As we are experiencing first hand, predictability is always something of an illusion
for us. While we adapt to the changes in our lives, with an outward focus we are
guided by truths that span all lands and eras.
Back in the 80s, when I used to travel a lot more, and before the internet and smart phones, there was a frustrating type of delay that would happen at airports. These would be on shorter flights, like between Detroit and Louisville, or Chicago and Detroit—those sorts of flights. At the airport, I would be at my gate, and a notice would appear on the screen that my flight had a 20 minute delay. Then, for the next 3 or 4 hours, every 20 minutes, there would be an update, for another 20 minute delay. Again, this is before the internet, before we could search and see if the plane was in flight or had left the airport. Back then, a person could only sit there, while the gate attendant conveyed the information, for which they were really as much in the dark as the passengers.
It was frustrating, and puzzling. Nobody was trying to deceive anybody. Nobody wants a 20 minute delay—not the airline staffers, not company headquarters, not the control towers, not the airport workers, not any of the passengers. Yet, for some reason, there was no way for anybody to break the 20 minute delay notification cycle, and give an authoritative answer—that it will be 50 minutes, or three hours, or maybe the flight had to be cancelled. For whatever the reason, it seemed there was nobody with the authority, or the knowledge, or the wherewithal, to finally consolidate the different pieces of information to provide the answer. Everyone was just stuck there.
I sort of feel caught up in that sensation right now. When will things open? How will we know it’s time. How will we know it’s safe? What plans can I make? What plans do I need to cancel? We are all just sitting here, wondering what is going on. Presidents are fighting with governors, governors are fighting with legislators, sheriffs and mayors are fighting with county executives, scientists are fighting with politicians, doctors and nurses are standing-off with militia members, customers are fighting with shopkeepers. We all suffer from this. And all these decisions, and indecisions, are affecting the fabric of our life on every level, every day, spiritually, psychologically, and financially.
These are interesting times. Coincidentally, briefly in the office this week, someone came in and said those very words: these are interesting times. I said that was the title of the sermon this week.
In these interesting times it is like we are trapped at the airport gate, before the age of electronics, when we only had our book, maybe CNN, and the airport announcements being played over and over again…only this time they’re utility companies telling us “we are in this together.” As we wait, we are thinking in ways we normally do not think-like who we might hope gets the disease. We are saying things we normally would not say-like expressing that hope out loud. We are making decisions and acting in ways we normally would not act. Patience may be wearing thin with the people we find ourselves with, or with whom we need to interact. Even if all of our basic physical and mental needs are being met, these interesting times will color most aspects of our life and our interactions. Our usual outlets are gone—delayed? cancelled? eliminated? or we do not know. We are at the gate, just sitting there, waiting to see, waiting to hear.
Some people have not touched another human being for two months now, and everyone is limited in whom they can touch—this is not the norm for a primate, a Homo sapien. And we are not touching one another, or getting too close to one another, because we are afraid to touch each other or be too near each other. We have to be wary of every other human being, and act as if they may be infected and spreading contagion, even those we love and trust. I have to act as if I am infected and may be spreading contagion, and may pass it on to my family and friends. This takes a toll. Dealing with such wariness and fear on a daily basis, and the stress that it brings, and without the outlets we normally turn to, make it difficult to manage and control our less desirable quirks and neurosis.
Fear really does a job on us. And we are all worried, for ourselves, and for others. Fear changes us and motivates us and makes us act, both good and bad, like nothing else can. At a recent meeting, someone mentioned that viruses can change a human’s genetic makeup. Likewise, fear can change our very being, and our approaches to how we see things. And fear has itself deeply baked into all of of our current concerns. We are worried about getting sick, of dying, or of transmitting the disease to others. We are afraid of a recession or a depression. We are afraid of our political leaders. And as I said earlier, we are afraid of each other. Our screens will remind us of all we need to be afraid of, 24/7, if we let them.
My academic self, stuck here at the gate, has me curious how all what is happening now, will be explained in 100 years. How will historians and sociologists make sense of what we are experiencing? And how will it be ending? what will be the result? As a student and teacher of history I have lectured about pandemics. The Black Death was one of my canned lectures, all nicely packaged and complete—cause, events, outcome. With hindsight, historians show how it gave rise to humanism, the Renaissance, and the modern era’s sense of individualism. It was such a neat package, that I had to remind myself when I taught it, to be sure to emphasize that while it was occurring, it was confusion and terror for the people experiencing it. It killed from a third to half the population of Europe, and would regionally occur once a decade, and cause some epidemics into the 20th Century. It was with increased public works, a better understanding of hygiene, and eventually antibiotics, that these plagues were brought under control. So that gives me hope that while corona viruses persist, and can be devastating, if the center manages to hold, we hopefully will have some treatments or preventions. But, barring some miraculous cure, treatment, or vaccination, this novel strain is going to be with us for a while. We are probably only starting our second 20 minute delay. But who knows?
While we are in this delay, I would like to spend a few minutes to look at what could help us hold it together, and give us some framework, as we go about the necessary and important work of dealing with it.
First of all, give people lots of time and distance. We need to remember, even with all the space between us and social distancing, to give each other the space to process these barrages of unexpected feelings and conflicting information. We are being inundated, and we are not all going to be on the same page at the same time. We are going to be up and down, in and out, and simultaneously informed and ignorant. We are all sitting here, not even knowing if our plane has left the other airport. Please be patient with people, and especially the people you know, love, and respect.
We all need our space and time to come to the difficult decisions we are having to make. Decisions, small and great, that now carry with them a greater degree of risk, and take more mental energy. Decisions like whether or not to get take out, going to a grocery store, returning to work, who I will allow to visit me, whether I should go visit somebody else, whether we should touch. Different people will come to different decisions. There is a lot of confusing and conflicting information right now. I remember two months ago that the advise was to not wear a mask, that it could actually make things worse. Now, those same sources encourage us to wear a mask. None of us have the big picture, or the definitive source. Science needs time to coalesce data, and it is early. But while we all just have parts, I and the people I know will still have to make their decisions. I trust the good people I know will come to their decisions honestly and in good faith. Good people will come to different conclusions about what is at stake, and will have duly considered the values, the risks, the principles. In these interesting times, we will see the trade-offs and exceptions differently from one another. What may be acceptable for one, is not for another. There will be honest, substantial, differences of opinions.
In respecting the inherent worth and dignity of an individual, there is a critical and difficult question, of how to respect another’s autonomy. I respect and honor another person when I extend to them the dignity that comes from allowing them to make their own decisions, based on their values and determinations. How free should a person be to make, what I believe, is a bad decision for themself? As we care for one another, how much am I responsible for that decision, or that action? Clearly, the answer is…situational. We will always be debating and changing our answers to these questions, as circumstances change and different information becomes available. And the changes come to us now at the speed of light. But as much as we are able, we must keep in mind that autonomy is a critical element in respecting the inherent worth and dignity of a person. We don’t want to minimize it.
Good people will disagree about the important questions of the day, about openings and closings and what is allowed and not allowed, because these all deal with the classic contest between conflicting goods. Conflicting goods are when one good thing, for example, expressing appreciation with a hug, comes into conflict with another good thing, like keeping safe with social distancing. The current conflicting goods deal with questions of survival—jobs, income, safety, mental health. And we will all evaluate the risks and benefits of the conflicting sides differently, depending on our race, age, wealth, social standing, philosophy of life, expectations of what makes a life worth living, fear of illness or death. People have different needs—spiritually, psychologically, financially, socially. I remind myself that it is not my place to rank another’s needs. That what another sees as essential, is essential to them, even if it is not to me.
The risk to one’s self and others that a breadwinner needs to take are weighted differently than a retiree’s. I do not need to say that a 25 year old is seeing all this very differently than a 70 year old. Neither outlook is right or wrong—they are just seeing circumstances from two vantage points. Competing goods. Deciding between and balancing competing goods is what societies, countries, churches, do—that is their task. And the answers are always shifting and changing. A pandemic unfortunately makes things simultaneously more difficult, and pressing. But these are the cards we have been dealt. To complicate matters, even in the best of times, attempts to answer how to balance the competing goods get tied into political posturing.
So as we sit at the gate and are forced to evaluate where we stand with what we have, I would encourage you to remember to be empathetic. Everyone’s concerns, cares, and needs are authentic. They may not always be able to be expressed eloquently, but they are nonetheless there. We need to remember our skills of empathy, for our fellow passengers. The first is to listen. Even if I disagree, I need to listen, all the way, and let them finish. If someone is opening themselves up to me, that’s a privileged and trusted place I am in. I must try to remember not to judge, or condemn, or to try to convince. I try not to assign motives. I ask questions to understand. I must try to hear what they are saying, and understand, and respect, their point of view.
The second thing is to try to connect—to try to feel what they are feeling. At least I want to try to see it their way, or from their perspective. This is kind of an “assume good intentions” thing. What is the good intention at the heart of this point of view. We have all been in similar situations, and if I am listening closely, it usually does not take that big of a leap to understand what they are experiencing. They can make sense, and be compelling, even if I do not agree with it. Understanding it, empathizing with the person, is not necessarily agreeing with the conclusion. Understanding another person’s position is not a threat to my point of view.
Next, we want to acknowledge that their feeling is authentic. Empathy involves feelings. Connecting on the feeling level is always useful, and more times than not, beneficial. Well reasoned arguments do not carry as much weight as feeling an emotional bond. If a person feels heard, they generally feel better. This is where repeating back to them what they have said is useful. It shows that I have, in fact, listened and tried to process what was inside of them. If I can convey that back, it shows that I have listened and understood.
Finally, in showing empathy, we show love. As was said by a wise person, some credit a Methodist, others a Unitarian, “We do not have to think alike, to love alike.” Listening, connecting, acknowledging, showing love. This will help get us through these interesting times.
So, this is the reflection I offer, stuck at the gate. Hang in there. Try your best. Be patient. Remember you love and appreciate the people you love and appreciate.
Next week’s sermon is not scheduled to be about the pandemic. It is scheduled to be about William Ellery Channing, and how churches fight about historical continuity. I will welcome the distraction. I hope you will too.