Six Lessons Learned from the Pandemic (Thus Far, Sort of)

“COVID, like the Law, always Accuses,” and other Take-Aways

David Zahl / 10.28.20

A friend recently commented that, just because the end of this pandemic may not be in sight doesn’t mean there’s not an end. Fauci ventured something similar a couple months ago. I didn’t take it to mean that the end is necessarily eons away, just that, like so much related to this fiasco, it’s hard to tell if we’re 15% of the way through or 75%. Whatever the case, the compiling of listicles is almost definitely premature. So here comes something I’ll likely regret, a compilation of takeaways from this strange season:

1. COVID, like the law, always accuses. Are you taking it seriously enough? Are you overdoing it? Did you take it too seriously at first and are now being cavalier? Should you say something to so-and-so? Should you bite your tongue? Should you go out or stay home? Mask or no? Handshake or elbow tap? Open the church back up or keep it closed?

Whatever decision you make, someone will be wagging their finger. More than that, someone will be hurting. And don’t you dare say that “studies show …” or “new research indicates …” as you and I both know that the proof-texting on this thing has been Olympian in scope.

The truth is, COVID accuses, full stop. It brooks no excuse and crosses every line. It obeys only its own rules, without reference to what we feel we deserve or don’t. I mean, we all have examples of cautious folks who have contracted the virus and reckless folks who’ve avoided it. Its endpoint is, well, you know …

2. Despite what the headlines tell us, there is much that still binds the human race together, most of all our fear of death. Because if the last few months are to be believed, we are absolutely petrified of it. This is not an acculturated or conditioned phenomenon, nor is it really subject to argument.

For years I’ve heard writers and thinkers diagnose our culture of distraction as a means of mortality avoidance, so perhaps I should’ve been more prepared for what would happen when many of those distractions were taken away, but damn. This applies across the board and, as far as I can tell, largely predates whatever secularization we’ve experienced as a society. That is to say, I’ve been disappointed by the number of co-religionists who talk a nice line about resurrection and eternal life and even the theology of the cross but seem unwilling to take the slightest risk in the face of real threat. And I include myself in that number.

At the same time, the universality of acute personal suffering not only validates a low anthropology but funds, I find, enormous compassion for one’s fellow sufferers. So we are far more alike than we’d care to admit; it’s just that our solidarity isn’t derived from what we (humble)brag about on Instagram. Last week in his Red Hand Files, Nick Cave put it in preacher-friendly terms:

Letter after letter comes in, day after day, increasingly so during the pandemic and its recurring lockdowns, from people suffering distress due to very serious problems — mental health issues, loneliness, homelessness, physical and mental abuse, loss of jobs, loss of loved ones, loss of dreams, loss of meaning, and loss of hope. It is a profound privilege to read these letters as it puts one’s own struggles into perspective, and is a reminder that despite our differences, no one is immune to suffering.

3. The Internet is no replacement for flesh and blood. File this one under “No duh!” but it bears underlining. The pandemic has been going on for long enough that we’ve experienced several peaks and valleys, and certainly one of the early peaks found us feeling grateful for the Internet, which allowed us to maintain some semblance of working together and even socializing amidst the restrictions.

Six months on, that tune has reversed. When it comes to church, for example, moving online was originally pitched as “a lot better than nothing” then “barely better than nothing” and now “hopefully better than nothing.” I feel the same way about remote schooling, as do many of the college students in my orbit. The pandemic has done more to illustrate the limits of technology than its capabilities, at least when it comes to what really matters in life, which is love. This is probably a good thing.

4. For the most part, the pandemic has amplified things that were already happening rather than created new problems. Right when this began, we highlighted a NY Times column by Jennifer Senior about couples quarantining together, in which she noted that disasters have a way of spurring emotional movement in all directions. She was talking about pregnancies and divorces, but what I’ve noticed among my peers is more in line with our actual values, which are less family- or relationship-oriented and more career-focused. Yes, plenty of people have lost their jobs, but just as many have quit them! Or taken new jobs in new towns. I suppose if career is seen as the primary avenue of purpose in life, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. With distractions removed and busyness reduced, whatever vocational discontent exists has caught up to us, and we’ve acted accordingly.

The same goes for relationships. If you were unhappy before but could basically muddle through on a diet of hyperactivity and rationalization, then the pandemic has brought you face to face with your unhappiness. But, in the vast majority of cases, it hasn’t conjured up discord from thin air. That was there already.

5. The conformity-rebellion axis exists outside of ideology. When I was growing up, the “rule-followers” — the Karens and the Kevins of the 1980s — were largely conservative people. They were the buttoned-up ones, enforcing norms and punishing rule-breakers. They were the ones you needed to avoid if you wanted to have a good time, à la Footloose. These past six months, the shoe has been on the other foot (and how!).

This came home to me while sitting at a stoplight the other day. I looked to my left and saw a man sitting alone in his car, wearing an AC/DC-branded mask. Rock n roll has always been the bastion of rebels with devil-may-care attitudes who thumb their noses at authority, the Australian rockers being an egregious case in point. Hedonism is a hallmark of the genre, obedience not so much; it’s a lot of id and very little super-ego. Which means there’s real dissonance when someone wears a mask promoting a band whose whole reason for being is to cast a middle-finger at rules and repressions of all kind. It just doesn’t compute.

None of this is to “take a side,” just to note that conservatives don’t have a monopoly on the “rule-following mentality” as such (see item 1). Really just depends on which rules we’re talking about. I guess you could say that the psychology of rule-following and rule-breaking runs deeper than left and right, into the realm of personality and disposition.

6. No one can predict anything. And that’s good news. I’m not just talking globally — though it’s tremendously comforting to remember that the person who sounds oh-so-confident about your impending doom doesn’t really know what they’re talking about. Just scroll back to February in your timeline or inbox and see what you were honestly thinking about (and afraid of) then.

And yet, as unpleasant as many of the surprises of this year have been, there have been some pleasant ones as well. People who I thought would fall apart have proved me wrong and done the opposite. People I thought I’d never hear from have reached out, and vice versa. In fact, I’d go one further and reiterate another Nick Cave-ism, that, social media notwithstanding, “My experience of actual people in this time [has been] overwhelmingly positive — there is a great deal of love and mutual regard and community.”

Just as no one saw any of this craziness coming, no one foresees most things of consequence in life. Things like falling in love, or losing someone dear to you, or undergoing a conversion. While I never expected we’d be pressing pause on in-person church for six months, I also never expected that our parish hall would become a makeshift school for underprivileged kids without wi-fi at home (and parents who couldn’t take off work to supervise their learning) in such a way that the wider community starts buzzing, ptL.

“A miracle is the universe letting you know it can still surprise you” is how comedian Kyle Kinane puts it, and I agree. As this thing stretches on and the Groundhog Day effect manifests as a shared low-grade depression, I consider this a source of tremendous hope. Because despair is the feeling that nothing can ever change, that our lives won’t get better, etc. Yet our current circumstances contradict that feeling (and it’s always a feeling) almost 100%. We are in control of so little. Anything could happen at any time.

The only thing that remains reliably knowable is what God has made so, namely, what he has revealed in his son, AKA the least predictable revelation of divinity possible: the baby in the manger, the man on the cross, shedding real flesh and blood to deliver self-righteous rule-followers and self-seeking rule-breakers from sin, death, and disease.

Didn’t see that coming — but it came anyway. Thank God not all surprises are bad.

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6 responses to “Six Lessons Learned from the Pandemic (Thus Far, Sort of)”

  1. Charlotte Getz says:

    Well damn, Dave!! I’m a little choked up

  2. King Billy Drake says:

    Dropping bombs left and right! Everyone is on the verge of a collective nervous breakdown up here in Boston. We need a surprise from above!

  3. Oh I just love Josh White. And Dave you know how I feel about the internet. Would never heard of the Zahl Family Business without it. I do think you put our low anthropology down where it needs to be seen and also a High Christology. ptL. Loved the podcast at 1517 where you touched on the above post which needs wide distribution. LUV you Dave.

    • David Zahl says:

      Thank you David! You and your kin are one of the (many) reasons I give thanks for all these zeroes and ones.

  4. Love it, love it. Also here to make you aware that your last line includes the title of Rachel Hollis’ latest book–“Didn’t See That Coming.” I’ll send you a copy

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