I’ve always had an embarrassing amount of empathy for others. While I may often act in my own self interests when my back is against the wall, in general my heart is easily swayed. I cry during movies and television shows, I obsessively pay attention to news of injustices around the world, and my husband accuses me of only reading depressing books. (Note: While my Goodreads probably lacks a significant amount of “light” reading, I do enjoy happy reads and I’m currently reading Jen Hatmaker’s latest book, thank you very much.)
I am a textbook INFJ, the advocate and idealist. The one who believes that the world can be a better place, that people are not entirely evil (probably explains my love for literary anti-heroes), and that change is indeed possible.
And perhaps that is why I find the current words and actions of many of my fellow Americans so frustrating at best, distressing at worst. People who I love and respect, who have taught me about love and compassion and demonstrating my Christian faith through my actions, appear to be more concerned about their freedoms as Americans than the well-being of their fellow citizens. It is this heartbreaking lack of concern that I fear is going to be the final straw that breaks our country. Not an illness, not the economy, not a broken government, but the insistence of putting self above others and a lack of understanding of the interconnected nature of a functioning society.
This is hard. There are no easy answers. I know people who are genuinely frightened because a COVID-19 diagnosis in their family will most likely mean certain death for one or more family members. I know health care employees who are working overtime to heal the sick and watching death take over their hospital floors. I know people who have lost their jobs or fear a certain job loss before this pandemic is over. And I’ve watched as nearly two months of social isolation has impacted the mental health of members of my own family.
There are no easy answers and we are in this for the long haul.
But there are principles that all of us, regardless of religious belief or political affiliation, could use to determine how to best move forward.
Love your neighbor
I really believe that Americans as a collective struggle to care for each other. When we are able to make our own decisions about who we want to care for and how we want to care for them, we can be very generous. This is evident in the giving we see after a natural disaster, the care packages sent to troops, and the many gifts for those in need that are collected around the holidays. But those acts of generosity don’t ask very much of us. It’s occasional, it’s our decision, and we don’t have to think about it again if we don’t want to.
COVID-19 hasn’t been so courteous.
The disease has reached nearly every corner of the globe. It is pretty contagious, doctors still don’t quite understand it, and everything we thought we knew two, three months ago seems to be challenged with each new study and report. Some of us have been walking around with it and never knew. Others have thought they were safe and then been hospitalized weeks later. The disease has wiped out large portions of families and left others completely untouched. And even the experts can’t agree on the best course of action for living with a virus intent on killing many.
We need to accept that every decision we make when we leave our houses is a conscious act of loving our neighbor. When we cover our faces at the grocery store. When we step off of the sidewalk to avoid walking right past someone. When we avoid unnecessary or frivolous travel from place to place, increasing contact points.
Caring for our neighbor, showing concern for the most vulnerable, strengthens all of society. When we don’t take efforts to minimize the spread of illness (and it doesn’t just have to be COVID-19) we don’t just endanger others, we put ourselves at risk. COVID-19 has placed a magnifying glass over the many vulnerabilities in American society and shown just how much that hurts all of us in one way or another. Perhaps we all needed a jolt to realize just how much we really do depend on each other and who suffers most as a result.
I am fully aware that as of right now, I am speaking from a position of extreme privilege. My husband and I both have our jobs and our family is “low” risk. I realize that it is a lot easier to talk about “loving your neighbor” when the costs to me are relatively minimal.
For some of us, privilege gives us the freedom to make the difficult decision to stay home. We are sacrificing our personal sanity and comfort, but not our livelihood or personal safety because we trust those in our homes.
Over the last two months I have easily hopped onto the moral high horse, chastising those who refuse to listen to doctors and information and data, rolling my eyes at those who have spread conspiracy theories, and “snoozing” people on my social media feed who have been annoying at best, hurtful at worst.
I haven’t really been humble about my personal position and actions related to global pandemic.
What our neighbors need right now isn’t a bombardment of our own self-righteousness, they need our listening ear and we should lead by example, not by standing on our own personal soapbox. Information is good and important, but we need to share it as good information, not as a metaphorical mic drop. We need to lay off of sharing the insulting memes (no matter how entertaining we find them) and personally approach those who may have hurt us. And when we find ourselves being chastised for causing others pain, we need to step into that pain and ask for forgiveness for the hurt that we have caused others.
That does not mean we have to tolerate conspiracy theories or silently accept the words and behavior of those intent on ignoring the threat to our well-being. That is a different issue entirely. It just accepting that we are all learning about this is real time and we don’t have easy answers. The humility of admitting we don’t know everything is a strength, not a weakness.
I consider myself a realistic optimist. I believe in the good of people and try to find the silver lining to most situations. But I’m also enough of a realist to accept that we are sinful human beings who often need motivation to do the right thing, hence the need for laws and regulations.
I truly believe that we are headed for a “new” normal, one that looks somewhat like life before COVID-19 but also different in many ways. But even with the changes, regular life is going to have to return. Stores will need to reopen, events will be held, and students and teachers will return to school buildings. None of us know what that will look like, but we will all need to have a considerable amount of grace with each other as we make those transitions.
Some of us will feel like people are returning to “normal” too quickly. For those of us concerned about our families’ well being, it is going to be difficult to accept when others try to return too quickly. Some of us, struggling financially and psychologically, feel like “normal” isn’t returning fast enough.
Again, there are no easy answers.
We need to have gentle with each other as we figure this out. As long as we are also acting in the best interest of our neighbor, we will need to give each other grace. We need to expect that of each other and our institutions. I won’t be hurt by friends who do not want to get together because they are trying to insulate their families. We need to accept that people are concerned about protecting the well-being of those closest to them and allow them to do so without making them feel guilty for not acting against their conscience.
We need to do better. We need to care for each other, particularly the weakest amongst us, as we search for the answers that will bring us to a new, better normal. We need to earn the trust of our neighbors, acting in a way that allows them to truly believe that we are acting in their best interests, not just our own. And we need to accept that change is inevitable and help gently guide each other through to the other side.
That really is the best that we can do.