Ramona M. Payne ‘80 reflects on a shift moving into 2021: she's asking God “How?” instead of “Why?” Read on for her meditations on how we might face circumstances out of our control - and even our comprehension - with grace, prayer, and community.

Our Hearts Forever: The Year of How 

By Ramona M. Payne '80

There is a hymn that says, “Further along, we’ll know all about it, further along, we’ll understand why.” If I had to give last year a title, it would be the Year of Why. In 2020, a pandemic raced across borders around the world, and if we ever doubted that we are all connected in some way, the COVID health crisis extinguished that doubt. We often pride ourselves on our ability to plan, and when those plans fail, we believe we can course-correct with relative ease. The last year has not been easy and the pandemic has touched all of us. 

In some respects, it was easier when the governor of my state issued the stay-at-home order. The decision had been made, and compliance was not a choice. But when the shutdown orders were lifted and the rules eased, each one of us had more options for how we would respond to a growing crisis. I went several months without traveling to visit my daughter and her family. As president of an all-girls Catholic high school, I had to work with staff, faculty, and parents to decide what traditions we would have to shift and which events had to be cancelled. With the ingenuity that only teenagers can bring to a problem, we were able to reimagine and modify some traditions. We may have been physically distanced yet we managed to have fun. And despite the efforts to make the best of a hard time, we knew that something had been lost.

Not being able to come and go as I please is a shift, but one that I willingly make because it helps me and the community — local, school, citywide, and, hopefully, global. There are days when I ask why because I do not understand the suffering and loss and why the resolution is taking so long. Then I remember that there have always been periods of suffering, and that despite this present disappointment, God has always been faithful and brought me through, even when I have not been as faithful to Him. 

And there is the other question, the one a relative asked me many years ago when I wailed about some misfortune that I felt should not have happened to me. He asked, “Why not you?” He knew sometimes things happen that are not only beyond our control, but also beyond our comprehension. I am seeking God’s guidance as I make decisions, and at times, I wonder why things are happening the way they are. I ask God to help me understand and if He chooses not to reveal the answer to me right now, that is fine. Instead, I ask Him, “What do You want me to do right now? What am I supposed to learn from this?” 

I began 2020 with a study of the Zulu word ubuntu, a word that means “we share a common humanity;” it encompasses ideals such as respect, empathy, and a concern for each other. It embodies the belief that “I am because you are.” There it is again — the reminder that I am part of a larger community, and that the decisions I make affect other people. In seeking God’s will for me in this season, I often reflect on my daily interactions with people and try to extend the grace that I also will need. It is the whisper to remember that people are carrying burdens I do not always know about that prompts me to find ways to lighten their load rather than toss another bundle on the pile.

It is January 2021 and the past year has been hard for so many — loss of loved ones, income, jobs, good health, a place to live, and the security of knowing that the events we look forward to will happen as planned. I do not focus on why things have happened. I am examining the ways in which I have had to change, and evaluating which changes I want to keep. I am hopeful that some of the small changes I made will stick, such as trying to lead with grace, practicing patience, checking in on people who might be alone, and checking on my own feelings. I have had to learn how to sit with the discomfort of not knowing why life has to be so hard for so many. Honesty requires that I admit my concerns and share them with God. A silent prayer, a plea for help — anything to let Him know that I am struggling at the moment. I find myself doing this more often these days, even if it is just a moment where I stop what I am doing to connect with God. When I do this, peace comes. Maybe not peace to hold me for the week, but always enough peace to calm me in the moment, and often, enough peace to get me through the day. Maybe this year I will not worry so much about The Why. This year will be about The How — how do I find peace, how do I make consistent time for prayer and reflection, and how do I extend grace to myself and to a world where we may not always agree but we are in community? In 2021, I will ask God how to move forward, and do my best to take the first step.

Ramona M. Payne is a 1980 alumna of the University of Notre Dame. You can follow her at www.ramonapayne.com or on Instagram at @writepausereflect.

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