Counting our blessings in the hard times

A reader recently wrote asking me for more uplifting and hopeful subjects for my columns. She was responding specifically to a recent column I wrote on racism, which she called a “downer.”

I must confess that this year has not provided a banner crop of hope-inducing topics. The daily newspaper has become a gauntlet of gloom, an endurance slog through reports that both anger and depress. I take her point, however. Sometimes we need a reprieve from the bad news.

We Americans may be taking this plague year that much worse because of our “We’re Number One” attitude. The editor of the British medical journal The Lancet suggested as much when he postulated why the United States was so slow to respond to the pandemic: “I think the fact that America sees itself as the greatest country in the world means that it sees itself as impregnable,” he told The Washington Post.

The pandemic has exposed many of our weaknesses, and not only in community health care. This isn’t just a crisis. It is a whiff of mortality. So it is understandable that we might be in a sour mood.

Of course, there is much to be positive about. That same editor, Richard Horton, points out that the pandemic has triggered “a truly global collective effort” on the part of science to beat the pandemic. History may look with amazement on this collaboration, even if right now our attitude seems more like, “Is it done yet?”

There is good news to be found not only in this collective achievement in the making, but also in the many personal acts of heroism and sacrifice that can be found. Nurses, doctors, chaplains, essential workers — people taking risks big and small to feed us and care for us and nurture us even in illness unto death.

I have been impressed not just with such acts of kindness, but of creativity as well. Even when our church doors were closed for the sake of the community, some priests found ways to allow their people to worship or to confess. And now that churches are closing again in some regions, more priests are getting creative, if anecdotes are to be believed.

And I hope that in our own lives, we are seeing blessings: Time spent with family, time reconnecting with distant friends by video or phone, time spent more earnestly in prayer.

One of the less obvious blessings is that we are being given opportunities to think not just about our own situation, but about the situation faced by others. Wearing masks so as to protect others is one small example. There are so many people who are jobless, who are hungry, who are at risk of serious illness, and a profound blessing is the opportunity being given to us to help others.

We are not the first generation to face enormous challenges. We have boundless blessings compared to other times and other epidemics. My hope is that our blessings do not spoil us but enable our acts of generosity and sacrifice.

There is no avoiding the “downers.” It is important to look our challenges in the face, be it racism or deprivation or disease. What is a matter of choice is how we respond. What we do for the least of our brothers and sisters, the Lord said, we do for him.

We are not guaranteed victory over every ill, and our hope remains in the Lord, not in our own efforts. Nonetheless, in this dark moment, the real good news moment may be this opportunity to give of ourselves to others. Let us pray we rise to the occasion.

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Erlandson, director and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service, can be reached at

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