By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.
Director, Yeshua Institute
In a time of astounding chaos and uncertainty, one thing is getting clearer by the day: “this thing” is a not going away soon.
With Covid-19 flaring up here and there, again and again and again, we are in it for the long haul.
In the spring people focused on the short-term, immediate adjustments they could make to avoid – or at least minimize – contracting the virus and possibly infecting others. Those who could began to work from home. Children’s school classes migrated home too. Trips to the grocery store were better planned and less frequent. Trips to other stores were all but eliminated.
When we had to go out, we generally wore face masks and did our level best to social distance. We washed our hands and tried to keep them away from our faces.
Bars, restaurants, beauty salons, barbershops and beaches closed. Mostly we stayed home.
Then we waited for the threat to go away. But then it didn’t.
Granted, more than a few people – including some federal, state and local government leaders – believed it had … or at least tried to sell us that fiction. They opened up the places they had closed. Some declared victory. Some urged caution, but usually only half-heartedly. The new focus was on reopening the economy. Full steam ahead.
Except -- fortunately, as it turned out -- that didn’t happen everywhere or to everyone. Some states opened very slowly if at all. Many people, especially older people, still went out only when it was absolutely necessary. And a lot of us are still alive to tell about it.
But, sadly, over 140,000 Americans are no longer with us. They’re part of the more than 600,000 people worldwide who have perished from Covid-19.
Globally, almost 15 million people have contracted the virus, including almost 4 million Americans. In many places healthcare facilities are overwhelmed – overrun – by deathly ill people. National economies are staggering, and in some locales government leaders are shutting things down again.
Not out of the woods
We are not out of the woods yet. Not even close. We may not even be heading towards a clearing. What’s next?
Among other things – so many other things – schools across the U.S. are trying to chart safe, sane paths to starting a new school year with no social consensus in sight about how best to do that.
Parents, administrators, faculty and staff all want to adopt the “one right way.” Except, no one knows what that is. Indeed, it appears that there may not even be “one right way.” The best option depends on so many variables, many of them local, community-based conditions.
A society, a culture -- a whole world of many societies and cultures -- stumbles along without much sense of direction, much less a reliable plan.
Commentators are talking about “virus fatigue.” People don’t want to stay home. They want to mix it up. They want to hit bars and concerts and big-time sporting events. Many don’t want to wear masks or play safe, period.
People want to return to the “good old times.” And some are resolved to do that no matter what the circumstances – which, of course, are always in flux.
Through the fog
We can see a few things vaguely through the fog of this war.
Schools may never deliver learning – if that is even a thing – as they have done before. The structure is going to be a lot more flexible, no matter the life cycle of this virus. This fall many – perhaps most – school districts will give parents a choice about whether or opt for in-school or online learning experiences, and many will combine the two with students who opt to learn in the classroom but spend less time there than has been the case in the past.
While last year’s sudden switch to online experiences was marked by stumbles, both the technology and the expertise are growing at both ends of the linkage. School learning programs will be more flexible and innovative in the days to come.
A new world of work
While leaders in business and bureaucracies revise their workplaces to make them safer and healthier, they’re also considering bigger questions:
- Is it productive to even think in terms of a 5-day, 8-hour, on-site workweek?
- Would companies – even society as a whole – be better served if fewer people spent fewer hours on fewer days stuck in rush hour traffic commuting to offices, or waiting in security lines at airports to board fuel-guzzling jets to take them to expensive hotels and meals to accomplish what could be accomplished from home in pajamas with a high-speed internet connection?
- Should we even be assuming a hard, linear connection between hours worked and productivity, or are there better ways to measure and reward contributions to collective enterprises?
Whatever the ultimate outcomes of these deliberations, expect more flexibility and diversity in how work is done and goals are accomplished for employers. As always, necessity is the mother of invention.
Meanwhile, the secondary effects to come are incalculable. What portion of the airline industry will come back? What will happen to all the restaurants, bars and stores that rely on people getting dressed up, coming to work, going out for lunch and stopping for a drink at the end of the day? What about the commercial real estate market?
Our national economies have developed over many years to meet the many interlaced needs of the status quo. When that changes – and the changes are significant, as they already are and will be even greater in the days ahead – everything changes.
We are on the cusp of vast, broad, deep and dramatic change in our economies and societies in the days ahead. Stay tuned. Keep your powder dry.
Coping with the challenge
When a vaccine reaches market – and then is administered to the masses – some of the current drivers of change will regress and we’ll see a partial return to “normal,” meaning pre-virus conditions.
But the return will only be partial. Some changes are here to stay.
And in all likelihood, even in the best of circumstances, it will be six months to a year before the population can be largely inoculated against Covid-19.
In the meantime, we all have to cope with life’s ordinary and extraordinary challenges – at home, at work, in our communities and in our parishes.
No matter the details of our particular challenges and circumstances, we all find ourselves in much the same predicament as a tree. That is to say, the deeper and more extensive our root systems, the more likely we are to endure this challenge largely unscathed.
Yes, we need roots, folks. We need good roots. The deeper the better.
Roots give us a foundation. They also give us access to all the various kinds of nutrition we need – physical, mental and spiritual.
What about church … and faith?
For a lot of Catholics – albeit a dwindling number in recent decades -- our churches, our parishes provided needed sustenance. The Eucharist, especially, nourished us.
So did our faith communities. They gave us a host of resources – peers, spiritual advisors and mentors, higher purpose, healthy recreation, help with our and our children’s spiritual development. Now those things are either gone or in severe abeyance.
How can we stay rooted – even deepen our roots – when so many of the resources we have relied on are no longer at our service?
I have a few ideas. I hope you will consider them.
- Pray – Think of prayer as your lifeline to the Father, the Son and the Spirit, to all of creation, to the ebb and flow of life. Now is the time to pray more, and to pray in more ways. Prayers of gratitude are particularly helpful, although prayers of petition are likely inevitable. Whatever you do, count your blessings. Pray alone. Pray with others – at meals, at bedtime. Some of my siblings and children gather nightly on Zoom for communal prayer. If you can make it, great. If you can’t, so be it – we’ll pray for you. Think of prayer as another kind of breathing. Do it constantly, without even thinking. Prayer is the key.
- Explore and grow – Read a book. Use the money you’re saving by not going out to buy some. If money is tight – or even if it isn’t -- check out the internet. Bishop Robert Barron and Matthew Kelly, to name just two, have huge presences online. I love most anything by Fr. Richard Rohr. I’m drawn more to human development than biographies, but if you prefer reading the lives of saints, go for it. But do be careful. There is a lot of crazy, even angry stuff out there. Avoid the haters, the so-called exposers, the Pharisees. Jesus warned us about them.
- Listen – When you get the chance, ask friends what is helping them stay mentally and spiritually nourished. Maybe they have a favorite prayer, devotion, saint, author, story or song they hum in their head through the day. If you don’t find a chance to ask, take the initiative. Reach out: call or send out an email.
- Tend your relationships – Listening to peers and mentors is a great way to start, but you don’t have to stop there. Reach out to them. Ask them how they’re doing. Hear them out. Offer to pray for them and their concerns – and then, of course, follow through.
- Seek the good – Wise stockbrokers will tell you that nothing motivates people like greed and fear – and in a pinch, fear trumps greed. Strive to transcend the sensations of your amygdala, your “lizard brain,” the “fight or flight” reflex that can imprison you. God equips you for more. God desires more for you. Actively seek out news that inspires and uplifts. When you find it, hold it close. Reflect on it. Share it. (That reminds me, thank you, Steve Hartman on CBS Sunday Morning, for your touching good news segments that brighten my day and lift me up.)
- Be generous – Share what you can, be it your time, your talent or your treasure. Look for opportunities to commit a more or less “random act of kindness.” Maybe it’s a phone call, grocery shopping for a neighbor or writing a check to good cause. And don’t forget your parish. Whether or not you’re getting to weekend Mass, please contribute as you did before Covid-19. We will get through this – better and sooner if we do it together.
I’m not sure any -- or even all -- of this will make life more bearable and pleasant for you. But I am pretty sure none of it can do you any harm. Which under the circumstances, seems like a pretty good deal.
May God continue to bless you and hold you close.