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A popular meme I often see asserts that times of crisis reveal one’s true character. Posts like this are supposed to appeal to the better angels of our nature. Unfortunately, they have the opposite effect on me. It is not my better self that answers but the irritated version. Perhaps it’s the fault of the medium. Computer nerds invented social media as a forum for talking about girls, and it soon evolved into a helpful tool for posting photos of whatever you happen to be eating or drinking. In time social media acquired a personality. That personality proved to be much like some people’s mother-in-law. It developed the capacity to offer unsolicited advice in a moral tone that falls somewhere within a narrow band that ranges from gentle condescension to outright contempt. In other words, social media learned how to nag.
If it’s true that crisis reveals a person’s true character, it also seems to bring to light aspects of one’s personality. Like birth order, the interaction between social media and the global pandemic seems to separate people into distinct personality types. Here are a few that I’ve noticed since the COVID-19 crisis began:
Early on some questioned the seriousness of the threat. These were often conspiracy buffs, who viewed reports of the exponential danger posed by the corona virus as a smokescreen. They claimed that the crisis was manufactured. They said it was a ploy by the Democrats or the Republicans or the Russians or the Chinese or maybe even the Templars in their quest for world domination. I confess that I leaned toward this view, until the spread of the virus became too large to ignore.
Others take a more spiritual approach. A lot of the posts that I read about the pandemic offer spiritual advice. They want me to view my confinement at home as a kind of monk’s cell. I get the feeling from these posts that I am supposed to view this whole disaster as a spiritual retreat. “It’s not a plague; it’s a blessing,” they seem to say. I’ve tried to write a few of these posts myself but find it hard to maintain the proper balance. To be successful they require just the right mixture of cloying optimism mixed with spiritual condescension. When I can’t stand to read what I’ve written, I conclude that I have either failed miserably or hit the nail on the head.
A lot of us are telling jokes and posting funny memes. I get it. When I am nervous, I gravitate toward humor. It can be a great relief. But it also leads me to make inappropriate comments at awkward moments. I wanted to be funny too, but all my jokes sound lame to me. Perhaps it is because there is a dark edge to most humor, and the ordinary news seems dark enough already. Besides, one can only listen to so many toilet paper jokes before they become tiresome.
A few try to ignore the whole affair. They post what they have always posted, gracing the internet with their snapshots or railing against the same old causes. Of course, with the so many restaurants shut down, there are fewer pictures of hamburgers, which I suppose is a kind of blessing. But these have been replaced by photos of all the cute things that our children have been doing during the incarceration. To be fair, their parents probably would have posted those pictures anyway, whether there was a pandemic or not. I know I should be charmed by them, but their example of perfect parenting gets on my nerves and leaves me feeling like a failure. When it comes to road warriors, I can’t decide if their decision to act as if the virus doesn’t exist is brave or just a case of denial. I tried acting like there was no pandemic but couldn’t resist the urge to log into my retirement account to see how far it had fallen.
Disease as Dis-Ease
By now, you have probably figured out what took me longer to conclude. The problem really isn’t with the people who post such things. As an old girlfriend once said, “It’s not you; it’s me.” I am just nervous and sad. This is what often happens to people during a health crisis. There is a reason illness is called a disease. “Health, as we may remember from at least some of the days of our youth, is at once wholeness and a kind of unconsciousness,” Wendell Berry observes. “Disease (dis-ease), on the contrary, makes us conscious not only of the state of our health but of the division of our bodies and our world into parts.”
As Berry notes, there is more to disease than a disturbance of the body. It also disrupts our sense of community. Any family that has had to face a major illness knows that this is true. One member may be sick, but it is the whole family that is in upheaval. In our current crisis, the effect is exponential, like the spread of the virus itself. Not only is the nation on edge but the whole world. It doesn’t help matters that preventive measures require that we isolate. Despite all the jokes about the COVID-19 quarantine being an introvert’s paradise, one of the ordinary conditions of health is the unconscious comfort that comes from participation in community life. The loss of that sense of community is more than an inconvenience, it is a grief.
Disease is more than a disturbance of the body. It also disrupts our sense of community.
What is more, it doesn’t take a government-enforced quarantine to divide our social world into parts. Separation and isolation are often part of the collateral damage that attends any sickness. Because healthy family members and friends feel uncomfortable in the presence of those who are ill, physical distance grows and along with it emotional distance. Healthy members may be less likely to hug or touch the one who is afflicted. The social compact of family life shatters further when shared stress boils over into anger. Fights break out as family members argue with doctors and nurses about the treatment or with each other. We are looking for someone to blame.
We are seeing the equivalent as government officials argue over the best way to approach this modern plague and as we scold one another on social media. Admittedly, the divide we are experiencing was not created by the conditions of quarantine or even by the virus itself. The fault lines were a preexisting condition. The arrival of COVID-19 has merely exacerbated them. What separates the current political climate from the one we were in only a few months ago is both the gravity and scope of the problem. This is combined with a shared sense of helplessness that is mixed with mistrust. We suspect that our future well-being is tied to the decisions our leaders are making. As someone said to me the other day, “If government exists for anything, surely it exists for something like this.” Yet we do not feel confident that our leaders always have our best interests in mind. More accurately, we do not feel convinced that the other party (or perhaps either party) has our best interests in view.
Our political mistrust complicates the problem by introducing a competitive dimension to the search for a solution. Not only do we worry about ourselves and those we love. We fear that the other side will co-opt the response to our national crisis and exploit it for their own purposes. There is even some measure of competitiveness in our spiritual interactions. Many of the posts I read on Facebook and Twitter seem to designed to show that the writer is above it all. Others seem preachy and smug. “I’ve got this,” they seem to say. “What is wrong with the rest of you?”
The World of Flesh and Blood
But outside the digital realm, in the world of flesh and blood, I find a different spirit. The experience of quarantine seems to have made us more aware of one another’s presence. Neighbors inquire after one another’s welfare. Those who seek respite from isolation in a brief walk appear to brighten when they see another living soul approach them on an otherwise empty street. I don’t mean to sentimentalize. There are still empty shelves in the grocery store from selfish hoarders. Hedonistic berserkers on beaches in Florida and California are intent on turning their tanned bodies into biological weapons. The coronavirus has not ushered in the Millenium. Far from it. But neither has it hurled us into the dystopian nightmare that many movies, television shows, and novels predicted. Our encounter with COVID-19 has battered the bulwarks of common civility, but it has not breached them.
Nor has our collective trauma yet matched the level of suffering that our parents and grand-parents experienced during the Great Depression. Despite the daily comparison we hear on the nightly business report, the distance between these two catastrophes is still quite vast, at least for the majority of people. We worry about how long the drive-through line at McDonald’s will take. They wondered whether they would eat at all. It is possible, of course, that our worst fears may yet come to pass, and that our misfortune will equal or even surpass theirs. But we should not rush to meet such troubles before their time has come due.
The problem we now face is not imaginary. The threat we feel is real, dangerous, and ongoing. All indications suggest that we will still be dealing with this virus and its collateral damage long after the initial quarantine has ended. But we are not the first to suffer such things. Many who have suffered the like have discovered that they did so under the eye of heaven.
The Comfort of Christ
One of these was Helmut Thielicke, a theologian and pastor who lived through the Nazi terror, and preached to his congregation as the allies bombed Stuttgart. During that time, Thielicke delivered a remarkable series of sermons based on the Lord’s Prayer. On more than one occasion, the church service was interrupted by the scream of air-raid sirens as terror rained down on them from the skies. As he watched his flock dwindle and its members succumb to the horrors of war, Thielicke reminded them that their only hope in such times was to look to Jesus.
“The sufferings of all the world converge in him, Thielicke said. “His eyes reach out to the farthest corner of the earth, wherever there is suffering. He hears the sobs of the lonely and those bereft of every tie of family and possessions. He is wounded by the dread of the dying and those in mortal peril. He hears the sighs of the prisoners behind their bars and electrically charged barbed wire. He bears upon his shoulders the cares that are cast upon him every hour and every minute from every square mile of the inhabited earth. He does not merely see this whole confused world situation in the large; he is not content with the divine perspective of a total view. No, he comes, as he did in the days when he walked the earth to the individual, to the nameless one who lives forsaken in some back alley. He knows the little cares of children and the grisly hallucinations of the insane that no word can describe and no heart can understand. Yes, he also knows the joy of life in a sparrow and the exultation and trembling fear of little creatures that live their lives far beneath the level where we human beings pursue our interests.”
As Thielicke notes, the comfort of Christ is not merely a comfort expressed from a distance. It is the comfort of one who has been tempted in every way, as we are but without sin (Hebrews 4:15). His comfort is that of a high priest who can sympathize with our weakness and who understands our failure. Even better, Jesus does more than provide us with a better moral example. He does not simply urge us on to better behavior from the throne of heaven. By taking our sin upon Himself, He puts us right (2 Corinthians 5:21). This fact places our current troubles in a very different light because it reminds us that the coronavirus, as destructive as it may be, is only a symptom of a more deadly condition.
I suppose the saying really is true. Times of crisis reveal our true character. They show us that no matter how good things seem, we are living in a world that is still in bondage to decay (Romans 8:21). Our response in such times shows that we are not as good as we would like to think. It shatters our denial by proving that our character is deeply flawed and our souls are broken because of sin. If COVID-19 were to disappear today, along with every other disease that afflicts the world, we would still be desperately sick. Because of this, to say that sin is the problem is not a contrivance. It is a diagnosis. And like every diagnosis of a deadly condition, it is hard to accept. To say that our only hope in such a time is to look to Jesus is not a cliché. It is simply the truth.