Sticking Our Necks Out: Judgement in the Age of COVID Phases

Confessing Quarantine Sins and Looking to Hope beyond Sanitation

Sam Bush / 6.25.20

Life is judged with all the blindness of life itself.

– Santayana

My friend recently admitted that he and his wife had invited people over for dinner. Plenty of qualifiers were set in place—not only did everyone eat outside on their porch, but their guests were mindful enough to bring their own food, their own drinks, their own chairs, and their own face masks. Every box for Phase 2 in the State of Virginia was checked and yet my friend’s story still sounded like a confession. After expressing his litany of quarantine sins, he said, “These days, it sounds like we’re all Christian virgins who are dating. We’re all just trying to figure out what we can get away with.” He’s not wrong!

Days later, my wife and I invited some friends over for a patio picnic of our own. To our horror, it started to rain mid-meal. My wife and I quickly exchanged glances to confirm our mutual decision. We cautiously invited our friends to consider moving inside so we could eat without getting drenched. “Don’t worry! We just cleaned the house. We pretty much wiped down every surface. We can open windows, too.” Our friends, in turn, cautiously accepted our invitation. The words, “Are you sure? We don’t want to pressure you,” were probably mentioned ten times between the four of us. An hour later, as they were getting ready to leave, my wife said it felt like heaven just to have people inside our home. Paranoia returned a moment later when our guests walked out the front door as some of our neighbors were walking by. It was as if we had just hosted a key party.

Oh, the shame!

As all of us enter various phases of reentry, it feels like we are sticking our necks out into a heightened sense of fear, judgement, and uncertainty. The feeling is valid. After all, our actions affect those around us and any carelessness could potentially lead to someone contracting the coronavirus. If you live in New York you are much more aware of the real-life consequences than if you live in Kansas, but there is plenty of reason for everyone to be cautious and to care for others. And yet, now that we’re dipping our toes back in the water of normality, I find myself simultaneously assuming the role of the lifeguard and the two-year-old running around the pool.

Hypocrisy abounds these days when a desire to cut quarantine corners conflicts with the fear that others are doing the exact same thing. With so much still left unknown, every situation is relative—I can hug this friend because he’s a responsible person who has been quarantining, but is that decision solely based on reason? Thanks to asymptomatic transmission, everyone around me is a potential threat to manage, but I still want to be able to go get carry-out ice cream with my family (I’ve earned it, haven’t I?). Now that we are seemingly more free to make our own decisions, all roads point to our own self-justification while mistrusting others who act likewise.

The beginning stages of quarantine felt like we were all part of a bigger cause, but these phases of reentry feel like certain kids are getting out of school early. David Foster Wallace famously said, “We are kings and queens of our skull-sized kingdoms,” and it feels as hard as ever to regulate those beyond the borders of our jurisdiction. In that sense, it feels like our penchant for capricious egotism has been given a boost these days. And with it has come a tendency to loosen my own leash while tightening the leashes of those around me.

For instance, why do I insist that when my family visits from out of town they meet a standard of hygiene that I’m not even meeting myself? Yes, one is more susceptible to being exposed to the virus while traveling, but I don’t think my safety know-how qualifies me to scold my mother when she fails to use enough hand sanitizer. I can imagine Jesus giving the modern version of the speck and the log parable: “Why do you scold your mother for not washing her hands when you took your toddler to the playground yesterday?” Hypocrite, indeed. Despite my excuses—we were the only ones on the monkey bars, we used an entire bottle of sanitizer before and after going down the slide, etc.—all of my attempts to self-justify add up to a guilty verdict.

Last week, CNN published an op-ed about Steve Murray, the headmaster of Lawrenceville School, a prep school in New Jersey, who gave a webinar to anxious parents about the school’s plans to reopen in the fall. During his presentation, Murray made clear that the school was unlikely to be Covid-free, saying things like, “Zero risk tolerance is not realistic,” and, “Coming to school will not be 100% risk free any more than driving a car is risk free.” He didn’t try to sound like a health expert, but, instead, someone who deeply cared about his students.

With profound humility, he assured the parents that the school was doing everything it possibly could do (including pre-arrival protocols, testing and touchless toilets), but Murray didn’t promise perfection. Even when emphasizing the importance of a shared sense of responsibility, he accepted the reality that each bit of protocol was a little bit like Swiss cheese, each slice having its holes. With grace and meekness, Steve Murray helped remind me that, while we live cautiously during these times in order to love our neighbor, our hope and trust is not in sanitation alone.

It is a worthy effort to try to control the coronavirus as a disease, but I am completely unable to control another person any more than I can control myself. As ever before, I am in constant need of the Serenity Prayer to remind me the difference between what is under and what is far beyond my earthly powers. A line in the BCP Evening Prayer service says it best: “Give peace, O Lord, in all the world; for only in thee can we live in safety.” It’s true. While cleanliness may be next to godliness, it is a far cry from the holiness of a sovereign God who is worthy of all our trust.

Feature image from the Washington Post.