Trying times…

We are in the midst of a global pandemic. The novel corona-virus known as COVID-19 has brought many people’s lives to a screeching halt. A lot of folks are self-isolating, quarantining themselves, sheltering in place — and whatever other term they may be using. I live in a condominium apartment where some of our residents have simply retreated into their units. I don’t know how they are managing.

In other places, with other people, things are proceeding almost unabated, even intensified. There are reports of people flocking to mountain resorts because they are off work and their kids’ schools are closed. Beaches in Florida are apparently full of partying students.

Two different responses to a public health emergency. One may be an over-reaction, seeing danger in every other person, and everything outside the confines of one’s own home. The other is certainly an under-reaction, scoffing at the warnings of the people who are charge with protecting the health of all.

I’m fortunate to live in a jurisdiction (Province of Alberta, Canada) whose public health personnel have taken a strong, clear, and appropriate response to the pandemic. Our rate of testing is one of the highest in the world, and the communications have been clear, without panic, and helpful. It is not so in some other places, as I understand it.

I am worried about the dichotomous response I noted above.

The over-reactors display a lack of trust about what they have been told, seeing everything as potentially harmful, regardless of the calm advice they have been given. It is not necessary to disinfect your whole house after every venture outside, as I have heard some people doing. It is also not necessary to avoid all contact with the outside world. Reasonable precautions have been advised, but panic has seized many people. Some of them probably now have enough toilet paper and pasta to last them well into 2021.

On the other hand, the under-reactors also show distrust of expertise. “Nothing to worry about here — so let’s party.” They don’t heed the message that they may be carrying the virus unknown to themselves and others. Social distancing is not so much intended to protect ourselves from disease, but to protect others from the disease that we may be carrying unaware.

In both cases, the issue is one of trust. Who do we trust? In the case of the over-reactors, they mostly trust the message, but feel it doesn’t go far enough. The result is a massive distrust of all other people, who become the enemy, the potential carriers of virulent disease. In the case of the under-reactors, they either don’t hear or don’t believe the message, out of a distrust of “experts.” It’s a huge problem in other areas of life today (just think of the climate change issue), but in this case, the distrust could lead fairly quickly to disease and death.

I want to look at this as a spiritual problem. Who can, or who should, we trust? When we can’t trust anyone around us, or when we won’t trust expertise, we are left with trusting only ourselves and those who think like us. That’s a pretty weak foundation for moving ahead in life. Relying only on oneself and one’s own insight leads almost inevitably to calamity. Human beings are fundamentally social creatures. We need community, in which we find both shared values and correction for false ideas. That said, we are not like lemmings rushing headlong together towards a cliff, but more like wolf-packs, where all members look out for each other.

We need to trust each other. We especially need to trust the “alphas” in our number, using their guidance to move ahead creatively and productively. God gave us minds to use, and gave some people special gifts to help us use our minds.

The great issue of this pandemic is an erosion of trust: in ourselves, in our fellow people, in our leaders, and in God.

I do not believe that this current pandemic is either a punishment from God or a sign of impending end-times. It is a part of creation, an unexpected and unwelcome part to be sure, but nonetheless an aspect of the world that God created. It may well be an aspect of the “shadow of death.” People are dying, after all. But does that mean God is absent or malevolent? I can not believe so.

The Revised Common Lectionary for today (Lent 4, Year A) appointed Psam 23 as one of the readings. Let’s stop her with one verse from that most famous and favourite of all psalms.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
   I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
   your rod and your staff—
   they comfort me.

I will trust, but I will not trust blindly.
God, give me eyes to see, a mind to understand,
and the will to follow what is right.