"Don't Tell Me What You Can't Do, Tell Me What You Can Do!"
Creating a Life in a Time of Darkness

Well folks, this is a dark, uncertain time. And periodically, I’m hit by a wave of sadness. Sadness for us – can’t go out to restaurants, can’t see friends, can’t have church services ... you know, the daily lament of all of our lives. Sad for our country, our economy, for all those out of work; for those who are living in fear within the walls of nursing homes, sad for their families, sad for the world, for all the people in lockdown. The list goes on and on. And without any clear end in sight ... until the day when a safe and effective vaccine can be discovered and dispersed throughout the population.

Last week I was lying in bed, early in the morning, feeling sad and worried. And then all of a sudden, I thought of that guy who appears almost nightly on the local news broadcast – a guy at an area Ford dealership who continually exhorts his slogan, “Don’t tell me what you can’t do, tell me what you can do!” I heard his voice in my head, and for some reason, that lifted my spirits. I said to myself, “yeah. Stop wallowing in all you can’t do now, and start focusing on what you can do. Walk in our lovely neighborhood with David, buy food at the local grocery, get takeout orders from some of our favorite restaurants and, frankly, enjoy a bit of respite from running around with errands and appointments. In fact, for the first time in my adult life, I feel little pressure to have to meet a schedule. We miss our family and friends terribly. But after all, we can still see them virtually through FaceTime and, more recently for me, the Zoom app to have fellowship with a bunch of them at one time.

On April 3 David Brooks wrote an editorial in the New York Times asking his readers to write to him describing the effects the coronavirus has had on their mental health. One week later, he published the responses to his query in a piece entitled “The Pandemic of Fear and Agony” (April 10, 2020, p. A26). The title says it all: Folks are struggling and suffering ... as we all are, to greater and lesser extents.

But still – that car dealer’s mantra keeps rattling around in my head. So how does one go about positively creating something good ... a good life ... in a time of such darkness? I turned to a couple of resources that I’ve drawn from over the years, writers who came to my mind almost immediately as I pondered where to go with this blog. And I offer some bits of wisdom to both you and me at this time of ... challenge, to say the least!

If you happen to have read my last book, The Fiction of Our Lives, you may remember my talking about Forrest Church, son of the late Senator Frank Church. He was the Unitarian pastor of a large church in New York City when he was diagnosed with terminal esophageal cancer in 2008. While Church was dying, he wrote the book Love & Death (see the lead photo). When then-President Clinton received the Forrest Church Award for Humanitarian Service, he told the audience that the book had given him renewed purpose, and a reason to live each day “as if it was worth dying for.” Of the 24 books Church wrote, this last one spoke eloquently about a human life making meaning in the darkest time of his life. As Clinton said, how to live each day “as if it were worth dying for.”

Two morsels of Church’s wisdom have stuck in my brain over the years: First, in a sermon delivered in his own church, he describes metaphorically how we look out onto our multicolored world as if it were a stained glass window. But one day, when one of the panes of that window clouds over as bad news comes (which comes to us all in times like now), our tendency is to “press our nose up against that one window pane, desperately trying to see through it. When we do this, we lose all sense of proportion. Our entire world goes black.” And in the process, we lose sight of all the blessings and beauty around us. Church hastens to say that there’s nothing wrong with trying to fix that one pane. But like the rest of the window, don’t lose sight of what is right before you – a loving spouse, a smiling child, music to lift your spirits, the prayer of friends to sustain you.

Church's other insight that fits nicely with the above metaphor is the mantra he apparently preached as pastor to his parishioners and others: Want what you have (don’t envy others' good fortune), do what you can (help others around you when you can), and be who you are (recognize your talents and forgive your faults and failings). Pretty good advice over a lifetime.

The other writer whose work has been a treasure to me over my years as clergy – providing resources for sermons and fruit for prayerful meditations – is Frederick Buechner. In fact, when I was ordained to the priesthood, a fellow priest gave me my first Buechner book titled Listening to Your Life (see second photo below). This particular book (and I think my bookshelf contains most of Buechner’s work) is a series of daily, short meditations on life and faith. His April 4 offering is called “Be Alive.” I believe it does give you the flavor of the whole and is particularly apt for this blog. So here is Buechner:

... all the unkept promises, if they are ever to be kept, have to be kept today. All the unspoken [loving] words, if you do not speak them today, will never be spoken. The people, the ones you love and the ones who bore you to death, all the life you have in you to live with them, if you do not live it with them today will never be lived.

It is the first day because it has never been before and the last day because it will never be again. Be alive if you can all through this day today of your life. What’s to be done? What’s to be done?

Follow your feet. Put on the coffee. Start the orange juice, the bacon, the toast. Then go wake up your ...[spouse]. Think about the work of your hands. ... Live in the needs of the day. (Listening to Your Life, p. 89)

Who was it who said “better to light one candle than to curse the darkness?” Or “tell me what you can do, not what you can’t do?” Want what you have, do what you can, and be who you are. And celebrate the beautiful life that flows through the mosaic of your day – that stained glass window that refracts grace and blessings on you now and till the end and beyond. We’ll get through this sad time, folks. Just gaze out that entire window and give thanks.

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Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.
I am a clinical psychologist, Episcopal priest and author, and I currently serve as Priest Associate at St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia.