Another Week Ends

“Man, I sure pity whoever has to do the weekender today,” I thought to myself […]

Bryan J. / 3.20.20

“Man, I sure pity whoever has to do the weekender today,” I thought to myself earlier this week, only to check my calendar and see it was me! If we’re connecting the Christian message to everyday life, for just about everyone, everyday life has, er, gone viral. Here’s our roundup of the best of the web during this big week of life in the time of Corona:

1. First up, a thoughtful rejoinder from Jane Hu at Slate on behavior modification and the pandemic. If we are in agreement that some people won’t engage with the facts to increase social distance and be proactive about hand-washing, we might do well to appeal to their inner need to self-justify instead:

Many people are following these guidelines by working from home if they can, canceling trips, and putting up with chapped hands, but others view these precautions as an overreaction. Some have even defiantly run toward the exact things experts warn against, taking advantage of lower travel fares, or insisting on dancing it out at an enormous senior community. Friends tell me about their relatives or colleagues who are still going on vacation or packing into crowded bars and wonder how they can be so callous. Surely they’ve heard the news—why is it that some folks are hunkered down for the long run while others are living life as usual?

When you know people who aren’t following guidelines to stay home, it’s tempting to try to beat them down with facts. But getting them to follow through on hand-washing or social distancing isn’t necessarily a matter of logic—it’s a matter of heart. We humans are highly sensitive to social norms, and it’s confusing when they suddenly change. It’s hard to accept these sudden recommended changes to our routines, and the open-endedness is horrifying—or even worse, the prospect that this could be the new normal, at least until a vaccine is developed. We’d be wise to leverage what we know about the irrational ways in which humans think and act, and what we might do to mitigate those challenges…

This is, of course, very much a Romans 5:20 problem. For many of us, the law to social distance increases the trespass. (See also: the Spring Break crowd still raging down in Florida even though school has already let out). So what does Hu suggest we try? Peer pressure, social responsibility, and praise:

But it’s hard to get across to some people that they could get sick—and that strategy might not work at all if that person is heavily invested in the narrative that all of it is overblown. In that case, some have resorted to appealing to different facts: that precautions like hand-washing and social distancing aren’t about you as an individual but your responsibility to the community. One graphic has been making the rounds to demonstrate the concept of “flattening the curve”: Our collective action could slow the spread of the virus and protect more vulnerable members of the community….

Establishing social norms through a sense of belonging can be a strong motivator. “You’re looking around to see what people are doing,” says Chapman. “If you take your cues from other people, you might be more inclined to take strong action yourself because you see other people doing it.” You’re also inferring risk from other people’s actions; you assume that others are acting in a way that’s rational based on the risks. One school district sees that another has canceled classes for weeks and feels it’s right to follow suit. One sports league pauses its season, and the others decide it wouldn’t be safe to go on with theirs. You see your friends posting Instagram stories of themselves sitting on the couch in pajamas and eating chips with the hashtag #SocialDistancing, and you think, if they think it’s best to stay in, I guess it’s safer for me to stay in, too…

We can capitalize on what psychologists call selfish altruism, the idea that we act generously because it makes us feel good. It may seem awkward to congratulate people for private, unseen activities like hand-washing or not going somewhere, but there are ways to build group norms that can motivate people to keep doing what they’re doing.

Between the two opposite poles of “you’re a bad person for not making changes for the virus” and “you’re a very good person if you make changes for the virus,” we shouldn’t be surprised that the latter is more effective. We are quite the self-justifying species after all.

2. Yours truly is finishing up his first week of work-at-home-parenting after the babysitter self-quarantined. Earlier this week, I went to call Mockingbird’s David Zahl to ask a question and he didn’t answer. His G-chat message thirty seconds later explained that he couldn’t talk right now: his son had his phone. For all of us newly experiencing work-from-home life, Kimberly Harrington, who has worked from home for over a decade, gives her best advice over at The Cut:

Now is the time to embrace what work-from-home parents learned long ago — it’s not about winning; it’s about striving for the bronze. This is a perfect time to finally recognize how much you’ve been trained to perform parenting. To design a cozy little reading nook so your Instagram followers can see it and grudgingly approve. To bake your vegan muffins (and take a photo) or pack your kids’ bento boxes (and take a photo) or set out art supplies in a scattered but not too scattered way, if you catch my drift (and then definitely take a photo). To head into the woods and make flower crowns or whatever the [heck] it is you’ve been doing out there. Give. It. All. Up. It’s time to take this parade float and strip it down to four wheels, a floor, and a functioning steering wheel. It’s time to be basic…

What follows is thoughtful, bare-bones advice for people like me, who are trying to pastor a church and watch a three-month-old simultaneously. We are not alone! Harrington’s insistence that we abandon “performance parenting” and all the Insta-worthy photos was both a word of rebuke and freedom simultaneously: judgment for trying to parent for an online audience and freedom not to. Unless your three-year-old has anything to say about it.

3. In new music, Bono attended the DZ school of up-close Instagram Videos.

4. On a more serious note, Portuguese writer Bruno Maçães has collected a number of Italian public expressions of repentance to humble all of us. Maçães suggests that one of the benefits of living in an underdeveloped country is that the reality of death is so much closer; it’s a no-brainer to adjust one’s life patterns to avoid it. In developed countries, however, there is enough of a buffer against death that it becomes a distant threat if not a non-existent one.

In an interview published yesterday, the director of a hospital in Madrid was unusually forthcoming. Still traumatized by the images of the emergency care unit where he works, Santiago Moreno confessed that “we have sinned from too much confidence.” As he explained it, everyone in Spain thought an epidemic such as the novel coronavirus could spread in a place like China, but not “in a country like ours.” It is simple, really. People in Europe still think of China as a developing country. When news started to arrive of the outbreak in Wuhan, they imagined filthy Chinese markets and hospitals, they thought of the spitting and the lack of doctors, and they trembled. They feared for the Chinese people, not for themselves. This perception explains why, as mainstream opinion lambasted China for mismanaging the outbreak, there was remarkably little concern that the mismanagement could have consequences for Europe and other parts of the developed world. There was effectively no planning or preparation…

At the time of the Madrid marches and the Smurf convention, I was returning from a long journey in Asia and could not help noticing the contrast. In India, or Singapore, or Vietnam, people were dramatically changing their behaviour to adapt to the coronavirus. They were going out less, avoiding large groups, taking turns on the elevator and, of course, wearing masks everywhere, even if perhaps they looked less elegant in them. The idea that they would organize a Smurf convention to have a little fun is enough to make you laugh…

The reasons for this cultural difference can, I believe, be explained through history and psychology. The sense of uncertainty and of the fragility of human life that I saw in Asia over the past two months is easy to explain if poverty and disease are still an everyday occurrence or at most two or three generations in the past. Often, that historical experience is reflected in public institutions: The lack of advanced social security and public healthcare systems forces Asians to contemplate in their daily lives the possibility that their world might suddenly collapse. In Europe the general psychology too often reflects the ideology of development, the idea that the most serious threats to individual happiness have been definitively conquered. Why worry about an epidemic if you have excellent public hospitals available more or less for free? What no one considered was that a virus could bring this perfect system to the point of breakdown…

In a penetrating piece published just two days ago, the Italian journalist Mattia Ferraresi argued that the fundamental failure in Italy was not a lack of testing or slow political action but a social and collective failure: People just did not take the coronavirus seriously enough to even slightly adapt their habits. It is a brave argument. It would be much easier to criticize the government for errors of action or inaction, rather than risk being accused of blaming the victims. But what Ferraresi saw and could not repress was something else: the radical incapacity on the part of the Italian public to adapt to the possibility of a terrible outcome, an outcome discounted by everyone until it was really too late. “I and many other Italians just did not see the need to change our routines for a threat we could not see.” Even though he had accumulated a lot of information on the virus, Mattia writes that he lacked what you might call “moral knowledge.” He knew about the virus, but the issue was not affecting his actions.

An observation: there will be plenty of regret, guilt, and shame after the events of this pandemic conclude. If you’re feeling it now, I recommend making an appointment with your local purveyor of forgiveness and absolution. Maybe even do it digitally. The app, I’m told, is in development.

5. Now, onto the jokes. The Onion’s gift this week, Fact That Man Being Criticized Just Goes To Prove His Point. The Babylon Bee’s sting hit home with Nation’s Churches Provide Fog Machines for Families Worshiping at Home. See also: get ready to fill out your March Sadness bracket. Or, play Work From Home Bingo from McSweeney’s. You’ll win either way!

6. For the church history nerds among us, two resources for your time this week. If you’re looking for more context for Martin Luther’s popular letter regarding the plague that has been making the rounds, here’s a look at more plagues that impacted the Reformation, not just the 1526 Wittenberg outbreak. Also, CT’s Quick to Listen podcast profiles the 13-year-long Plague of Cyprian.

7. On the one hand, the virus seems to be bringing out the worst in people (hoarding, drinking alone. On the other hand, it also seems to be bringing out the best in people (mutual aid groups, balcony singing, etc.) And on the third hand, the virus is producing a new crop of wonderful down-to-earth devotional material from the church.

See, for example, Jason Michelli’s decision, inspired by John’s story of Lazarus’s resurrection, to never officiate a “Celebration of Life” service again:

This Jesus is the God and this is the human who loves us. This Jesus is the God and this is the human who loves every single one of us. And— notice— we are told by John not only that God is sad. We are told that he is “deeply troubled.” We are told that God is angry…but not at Lazarus, not at you or me, not even at the President. 

His anger, John says, is directed at God’s Enemy, whom St. Paul calls the Last Enemy, Death. And that is a very good thing to remember at a time like this, a time that portends to lead to many future days when families will contact pastors and priests and, despite their grief, mistakenly think they’re supposed to organize a happy, joyful “celebration of life” for their dearly departed. 

It’s good to remember that Jesus is weeping and is angry that any ever need to journey to the grave. It’s good to remember that God in Jesus Christ promises the coming of a day, a final day, when there will be no more crying, no more pain or grief, no more death.

And also Chad Bird’s write-up on Martin Luther’s marriage, which features Mbird favorite Gerhard Forde. We’ll give him the last word:

Reflecting on Luther’s decision, Gerhard Forde writes, “What did [Luther] do when he thought the end was near? He got married! Now of all the ways to prepare for the coming Kingdom of God that is certainly not one which would occur to most.” Rather than doing something “awfully pious to impress the deity when he shows us,” Luther chose one of the most routine of human activities: getting married and raising children. Forde continues, “Why? Because, he reasoned, if God is coming, then a man ought to be found living as God intended him to live on this earth. He ought to be found being a human being, doing human things and taking care of the earth as God intended—not acting as if he were some sort of minor league God.” As he wrote in a letter to his friend, John Ruehel, “I shall take care that at my end I shall be found in the state for which God created me with nothing of my previous papal life about me,” (“The Revolt and the Wedding”).

When asked what he would do if he knew the end of the world was tomorrow, Luther is often cited as saying, “I would go out and plant a tree.” He might also have said, “I would get married.” Either when he died, or when Christ returned, Luther wanted to be as immersed in the ordinary, human life as possible.


Featured image: Jerry Davich / Post-Tribune.