilderness, where he sacrificed his appetites, his security, and his power, in order to claim freedom from such attachments.

For many years, I’ve been very intentional about my Lenten sacrifices. This year, however, there was just too much going on to give much thought to the season. I had several speaking events on the calendar, a book to finish, a business going through growing pains, and a family with a busier social calendar than the Kardashians. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, with the placing of ashes on the forehead, often while reciting the dictum, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This year, I had no time for ashes, thank you very much.

Then, COVID-19.

This viral wilderness into which we’ve wandered has taken away my speaking events and my favorite places to gather with some of my favorite people. It has taken away my kids’ schooling and socializing and, thus, it has taken away my solitude. It has taken away whatever illusory sense of safety and control I had left. And COVID-19 has taken away my words. As a father and therapist and author and speaker, words are the tools of my trade. However, for the last week, I’ve been contemplating what to write about in this blog post, and…nothing.

I don’t know what to say.

I could tell you about my daughter and her friends who have been sewing masks for local healthcare workers, but that feels like turning a small act of support into performance art. I could write about the possibility of a more united humanity on the other side of this global crisis, but that kind of shiny optimism sounds pretty tone deaf, as the death count doubles every two days in my country. I could write about the back spasms I’ve been having for the last three days, which make it difficult to sleep, let alone sit upright and write a blog post; yet I’m not alone on a ventilator, possibly saying goodbye to this world, with no one there to wave farewell in return. So…

I don’t know what to say.

Several days into this wordless season, it occurred to me that, although COVID-19 had taken away my words, it had given me back something else. It’s given me back this season of ashes. Lent isn’t ultimately about self-denial or self-punishment or self-diminishment. Lent is about getting back to basics. The question Lent always asks of us is this: What attachments must you relinquish in order to get back to the basics of being human, which are loving well and suffering well, sometimes in the same instant?

We human beings get attached to so many wonderful and silly and complicated things, and we populate our lives with them. In this crowd of our attachments, we lose sight of the basics. For instance, I love words and words are wonderful things, but sometimes my life gets so crowded with them—helpful answers to hard questions, book chapters, keynote speeches, healing and mentoring and parenting—that I can lose sight of the basics. This viral Lent has thinned out my crowd of words, and I’m beginning to catch a glimpse of the basics once again. In the spirit of my Lenten season, I won’t tell you about all of the things I’ve seen.

Just one…

All five of us were sitting at the dinner table for the tenth night in a row. I can’t recall the last time we ate ten dinners together in a month, let alone in a row. Our conversation was less crowded than usual, too. Having no day-to-day activities to catch up on, no playground altercations to debrief, no car pools to coordinate, no homework to do, no vacations to plan, we were talking about things we’ve never discussed before, including our kids’ favorite blankets and teddy bears as toddlers.

We told our 16-year-old a story we’d never gotten around to telling him before. When Aidan was an infant, he had a favorite teddy bear he called Mimi—his best attempt to call it by the name we’d assigned it: Mr. Bear. He eventually outgrew Mimi, of course, but for years that bear was his best friend. However, we’d never told Aidan that Mimi was actually Mimi Junior.

When Aidan began daycare, my wife and I hatched a plan to keep the daycare germs at the daycare. We bought a second teddy bear, closely resembling Mimi, and we sent it with Aidan to daycare, so he would have one bear for daycare and one for home. Aidan, though, would have none of it. He insisted on bringing his new bear home for evenings and weekends. We caved, and Mimi Junior became the new Mimi, while Mimi Senior was stashed away for good.

Or at least until the virus.

As Aidan listened to the story, he became indignant, wondering why the existence of Mimi Senior was kept from him. We told him life had simply gotten crowded, and stories like that had gotten crowded out. Aidan wondered aloud what his original Mimi looked like. My wife whispered something to our daughter. Caitlin ran to her bedroom and returned moments later with an old teddy bear held out in front of her. It was Mimi Senior. Aidan grabbed the teddy bear and looked at it, his eyes shining. It was just a silly little fifteen-year reunion between boy and bear.

But it gets back to basics, doesn’t it?

It’s about being human and being in love, and losing that love, and being reunited. It’s about the inexorable march of time and growing up and moving on and the eternal child that lives on within each of us. It’s about families doing the best they can with what they have and making decisions and reversing those decisions and those reversals becoming a new way of life. It’s about what happens when the crowd thins out and you begin to see old things anew in the midst of your shrinking life. It’s about a season of ashes and suffering that brings you to your knees, so you can see your whole life from a different angle.

It’s about things I can’t understand, and I have no words to articulate.

But that’s okay, because that’s what this Lenten season is all about.

It’s about giving up your addiction to appetites and answers,

so you can get back to the basics of being human,

which are love and suffering, and the kind of love

only suffering can help you see.

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About Kelly

Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable, and his next book, True Companions, will be published in 2021.