Pandemic Musings

people taking group picture

When will we be together like this again? Photo by fauxels on Pexels.com

A number of friends have been keeping pandemic journals. I have not but have been reflecting on this time. It is so often the case that we move out of one season of our lives into another without thinking of how we have been formed by that time. We don’t ask what the time has asked of us. We want to move on, to get back to normal.

Only I don’t think “normal” will be what we knew before February-March of 2020 when the pandemic hit. Here are the things I’ve been musing about. There are some conclusions and a lot of questions.

One conclusion: hug the ones you love whenever you see them because, if they don’t live in your house, you may not know when you’ll get to hug them again.

I recognize that many have gone through great hardship of lost jobs, or braving exposure to the disease as first responders, health care workers, or “essential workers,” or those who are trying to work two jobs and care for and educate children all in the same living space. I’ve been quite fortunate and have no grounds to complain. I can work at home and have been quite occupied, we’ve had enough food (perhaps more than enough), and had many opportunities to stay connected with family and friends. Given my age, my chief job has been to stay healthy and out of the hospital, saving the beds and equipment for others. It has challenged me to think afresh of how we use the blessings we enjoy for the sake of others, whether favorite bookstores or struggling charities or those experiencing greater isolation than we are. That is something well worth carrying out of this time. Such situations won’t go away.

I’ve watched the war between “we’re in this together” and “you can’t take away my rights.” It strikes me that we do best when we determine to protect each other’s rights, which guards rights and seeks the common good. I find myself far more drawn to the people who are looking out for the rights of others, to health, to safety, to productive work, than those “fighting for their rights.” I think I want to be more like the former than the latter. Now and later.

I’ve noticed how on edge and brittle we all are. Maybe its too much time looking at all the back and forth on social media and in the news, all the sifting of fake posts from accurate reporting. Add to that the gruesome stories of ICU’s full of sick patients. Add video of violence against the body of a black man where millions can witness his life ebbing away, and more back and forth about protests. Actually, we’ve been like that for a while. The past months have only intensified our condition. I can’t help but wonder if the screens through which so much of this is mediated has us all on collective overload. I sometimes set my phone aside for hours, which usually are the best hours of the day. Maybe this is the season to really work on the media hygiene that allows me to have a life, and some sanity, and perspective.

I’ve wondered about an economy that in retrospect appears to be a house of cards that tumbles when we have to stay at home except for groceries…and hardware…and essential services…and restaurant take out…and online vendors. I realize that there is a discussion to be had (not here, please) about whether we needed lockdowns to address the pandemic. I prefer not to add my voice to all the online experts who know best what we should have done. I worry about those who live paycheck to paycheck who often are “essential” and yet among those most exposed and vulnerable. I’m troubled by the inequities this season has exposed, inequities that have been there the whole time. State-controlled economies seem another form of tyranny. But growing extremities of wealth and poverty, if not voluntarily addressed could lead to the disruptive forces that end with that kind of tyranny. At very least, it seems that we could figure out how to recognize all the “essential” jobs in our normal economy and ask whether they are being adequately paid.

I’ve also been musing on the data that has shown that our CO2 emissions have been lowered to the levels needed, at least for a few months, to prevent further warming of the planet. I’ve also been struck by the images of cities with clear blue skies above instead of a constant haze. It has been brought home to me what a drastic change is involved to meet our emission goals. We’ve basically had to shut down the planet. What does that tell us about the kind of economy we have built that must redline the planet’s operating limits to flourish? What if we set ourselves to thinking about what we’ve done in these months and ask if there is a way to develop an economy where people can work without pushing the planet’s operating limits? Rather than thinking either/or, might we start looking for both/and solutions?

Through most of history, much of economic life revolved around the home. It did not involve all the commuting, the huge office complexes, the relentless global travel of modern life, nor the kind of entertainment complex of large scale gatherings that are perhaps the hardest to resume in a time of pandemic. I can’t help wondering what could emerge from this messy, stressful, and yet strangely creative time. I, at least want to begin asking if there might be different ways of conceiving of the good life.

At very least, when disease is past, could it mean a renewed community life–and many hugs?

Why I Remember Dr. King

Civil_Rights_March_on_Washington,_D.C._(Dr._Martin_Luther_King,_Jr._and_Mathew_Ahmann_in_a_crowd.)_-_NARA_-_542015_-_Restoration

King at the Civil Rights March — Washington, DC, By Rowland Scherman – U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, via Wikimedia

I am spending half of my day today remembering the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I suspect that there will be some who read this who will wonder why I would do this, particularly if it is a holiday and I can do anything I want.

To be honest, part of the reason is that I sing in a community choir has been invited to sing in both citywide and local celebrations–I’m spending a good part of the morning singing. Our director is an African-American man, a gifted musician steeped in the tradition of the music of the Black church, much of which became the music sung during the Civil Rights movement. The music is different from that of my church upbringing. It teaches me to exuberantly praise, to cry out in lament, to endure for the long haul, to hope and aspire.

As a white man, I will never fully understand what it is to be black. Days like this are part of a process of understanding more. The songs, as they sink into my being, put me in touch with the long struggle of a people and invite me to join in that struggle. The speakers invite me into a different set of stories from those I ordinarily hear. I admit that there is much more to understanding what it is to be black than joining in a one day celebration. It is one of many steps. I always learn something.

The day honors the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr. He was this rare combination of Christian who was a prophet, a peacemaker, and a martyr.

  • Prophets not only foretell, they “forth tell.” They call people forth to God’s highest ideals and expose when we are less than that. King said “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Injustice at the lunch counter, on the bus, or at the voting booth threatened our whole fabric of justice, our aspirations as a nation for “liberty and justice for all.”
  • He was a peacemaker. He said, “We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.” He taught church people to put these principles into practice with non-violent resistance. For the same reason, he opposed the Vietnam war.
  • He was a martyr, not merely for the sake of his own people. He understood the tremendous soul-burden racism placed upon whites as well as blacks. He said, “If physical death is the price that I must pay to free my white brothers and sisters from a permanent death of the spirit, then nothing can be more redemptive.”

His life and death are worth remembering for these and many other things. It always does me well to remember the noblest words and deeds of others, rather than the tawdry words and deeds that are so much a part of our news.

I can imagine someone at this point interjecting with the imperfections of King’s life. I’ve read the biographies and know them well. I won’t offer any justifications. But it seems that we only call up these things against those we don’t like, and overlook them in those we favor. Worse, we overlook them in ourselves. King admitted “the evil in the best of us.” Do we? Perhaps it is not a bad thing to engage in some self-examination on a day like this. What is the log in my own eye that needs removing?

I use this day to remind myself of the reason Dr. King is known to us, the log in our national eye, as it were. Our sins around how we displaced one people and forcibly enslaved another, and after Emancipation, have persisted for another 150 years in finding ways to oppress our Black fellow citizens have been called “America’s original sin.” Even a bloody Civil War failed to bring us to lasting repentance. Abraham Lincoln seemed to understand better than most how this war was a judgment of God upon the nation:

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether (From Lincoln’s Second Inaugural address).

I tremble as I think of God’s judgment that we failed to heed the scourge of the Civil War and have perpetuated for another 150 years in different ways the oppression of slavery, and often nurtured racial hatred in our hearts. The lament songs that ask “how long” speak powerfully to me, calling me to persist in prayer for repentance from our national sin, and the healing of our racial divisions.

But I cannot stop there. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a man of hope. On the night before he died he said,

I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go to the mountain. And I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the promised land! I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land.

If a man like King, who had faced so much opposition and evil and hate could continue to hope, why shouldn’t I? To gather with others across racial boundaries on this day is to remind ourselves of that hope, the “Dream,” and to strengthen our resolve to persist in that hope. It cannot be just another “kumbayah” moment, quickly forgotten. It means continuing to stand together to seek justice in our communities, in our prison systems, and in loving resistance against structures that try to perpetuate white supremacy in a country formed around the “unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” of all of our people.

All this is why I remember Dr. King today.