Counting the Omer is a Biblical technology offering a 49-day journey of introspection into our habitual character traits. Counting the Omer during the time of the Coronavirus gives us a unique opportunity to see ourselves more clearly, with much of our emotional armor stripped away and without our usual busyness to distract us.
We’ve just started the second week of Counting the Omer, which began on the second night of Passover and goes through Shavuot. We have moved our attention from Chesed, cultivating lovingkindness, to Gevurah, setting wise boundaries, for ourselves and others.
Chesed, according to my teacher Rabbi Marc Margolius from the Institute of Jewish Spirituality, can also be translated as the interconnectedness of all people. It doesn’t take too deep of a dive into the daily news, of the pandemic to realize the there is something about Covid-19 that connects us all, literally, physically and psychologically.
Fear of getting sick with the virus is nearly a universal condition in this historic moment in time, and we all have our own ways of dealing with that fear. Does it connect us in compassion, or pull us apart, making every other person feel like a potential threat?
That’s what I was wondering about early one morning last week, when I was deep into contemplating Chesed, and the way we are all connected. I was able to see the shared humanity behind the anxious eyes of my fellow masked senior citizen shoppers at Whole Foods. There we were, silent in the produce section, making sure we were adequately social distancing, for our own sake as well as for one another. The piece of cloth that we wore across our nose and mouth seemed to speak volumes, and it opened my heart just a little bit wider even as fear was trying to hold it closed.
In this second week as we move our attention to Gevurah, I found the mask, or lack there of, becoming a significant focus of my thoughts as well.
While most of us are spending the majority of our time indoors, we are still allowed to get outside to walk and to exercise. So I was thinking that, with all of the runners and bikers out and about in Boulder, the recent update in information about spreading the virus during aerobic exertion would translate into a whole lot more masks being worn outdoors. But that sure wasn’t the case when I was out for a masked walk yesterday, and as my mind was mulling over new information that says runners can transmit air droplets from 15 feet, or more, away. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/15/well/move/running-social-distancing.html
Why, I wondered, was I seeing all these bare-faced, huffing and puffing runners passing by me? It sure didn’t take long for my Chesed heart to start to close and my harsh, judgmental, Gevurah mind to start revving up. In this time of Corona could there be a more tangible, and responsible symbol of Gevurah, setting that wise boundary, than wearing a mask?
The voice in my head started to get louder and angrier. I know it was my fear that was doing the talking, but suddenly my sense that “we were all in this together” had dissipated and I was left with only my “How Dare They!” thoughts. In my mind, ‘Kumbaya” was suddenly replaced with “Me vs. You.” At some point, many steps into my walk, I realized that if I thought this is my skillful attempt at practicing Gevurah, then I was probably missing the point.
But I’m not alone. There’s a new term called Corona Shaming, when people are publicly outing others for what they judge as non-compliant behavior in response to the virus. It didn’t seem like a healthy or compassionate thing to be doing, but there I was, out trying to move my body, but building my mind’s shaming muscle instead. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/14/opinion/coronavirus-shaming.html.
So I started to wonder…is there a way to set boundaries, make distinctions between self and other, without being judgmental? Is it possible to not jump right to a place of right and wrong, better and worse, and instead allow for all things to exist?
As I continued my walk, I began to look into the faces of the many runners and bikers that continued to go by. I tried to switch mental gears, and downshift from annoyance to curiosity. “Who were these active folks?” I asked myself. “What vital role did exercise play in their lives? Why had they chosen not to wear a mask, did it have to mean they were uncaring of others? Could they have their own personal reasons?”
I didn’t arrive any answers on that walk, but I was able to move from that tight-chested feeling of indignation and judgement, to a more expansive, and compassionate place for myself and all the other humans doing what they could to keep moving and keep their own fear at bay during this uncertain time.
By the end of my walk, I realized that exerting energy to judge how other people were handling the Pandemic only depleted the energy I need to help me stay relatively calm during the crisis. I’m thinking that on my next walk, reminding myself, “We are all doing the best we can,” might be a better option when all those unmasked runners go whizzing by.