There once was a world that had lost its way. Everyone was moving so fast that they forgot to look around. People didn’t notice each other. Some were blinded by consumerism. Others distracted by pleasure. Some idolized work and worried about the next thing. Others sought power, position and wealth. And everyone, it seemed, shared a common problem – all that should matter in life didn’t matter enough. People failed to notice the fragility of their existence. But then a wakeup call came . . . via the smallest of messengers: a tiny coronavirus called SARS-CoV-2.
And now we’re awake. And all that we’ve ever taken for granted – our economy, education system, healthcare system, community services, freedom to travel, jobs, investments and lives – is at risk.
Mid-March, when I could still afford to be philosophical about the virus, I made a list of all the things COVID-19 made thankful for: an immune system that works, readily available food, dependable global supply chains, universal healthcare, work and healthy lungs that breathe.
Now things are more urgent. Many of our unseen structural supports are shaking. Will our healthcare system be overrun? Can basic services be maintained? Is our social fabric strong enough to handle this? Will I contract the disease?
These are questions we thought we’d never ask. Plagues are for the history books.
Yet here we are, shocked at how quickly life can change.
A deeper humanity
As a faith leader, I see how the fear and anxiety that COVID-19 evokes is waking all of us up to some profound truths about what it means to be human.
When Alberta’s Chief Medical officer, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, strongly suggested, “You don’t need a test to do the right thing!” (re: social distancing, good hygiene and staying home with symptoms), it was as though she was calling out a deeper humanity in me. I don’t need to know if I’m infected to do what’s best for others. I can make good choices simply because it’s the right thing to do. Doing to others as I would have them do to me is always the best way to act.
A few days later, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau challenged all Canadians, saying, “The strength of our country is our capacity to come together and care for each other, especially in times of need. So call your friends. Check in with your family. Think of your community. Buy only what you need at the store. If you’re heading out to grab groceries, ask your neighbour if you can get them anything. And if you know someone who is working on the frontlines, send them a thank you. See how they’re holding up.”
As I listened to our Prime Minister speak, I heard echoes of a Judeo-Christian faith that has always called people to lean into community, love their neighbours as they love themselves, lay down their life for them, honour their fathers, mothers and elders, and care for the sick, widows and orphans. These golden rules have been around for millennia and are central to most world religions – central to what it means to be human!
This virus, it seems, is waking us up to a few universal truths.
Truths that helped previous generations through viral outbreaks. Early Christians started hospitals in Europe in response to plagues – they wanted to create hygienic places for the sick.
Many of the faithful chose to love others to the point of risking their own lives (even as frontline healthcare workers are doing today).
‘We die at our posts’
I have been waiting for the results of my COVID-19 test for the last seven days. My symptoms have been mild, so I’m not too worried. At first, I hoped for a negative result (who wouldn’t?) but now I’m wondering if a positive result might free me to help others more fearlessly (once I fully recover).
Social researcher Lyman Stone writes this about theologian Martin Luther: “In 1527, when the bubonic plague hit Wittenberg, Martin Luther refused calls to flee the city and protect himself. Rather, he stayed and ministered to the sick. The refusal to flee cost his daughter Elizabeth her life. But it produced a tract, Whether Christians Should Flee the Plague, where Luther provides a clear articulation of the Christian epidemic response: We die at our posts. Christian doctors cannot abandon their hospitals, Christian governors cannot flee their districts, Christian pastors cannot abandon their congregations. The plague does not dissolve our duties: it turns them to crosses, on which we must be prepared to die.”
What Luther says of Christians is true for all doctors, governors, pastors and people everywhere.
In his tract Luther writes, “I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me, however, I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely as stated above.”
How will we choose to live?
Luther’s example is a challenge to us all. To be fully human is to live your life for the sake of others. You become more yourself when you help others become more themselves. To love in selfless ways is to image God. This is what you are made for.
This virus is waking us up to this truth. By bringing us to our knees, COVID-19 is forcing us to face the fleetingness of life. It’s reminding us that we need each other. It’s calling us to look beyond ourselves, to join the human race, to notice others, to care, and to realize that even small things can change the world (for good or bad).
The truth is, one day, we will all die. COVID-19 is forcing us to ask how we will choose to live.
While our future is still very unknown (it’s always been), know that you are not alone. You are part of a community, a country and a world full of supports.
Thank God we live in a time where science can see what it sees, and history can recall what it knows, and the internet can connect all that it connects, and neighbours can watch out for each other in all kinds of practical ways, and government and healthcare workers can help lead and heal, and families can love how they love, and faith communities can serve how they serve.
And you can help where you can.
This article first appeared in the Calgary Herald.