Finding Meaning in the Midst of a Pandemic
Human beings are meaning-seeking, meaning-making, creatures. We construct narratives and tell stories about the world and ourselves to help us make sense of things. I always thought that part of the job, and privilege, of being a preacher was that you were helping people to gain a sense of meaning amid the usual confusions, and sometimes, the utter chaos of life.
Of course, some narratives are better, more truthful, than others. That is to say, some tell a story that offers a more adequate account of suffering and evil and human action and agency, while other narratives distort reality. For the latter, see Donald Trump. He is master of false narratives. False narratives typically look for some “other” or scapegoat to blame and pin all responsibility there. Typical false narratives also they have little place in them for uncertainty or ambiguity.
That’s one reason conspiracy theories are such a popular form of false narrative. They answer, usually in a dangerously misleading way, the human need for a sense of meaning and, most especially, for a sense of control. But we don’t really have control, do we? Certainly, never complete control. True narratives about human life come to grips with this. They help us to cope with ambiguity, which is an essential element of our human condition. “Ambiguity,” wrote essayist Lewis Thomas, “is the sure knowledge that the ground beneath our feet is constantly shifting.”
Another kind of narrative that is popular today is the “super-hero” story. The hero, who possessing special powers, will rescue us all and vanquish all that threatens us. That too is a false narrative, one that paves the way for our current infatuation with autocratic leaders and “strongman” figures, while disempowering ordinary citizens and undermining democracy.
A pandemic presents a real challenge to our sense of life’s meaning. In her 2017 book, Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World, author Laura Spinney, offers some conjectures on why we remember the First World War pretty well, but hardly recall the much more lethal Spanish flu epidemic that followed hard on the heels of WWI. She observes “A flu pandemic has no clear beginning or end, and no obvious heroes,” in contrast to a war.
Our current pandemic, the COVID-19 pandemic, being “novel” presents additional challenges. We’re still learning about its transmission. We don’t understand its mutations. And while we have some understanding of who is most vulnerable, getting it “under control” remains hugely challenging. Add in the human factors, like the studies indicating that if a vaccine is successfully developed — still a big “if” — only 75% of Americans say they would be willing to be vaccinated!
Our effort to cope with this pandemic is compromised by several factors. One is a lack of leadership. Trump is in way over his head. The story he tells is one of victimization and grievance, which doesn’t really work or help now. We need a narrative that helps us to deal with uncertainty, that mobilizes our strengths and capacities, and that comforts us in suffering and loss. While some leaders are offering this, it’s a huge deficit to not have that coming from our elected President.
Another factor that is compromising us at this time is the long erosion of social trust in American society. Our trust in scientific information and those who provide it is but one example. The World Health Organization, the CDC, NIH and local public health departments and officers have all been under attack (as often as not from the President). But social trust has been eroding for a long time in America. The stories we have told ourselves about “being in it together,” about “courage under pressure,” aren’t as readily available now. Our go-to has become the victim narrative, which is dis-empowering not empowering.
You might say that our societal “immune system” is now heavily compromised by inept, even toxic, leadership, diminished social trust and sense of community, and erosion of moral and spiritual frameworks and narratives.
So this virus is really testing us. And the test is not, in the end, mainly about science or technology or expertise — although all that is obviously important. This is a moral and spiritual test. Do we have the narratives and values that help us cope with ambiguity and uncertainty, with suffering, with randomness, and most of all with fear? Are we telling ourselves a true story or fabricating false ones?
I continue to find these resources, and a true story, in the Christian faith and its narrative. In a subsequent blog I may develop that argument further. But again, that narrative too is less available to us than was once the case. Partly that’s because we’ve become a more secular society. But also because many have distorted the Christian narrative, putting it in service of scapegoating the vulnerable or making it a tribal narrative of the anxious and fearful. It is none of these things, which is one of the reasons that preachers and churches need to boldly keep at telling the story in ways that are truthful and honest.
Preachers — your work is now more important than ever. And don’t you forget it!