What's Tony Thinking

Have We Learned What We Are Supposed to Learn from this Pandemic?


In the last weeks of my ministry at Seattle’s Plymouth Church I had lunch with a wise person who asked me a question. Had I learned what I needed to learn from that position and this chapter in my life?

I think I said something like, “God, I hope so!”

Her theory was that in every job we held or situation we encountered there was something life, or God, would have us learn. When we had learned it, then it was time to move on.

I thought of that conversation as I listened the other day to Seattle’s Mayor, Jenny Durkan, on the radio talking about the pandemic which is not, “moving on.”

She said, “Hope is on the horizon. A vaccine is coming.” Then she added a “but,” a big but. “But, we have another six months, maybe more, when COVID remains a huge threat and challenge,” when we need to keep up our guard and continue doggedly with preventative measures. “I know we’re all tired of it,” she added, “but we just had to keep on through what looks to be a tough winter.”

I found myself thinking that maybe the deeper question is the one my luncheon companion posed, “Have we learned what we are to learn from this pandemic?”

One answer to that question will come in the next week or two. Will Congress gets its act together and enact a new relief package to help those suffering most? Or will the hard-lines of what seems best for our political party and tribe in the short-term override what’s best for the country in both the short and long term? To put it another way, is recent talk about healing and working together just words or will it translate into action?

So lesson number one of this pandemic is that our super-partisan political system is dangerous in all sorts of ways and needs change. Will it? Time will tell. The emergence of the bi-partisan “problem-solvers” caucus and their compromise relief proposal is hopeful.

Here’s what seems to me the second lesson of the pandemic: we’re not all in this together. Many have said, hopefully, “We’re all in this together,” but what we’ve learned is that this isn’t true.

Some people, some Americans are far more vulnerable and at risk than others. Black and brown people and Indians have gotten sick at far higher rates than others. And in terms of employment and economic security lower-wage workers (who often turn out to be “essential”) and women have been hit far harder than others.

I wish I could say, “We’re all in it together,” I really do, but facts on the ground suggest otherwise. Death may come to all, but the virus comes to some more than others.

The third lesson here has more of an inner and personal dimension. Have you and I discovered in this time ways to be more grateful for what we have rather than being aggrieved by what we do not have?

Early in the pandemic the Franciscan priest and writer Thomas Joseph White offered some thoughts — questions really — that seemed to me profound then and remain so now.

He writes as a Roman Catholic so some translation, particularly at paragraph three when he talks about “sacramental ministry” may be necessary for non-R.C.s. But his point there, about this testing and deepening our interior resources and practice has application to us all. Here’s White:

“What does it mean that God has permitted (or willed) temporary conditions in which our elite lifestyle of international travel is grounded, our consumption is cut to a minimum, our days are occupied with basic responsibilities toward our families and immediate communities, our resources and economic hopes are reduced, and we are made more dependent upon one another?

“What does it mean that our nation-states suddenly seem less potent and our armies are infected by an invisible contagion they cannot eradicate, and that the most technologically advanced countries face the humility of their limits? Our powerful economies are suddenly enfeebled, and our future more uncertain.

“Priests and bishops are confronted with a new obligation to seek interiority over activism as their sacramental ministry is rendered less potent, and laypeople have to find God outside the sacraments in their own interior lives, discovering new ways to be grateful for what they have rather than disdainful in the face of what they lack. We might think none of this tells us anything about ourselves, or about God’s compassion and justice. But if we simply seek to pass through all this in hasty expectation of a return to normal, perhaps we are missing the fundamental point of the exercise.”  (italics added)


Categories: Uncategorized