COVID Reset: Maybe Social Distancing Can Help Us

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In the past week, life has turned chaotic (at best) and scary (also, at best). I’m trying to stay positive, looking for those silver linings. Example #1: My toddler and I now have plenty of time to discuss the philosophical underpinnings for her constant use of the word “no(!!!).”

Safe to say, COVID-19 is no longer just about whether or not we get the flu. It’s about whether or not we lose loved ones or are able to visit those in nursing homes. It’s about whether we keep our jobs, whether small businesses and universities survive, and whether our hospital system collapses.

It’s appropriate to begin thinking about what this pandemic might mean in the long-run. Specifically, let’s talk about society and the on-going effects of our urgent need for social-distancing (or what we introverts called “college”).

Before COVID-19, medical professionals had already named one health epidemic that was also impacting most of western society: “the loneliness epidemic.” (Which, in perspective, now…

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But also not. Research shows that we are, on the whole, hyper-connected but relationally starved.

Enter COVID-19 which is forcing us literal isolation. We used to have human interaction based on pure necessity. But now we’re not in our offices or taking the subway. And teenagers, who pre-COVID-19 were already socializing less than any generation before them, are now mandated to be apart for several weeks.

Okay, but… in the name of silver linings, maybe COVID-19 could be the catalyst for a positive shift in our social structures; maybe it could be the reset button we desperately need.

I am a full-blown investor in the commodities of busyness and wanderlust. I have little margin for time in any day. This is because my personal sense of value is (imma be honest) tied to a rigid routine and endless list of “things I have to do”. And I can’t sit still. I always want to be somewhere else, with someone else, eating some other meal, on some other adventure.

I say this with a tone of self-rebuke because I’ve long known that I lose so (so, so) much by being hither and tither, here and there, never fully present. I know this, but I can’t stop it. I wish I spent more time at home, wish I could name the plants that grow outside our windows, wish I journaled more often, wish I took more time to catalog these early years of my daughter’s life. I have friends in Iceland and California but I don’t know the names of the people who bag my groceries and deliver the mail. When talking with people I have to check my phone because I’m also mid-conversation via text with other friends, though few of whom I would say actually know me. I’m not comfortable asking my neighbors for a cup of flour or stick of butter (let alone toilet paper). I can watch just about any sporting event across the globe (well…could theoretically) but have never attended my town’s annual meeting. And I live in a small town. There are… like…dozens of us.

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We’re so globally ‘connected’ that a pandemic like COVID-19 was always just.a.matter.of.time. And yet we enter this crisis already drowning in our own overly-scheduled bubbles of isolation. The irony of this “social distancing” plight is that we are already so distant from one another. COVID-19 is just putting tangible parameters on what is already our reality.

The eat local and shop local movements are fueled by the belief that something is lost when we live a life of individuality that’s fed by a million aqueducts of consumption drawing from all corners of the planet. But we’ve yet to correlate this belief to our understanding of social structure and expectations. We’ve come to equate permanence of place with ignorance. And social networking is not only a currency but a virtue. I recently listened to a sermon that admonished me to be less busy and, a few minutes later, encouraged me to spend more time with people throughout the week.

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We’ve yet to consider that a life of deeper presence may mean a life of deeper selectivity, that ‘live locally’ may mean less experiences and less relationships. Deeper ones, but less. Which is a hard pill to swallow, if consumption is the main course. And… let’s be honest.

The way we’ve been operating socially (until, like, Friday) isn’t working. We’re lonelier than ever before despite having more ‘friends’ than ever before. And now we’re faced with the prospect of rapidly diminishing social circles: what will life look like if airline travel is restricted to only those who’ve had a thorough medical examination? What if work has to happen where we also live?

If every leaf is a mystery and every human a marvel, then are we really losing something if our social lives become limited to those in our immediate vicinity? If all of life is beautiful, is there really nothing to be gained by being ‘stuck’ in one’s home? Today I found myself wandering the apartment looking at random objects on shelves: framed pictures, old journals, a dried clamshell. They’re things, but they’re beautiful. And I could have stood there, engrossed in these items and their stories for hours. But then my daughter smashed one.

Call me an optimist (which I’m not) and an introvert (which I absolutely am) but I’m not entirely convinced that a societal reset won’t do us some good. If this pandemic is going to reduce the size of our respective worlds, if it’s going to force us to shrink our social circles, to enter “isolation”, then I hope this leads us to reconsider the way we function relationally. Maybe this is a chance for us to take stock of the relational ties that support but sometimes bind us. Maybe this will make us embrace the beautiful things and people that exist within feet of where we are, to grow deep because we can no longer grow wide.

None of this is to diminish the pain some of us will experience or the loss. Nor should it be seen as an attempt to gloss over the real danger that’s facing many of us, particularly those whose health is already compromised. This is about silver linings, not denial.

COVID-19 has pulled the plug on the old normal. The coming days are for calling loved ones (especially the elderly), telling a medical professional and grocery clerk they’re a hero, and whatever kind of prayer you believe in. And it’s time for complete social-distancing (what we introverts call “life”).

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(But, whoa… hand’s off there, MVP.)

Let’s also use this time to ask ourselves what the world will look like once society is plugged in again. Will we have learned anything? Will we have changed?

I don’t know. But I do have someone that I can ask.

Then again, judging by the pattern thus far, I’m pretty sure that my daughter’s answer is going to be “no!”

So there ya have it, …two pessimists.

 

 

 

 

 

Back to personal

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“Do you want to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?”

For most of my life, a personal relationship with Jesus was the center of my faith. The Biblical story was summed up in a personal exchange of my sins for God’s salvation. I’d never heard of “corporate” worship let alone collective guilt or confession. Social justice didn’t seem to matter as long as I wasn’t the one who was racist or going astray.

Today, my notion of a personal relationship with Jesus has been deconstructed, it lies like a thousand Lego pieces across the table of my spirituality. Embracing my role in the world beyond a one-to-one relationship with the Divine has been difficult. It’s led me into tension: the tension of seeing systematic injustice as my problem; the tension of holding numerous theological traditions in balance; the tension of faith that is nuanced and debated because it is witnessed by more than my own eyes. I’ve found what I didn’t know I wanted: faith that exists well beyond my personal status on the divine grade sheet.

But the pendulum has swung the other way.

My struggles with some of the problems that come from a heavy focus on one’s personal relationship with God has resulted in me neglecting mine altogether. It’s like I helped plan the prom but forgot to ask my SO to go with me. My rejection of an ego-centric faith has become a hall-pass for holding God at arms-length.

Take, for instance, confession. I’ve become rather comfortable with confessing my role in oppressive and systematic injustice. Which is good. The world needs more straight, white, men who point to their towers of privilege and declare that they’re feats not of architecture brilliance but of oppression.

But I can (and do) hold such sin at arms-length. While corporate confession should involve personal grief, it’s all-too-easy for me to bypass it. I confess the oppressive nature of my white privilege on my Facebook feed, close the computer and then go on with my evening. But confessing arrogance, gluttony, and excessive drinking? Those require that I shut up then pass-up on the second taco and margarita, even if its Tuesday. It requires energy and humility; it requires that rather than face confession as a “we” I face it as just a “me.” It requires that I stand before God, alone, just me, waiting in the isolation of what I’ve done to hurt others, waiting for grace to intercede on my behalf; waiting because some fires we start together, but other times I’m the only one holding the match.

All of this feels like a drift into legalism and shame. And it goes back to the root of my frustrations with an isolated emphasis on the personal. I wish that half the time I’d spent as a teenager confessing lustful thoughts to my ‘accountability partner’ had gone toward advocating against the police brutality that took place in my hometown. I wish that I’d cared more about how gay kids in my high school were treated than whether or not I was ‘saved.’ I wish that the core teaching of Jesus dying for all my sins had been corrected prior to planting a cavity of shame deep within my own being.

But if I live in the regret of these errors, I’ll only perpetuate others. You can’t hike a trail backward, wishing you’d taken a different turn, without wandering off the path altogether.

I may vote for generous policies for the marginalized but how many vacation days do I spend in a soup kitchen?

I may call for racial reconciliation, but do I have the humility to develop deep enough relationships with people of color that my own racist tendencies might come to light?

Do I berate misogyny but value my own recognition in the workplace above that of others?

I may advocate for sexual minorities, but do I honestly wrestle with the dark corners of my sex life?

I don’t believe that my calls for reform in the church are unfounded. But I’ve thrown out the baby with the bathwater while calling myself an advocate for adoption. Neglecting my personal relationship with God quickly leads me to a faith that is directionless at best, blindly hypocritical at worst.

Grace is tension; it demands that I acknowledge the darkness around me enough to know when I’ve been liberated from it. It demands that I live in the tension of personal culpability alongside corporate confession and systematic advocacy.

I want to live in that tension; Christ calls me to that tension. It’s time to take two steps forward in terms of advocacy, but also find a way to take one step back, back to me and God, back to personal.

These Stories We Tell

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I’m sitting in church and trying to listen to the sermon. It’s raining outside; the water falls against the window like sheets on a bed someone’s making in the morning. Inside the pews are packed. A baby cries; the couple in the next seat over whispers back and forth. There’s a teenage girl in front of us, her dress matches her nail polish; her hair pulled up in a bun with hormonal precision.

And there’s my pastor. A good preacher, really. He’s finishing a series on the story of Esther.

But a spark of movement beneath the pew in front of me catches my eye. It darts around the wooden leg of the pew. Is that a spider? I can’t be sure. But it is something, something tiny; ten of them could fit on the head of a needle. The only reason I know it’s even alive-even something- is because it’s moving so fast; I see blurs and imagine eight little legs rushing like blades on a helicopter.

“While the tale of how we suffer,” James Baldwin writes, “and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard.” I read this in the memoir of a man who overdosed on heroin, and thought of it on hearing Esther’s story. Baldwin adds: “There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.”

No one has ever heard silence. No one except God in the beginning. But then he spoke and something happened, existence happened, noise happened, we happened. And all these happeneds, all the stuff of legends, religion, wars, romance and life itself, they all find their way into one word: stories. Heavens and the earth, an apple, snake, and the only permissible naked pictures in Sunday school; Israelites, a temple-tabernacle-whatchamacallit, slaughtered animals, a baby in a manger, a cross and a tomb. And now this sermon, this room, men dressed in suits, teenagers slouching and texting out of sight; a spider dashing between the pew.

What are any of these without words? Consider the following counter to Mr. Baldwin: “a light shines in the darkness.”

Plato once commiserated that when people started writing they began forgetting. A startling observation. Stories have always existed. But our means of conveying them -blogs, pop-up books, foreclosure notices and song lyrics scrawled on diner napkins- the words we use to pin these stories on paper were once just as novel as the microwave or internet. And they were, to Plato, as ridiculous a means of existence as Facebook to my grandparents.

The spidersomething darts back under the pew. Is it a spider? A tiny bug? A delusion? I am learning something just by asking the question. It disappears again, around the time of my pastor’s fourth point (it’s a Presbyterian church).

That’s the remarkable thing about stories, the way they dart to and fro, like tiny somethings beneath a Sunday pew. They never stop but sometimes disappear. They are part of our world and then they are gone, almost as soon as we hear them. And with stories that our minds wander, weaving the the tapestry of time. Until the story leads us from our need for a verdict; “only those who believe obey,” Bonhoeffer wrote, “and only those who obey believe.”

The story of Jesus is not that of a masochistic bloke who just happened to be God. It’s the story of a God who entered the story because he’s fascinated with the narrative and- befuddlingly so- the characters themselves. That takes a kind of desire that words- regardless of how inspired, conveyed, or regarded- cannot capture.

We’ve forgotten how to tell this story; we took the apple, wrote it down; we’re distracted in the pew and forgetful too. These stories we tell are nothing more than reality roped and noosed onto a few stubborn, fallible words. They are not the end of the matter; you do not train a stallion by getting a rope around its neck and hanging on for dear life. We are not God. We’ve no ability to hear them not told.

And so these stories we tell are themselves a confession, a confession to the power of the first word, the light in darkness, the God of the silent whirlwind. These stories we tell in our sermons, emails, love notes, sitcoms and mortgage papers- these stories are something miraculous and mysterious; if only we catch a glimpse as they dart back under the pew.

So we press on, we live on, we search on, and we move on.

And someday maybe we’ll remember; we’ll hear the reality behind the words. We’ll see the spider, confess our belief, and these stories we tell will become quaint recollections of when we didn’t know better.

And oh, the stories we’ll tell.

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