By Jenn Carnell
Quarantine has led many to share their talents to lift one another’s spirits, from playing live music for neighbors to reading children’s books on YouTube. In mid-March, a celebrity on a social media livestream read a number of her favorite poems. They were punchy, saucy, unapologetic, and beautifully written. One of the poems concluded with the desire to live without having to give an explanation to anyone and with the ability “to do whatever the hell I want.”
“My manifesto!” the celebrity swooned.
At the end of her livestream, she exhorted her listeners to stay home and respect social distancing to help reduce the spread of coronavirus, saying, “Don’t be selfish.” She has posted a number of times about her concern that the ones who are healthy are hoarding supplies, taking away from the ones who are most vulnerable and in need of those supplies.
I’d like to be clear that I fully support her taking the time to read poetry. A number of her fans said they had never enjoyed poetry before, but her performance was helping them “get it.” As a literature nerd, I was happy to see the art form being used to encourage others. Furthermore, I fully agree with her that following social distancing guidelines is the best way to love our neighbors right now, and rejecting gluttony in the favor of abstinence—while always a virtuous decision—is saving lives in a more direct way than we are used to.
What does worry me is the contradiction between the poem that she read and her more philanthropic impulse: within a matter of minutes, she went from celebrating “doing whatever the hell I want” to scolding others for doing whatever the hell they wanted.
Try as we might to escape the tyranny of a moral code, to live our own individual manifestos, we will inevitably bow to some sort of standard and expect others to do the same. The question is not if we have a moral code, but what that moral code will be. Just a day or two later, the celebrity even posted a quote from The Empathy Exams: “Empathy. . . [is] a choice we make. . . . The act of choosing simply means we’ve committed ourselves to a set of behaviors greater than the sum of our individual inclinations.” In other words, empathy lifts us up beyond our “whatever the hell we want” impulses.
If we can’t do whatever we want, then we must ask what it is that we are supposed to do. Few questions have tormented more young Americans than “What do you want to do after you graduate?” and “What are you going to do with that degree?” When I was in high school and college, I would have given anything to know what God’s plan for my life was. It was overwhelming to make decisions about what courses I should take, what degree I should earn, what career I should have. Were my intellectual passions truly what God wanted me to follow, or was it just what I wanted? And if He wanted me to do something else, why was He taking so long to make it clear?
I settled on choosing a direction and trusting that if God wanted something else, He would put roadblocks in the way, or at least redirect me. But it wasn’t until a few years after college and after I returned to a more deliberate study of Scripture that I had my breakthrough.
God had already been telling me what He wanted me—us—to do, not just for the past few years, but for centuries. I was thinking too microscopically and too cynically to notice.
“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8 NIV)
“Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone.” (Romans 12:17 NIV)
These are just two examples, but the Bible is chock full of God telling us His will for our lives. What we want to hear are concrete career plans. What He gives us is something much more enduring. You might change your job 15 times in your lifetime. But in every job, you can be diligent, humble, and above reproach.
For too many years, I was pretty cynical about most of this “good life advice.” Sure, it’d be nice if we all lived in harmony with one another, but come on, that’s not actually going to happen. But then I realized that this wasn’t just idealistic advice. These were commands for how the Lord desired his people to live as reflections of Him. If I was experiencing disharmony with my fellow Christians, then I was living in disobedience to Him.
At the time I had this realization, I was working in an office setting that had nothing to do with the degree I had earned. I was stir-crazy, waiting to see if my second attempt at grad school applications would succeed and wondering if this was one of those roadblocks indicating that God had something else in mind for my career. Not only that, but I was engaged in a months-long Cold War with a Christian coworker. Convicted about God’s command to be in harmony with her, I finally broke the ice and confessed my part of the conflict. Somehow God healed our relationship over the subsequent weeks.
Living in harmony with one another seems even harder right now, as our country is so divided on how to properly handle quarantine and reopen the economy. Some are frustrated with social distancing, needing the companionship to survive an emotionally trying time, or are simply eager to get back to work and put food on the table. Others are concerned about contracting the virus or spreading it to others and are willing to wait longer to relieve pressure on healthcare workers and available beds. As a result, both between states and between neighborhoods, there is inconsistency in how we are moving forward, and we are growing frustrated with one another for adding to either the economic or health crises. More than ever, we need to set aside our “whatever the hell we want” tendencies, the individualism that has been so engrained in our culture, and instead exercise empathy for others if we are to successfully come out of this crisis.
As Christians, we should model compassion and harmony, but more importantly, we can. Healing the divide in our country seems like a monumental task, but so did healing the divide between my coworker and me. It was easier for me to agonize over what career God wanted me to pursue and ignore the much harder work of what kind of person God wanted me to be. But I have learned that if we submit to Christ and His Will for our lives, He will equip us to follow it.
During my waiting period in the office job, the Lord taught me to be humble in my current circumstances, to be ready to serve him in whatever job I was in, even if it wasn’t my specialty or passion. I went from wishing I was anywhere else to living in the present that He had given me. Yes, there is deep fulfillment in working out your passions and abilities, but even greater fulfillment is found in serving God in all circumstances. My prayer for you, graduating seniors, is that you are able to submit to God’s higher calling for your life, the one where you virtuously live in obedience to Him, employed or unemployed, pursuing your passion or simply making ends meet.