I was locking my bike to a sign post on the sidewalk in one of the tidiest, most civilized and proper communities on earth.

So, I was a bit bemused to look up from locking my bike to see a sticker on the metal pole asking,

WHEN DID IT ALL BECOME SUCH A MESS?

I do not know when this adornment was added to the pole; but, it raises an intriguing prospect in this sleepy little town.

Is it possible that behind the meticulously manicured façade, the lovely gardens and the nicely appointed homes of this prim and proper seaside municipality, there might lurk some dark hidden realities that we prefer not to face?

I have worked long enough in this part of the world to know that, of course, the answer is “Yes!” Indeed, things often are not as they seem on the surface. There are dark monsters in most closets that create a degree of mess that might shock any of us who see only the exterior that people choose to present for public view.

If this sign post pulpit was posted after COVID began, it certainly points to a profound truth. Try as we might none of us can permanently bar mess from intruding into the world. The answer to the question

WHEN DID IT ALL BECOME SUCH A MESS?

is not a day or an hour. The mess did not begin in February 2020 when the world began to awaken to the crisis of COVID. It was not brought into the social fabric by the election of a particular politician or by the greed and corruption of any official in a position of authority.

Mess has been a part of the human condition since the beginning. There has never been a time when mess did not lurk on the fringes of human reality. Occasionally it may break out in more dramatic forms, but we are powerless to keep it always at bay. We may push it down temporarily in one place, only to see it emerge suddenly in another. We may deny mess all we like, but the messy reality of mess will never be far from our experience.

The problem with the term “mess” is that it seems to imply that, if only we work hard enough and smart enough, we will find a way to tidy things up. When someone spills the milk at the table, we get out a cloth, wipe up the mess and all is well. Unfortunately, not all messes are as easily tidied up as spilt milk.

As we approach 600,000 deaths worldwide, it is clear we have not yet managed to get the mess of COVID under control. And most knowledgeable people suggest that the mess into which COVID has plunged the world is going to continue to create more mess in every sector of society for a long time.

So, what if we drop the word “mess”?

What if we stop asking,

WHEN DID IT ALL BECOME SUCH A MESS?

It may be less appealing as a sticker, but what if we change the question to:

HOW DO I CHOOSE TO RESPOND TO DIFFICULT REALITIES?

 This question creates breathing space. It opens me to new possibilities and promises. It shifts my focus away from trying to get the mess under control, or resisting the reality of the mess I cannot control. It reaffirms my freedom to make choices in light of whatever troubling circumstances with which I am confronted.  

There are difficult realities we all must navigate. Who could deny it in the face of the onslaught of coronavirus? But, asking how I am going to respond helps keep me from being paralyzed. However limited my range of choices may be, I can always choose a more or less life-giving path.

For the well-being of our communities, we need to move beyond seeing the world as a mess, and open to the challenge of the new realities we face. This is the only hopeful way forward.