Making Ourselves Present
March 15, 2020 – David R. Weiss
Our lives will be turned sideways by COVID-19 over the coming weeks and months. And, unless you happen to enjoy living life knocked sideways, we’ll find that inconvenient, frustrating, and completely overwhelming (at least at times). We’re all likely to become well acquainted with expletives and shed more than a few tears.
Unfortunately, this isn’t negotiable. COVID-19 is moving invisibly across our country, and it will try to infect all of us—that’s how viruses act. This one is set up particularly well to do just that. It’s new to humans, so no one anywhere has any immunity yet. It’s highly contagious, so it moves easily from one person to the next by direct or indirect contact. And it’s contagious even before its symptomatic, so we can pass it to someone else even before we know to put up our guard. While it kills only a fraction (1-3%) of those who get infected, it’s at least ten times more deadly than the flu—and, among the elderly and those with other respiratory conditions or compromised immune systems, it’s twenty times more deadly.
That’s why there’s so much emphasis on radical, inconvenient, social distancing right now. If we want to keep the strongest among us (who might only get a mild case) from infecting the weakest among us (who might well die), we need to keep our distance. All of us from each other. To not do so puts everyone at greater risk, because as infections rise, and those hit hardest by them threaten to overwhelm our medical systems, it will impact medical care for everyone who needs it for any reason anywhere.
In too many ways our culture, our economy, and our profit-care health system have left us not only ill-prepared but dys-prepared (that is, set up to fail) for a moment like this. We’ve been raised-taught-shaped to prize individual freedom over community wellbeing. Most of us have lived our whole lives thinking that a “normal” economy is one in which everyone is expected to fight for themselves and in which social safety nets, like paid sick leave, living wages, and child care, are only begrudgingly extended and often at a bare minimum. And our medical system is held hostage to a profit-care insurance system that insists on treating health as an investment opportunity rather than a human right in a civil society. More recently, a growing percentage of our populace have been lured into actively distrusting science and math—as though these skills, so fundamental to successfully navigating our world, have suddenly become part of an “agenda” because they raise real questions about the wisdom of the choices we’ve been sold.
Because this is the water in which we swim, it’s hard to imagine any other way to be than continuing to act in the very ways that have set us up for disaster. And that inability will be deadly for thousands of us (or many more) if we cannot start—yesterday—thinking outside the box.
It’s no wonder that we grouse and grumble as events are canceled, whole sporting seasons are suspended-paused-postponed, churches are asked to temporarily stop communal worship, and schools are closed by state mandates or local decisions. Our lives are being thrown sideways for a common good we can barely conceive of: the chance we can avoid mass deaths on a scale few of us alive today have EVER entertained outside of a movie. And if we are successful, the very measure of our success will be that we will have seemed to have over reacted. That’s what success will look like. We know that because of science and math. The models out there provide glimpses of worst-case scenarios that suggest if our only choices are to panic now or grieve later, we’d be wise to panic now.
BUT THERE IS A THIRD OPTION: to engage in downright dramatic social distancing, paying full heed to the clearest voices in public health who are counseling the best ways to “flatten the curve” of this pandemic, which will lessen its impact on all of us.
There are, of course, profound challenges in this. Even in our strongest family units, the prospect of an unplanned month-long “adventure” in having kids socially contained and engaged in distance learning at home can be overwhelming. Add in homes where both parents work, or single-parent homes, or those with very limited economic or emotional resources, or those without access to paid sick/family leave, or those where safety is simply not present in the home, and you have a perfect storm for intense social strain.
But, remember, we created-elected-purchased these conditions for our lives. This is a perfect storm of our own making. And we can unmake these conditions, albeit not swiftly enough to ease the strain this time around. But God forbid we fail to learn from this moment, because, if anything, COVID-19 is a pop quiz for our readiness to deal with the coming challenges of climate crisis. What we learn in this season of pandemic will serve us well in the years ahead. What we refuse to learn now about the failings of our present system (assuming we and our loved ones survive) will almost certainly come for us next time. I say this not to be glum, but to make sure that we pay attention right now. There are things to learn in this chaos. We can learn them. And we can ill afford not to.
What’s most important right now is the sort of frantic-yet-calm focus that emerges after a natural disaster like a tornado or a flood. Where it becomes manifestly clear that an entire world has been undone, and that our first job is to band together and slowly move forward. The difference regarding this pandemic is that here we’re being asked to turn our social lives sideways—undoing one big part of our world—in order to safeguard (or at least lessen) the extent to which the more fundamental fabric of our lives is going to be stretched or torn asunder in the coming months. But we can only do this by acting before that other world is undone. Before infections are out of control. Before hospitals are overrun. Before health care workers drop from exhaustion (or disease). Before our prisons and our homeless centers become seedbeds for the virus. We need to rise to an occasion not yet seen.
We can only act with sufficient—frantic-yet-calm—resolve if we can envision the worst that we wish to prevent, and then use that as motivation to reconfigure our lives before that worst hits, and in hopes that it doesn’t. And, quite honestly, wishing to preserve as much normalcy as possible is our worst enemy in this moment. The goal must be to disrupt our normalcy as thoughtfully, deliberately, strategically, and dramatically as possible.
The other critical facet of any sufficient response is that we actively seek to embrace the widest circle of concern, including for the least among us. For us to truly implement social distancing as a life-saving strategy we must identify the obstacles—and then remove them. We cannot afford to merely identify the obstacles and then decide it’s too much to ask. That way lies immense grief for those who will be lost to the pandemic. Please do not spend your time paralyzed by the difficulty of the task before us. It is an immense challenge. But not facing it will prove deadly.
So let’s face it together. (While keeping social distance between us!) Everyone will need to make sacrifices. Everyone will find some sacrifices easier to make than others. Ask for help. Offer your gifts. Call out your needs. Use phone, email, social media, even old-fashioned stamps and envelopes to hold onto each other. Strengthen ties of support in multiple indirect ways. Fill whatever needs you can for others. Be uncompromisingly creative in how you do this—but remember, collapsing our social distance for anything less than essential needs undoes the efforts of us all. Expect your local, state, and national governments to be responsive. Hold them loudly accountable if they aren’t. Expect your employers to be on board—the very fabric of the society in which they do business hangs in the balance.
There are no individual winners here. (Or there ought to be none.) Winning means dodging a bullet together as a whole community. We do that by making ourselves as fully present as possible across the necessary social distance between us. Weaving together our needs and our gifts as never before. It won’t be easy. But right now it’s the only game worth playing. Oh, and it’s your move.
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David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.