“I would never wish a pandemic on anyone, but…” I often hear this from colleagues, parishioners and people in the community. I cannot imagine a crueler disease than COVID – its effects are devastating. Can we even say good things emerge out of this crisis? As a statement of faith, I say “yes.” To tell you why, let me offer a few reflections on “the two sides of the COVID coin.”
Hoarding and Giving Two words: toilet paper. Remember that instinct to grab all you can get at the expense of your neighbor took over? Of course, it was the very impulse to hoard that created the problem. That’s when I started hearing about how hoarding was natural response of humans when encountering a threat. A part of the brain—the limbic system—takes over that shuts down not only reason but our sense of empathy. Even with toilet paper. Now that’s a lesson!
Yet I also saw that there were many people who quickly came to realize the truth of what St. Francis said, “it is in giving that we receive.” Early on at First Church, this took the form of a mask-making ministry. A vision of two women took fire and spread to 36 mask makers, both within and without the church, who made over 3,400 masks and gave away when there were no masks to be found. Why, in the midst of hoarding and shortages did this happen? Because the need to give – to meaningfully respond to this crisis -far outweighs the need to hoard.
Anxiety and Wellness Another effect of the limbic system taking over is how we managed our anxiety. How many memes have we read about gaining fifteen or twenty pounds? I remember going all-out at Christmas time. I baked every Christmas cookie I could imagine and gained my “COVID 15.”
Yet, once again, sooner or later, we started coming to our senses and understood that these things did not help. We started listening to experts and started our mindfulness meditation course, our gratitude journals, and our exercise routines. A year ago, I started an emailing of daily meditations that lasted until late August. Many were impressed that I could come up with so much, but really it was not that hard. People kept giving me poems, pictures, videos that helped them. We learned that these resources fed us far more than cookies. Of course, cookies don’t hurt, unless eaten all in one sitting.
Isolation and Relationship For many of us, the cruelest part of the pandemic was being isolated from one another. A Church is a community. Every Sunday as I looked at an empty church sanctuary, I grieved the loss of being together. When people asked, “when are we coming back to worship live?” it hurt me to tell them “not any time soon” as I saw disappointment and sadness in their eyes.
Yet we did find creative ways to make community in other ways, with many thanks to technology. Like many faith communities, we found that Zoom not only gathered people from the immediate area but many from around the country who still had connections to the church. It also included people who would normally be shut in their homes. Beyond that, I found many people reconnecting with friends and family that they haven’t heard from in years. Instead of a quick Christmas card sent out, we wrote heartfelt letters and emails to people who meant a lot to us.
Judgment and Compassion As I mentioned, our limbic system causes our capacity for empathy to disappear. I saw the effects of this on so many public servants. I would encounter school administrators who looked like they got put through the wringer every day. It seemed like every decision they made had one major faction of residents or another angry at them. It was at these times when I heard the phrase “we’re in it together” and thought, “not even close!”
And yet there have been small and great acts of love and kindness, especially given to our “frontline workers” have made a difference, whether it is offering lunch, a kind note or email or just a “how are you doing” from someone in the community. This sense of compassion and empathy had profound impacts on many other issues.
One last—but most important—reflection on compassion. When George Floyd was murdered, somehow a door was opened up to explore issues of racial justice in a deeper way. I keep wondering if this would have happened if we weren’t going through a pandemic.
All our faith traditions tend to revolve around similar themes: mercy, justice, gratitude, resilience, courage, compassion, giving. They teach us these lessons because, as humans, we constantly need to be reminded of them, especially during the ordinary lives when we take so much for granted. Many times, it takes a crisis to put them front and center. I would never, ever want a pandemic to teach us these lessons again. But as a person of faith, I will affirm that it is possible to come out of the crisis as stronger, more resilient, more compassionate souls. I have the privilege of seeing it every day. For this reason, I receive one last gift my faith gives me: hope.
Editor’s Note: Rev. John Castricum is the Pastor of First Church of Christ, Congregational, U.C.C. in Bedford