The Unspoken Tragedy of the Coronavirus

While preparing for a class, I received a photo via text from my husband who was picking up a few items at a local store. I was startled when I saw the photo, which is seen above. I was unaware of the panic that the coronavirus had caused in our small community since no cases had yet been reported locally. As you may notice, the aisle that once was brimming with toilet paper now reveals a scarcity, and a different photo that he sent me discloses how the aisle reserved for disinfectants had an even greater paucity (such a dearth of this type of merchandise causes me to briefly entertain the thought of buying stock in toilet paper and disinfectant companies). The stock clerk, who assisted my husband as he observed the empty shelves, said it has been crazy. Yes, these are crazy-making days.

But all jesting aside . . .

The side effect of the coronavirus is another epidemic . . . fear.

While leaders in our communities and country implore us to continue to go about our normal routine, to avoid the urge to panic while being careful, many continue to be anxious. Through our hoarding, we illustrate how we ignore that the mortality rate of the coronavirus is low. Granted, although the risk is low, the risk is real so that fear becomes a controlling impulse for many.

Of course, this epidemic of fear could engender other kinds of deaths as the full ramifications of our panic are yet to be seen. What will be the outcome? It is hard to know. It may be the death of unbridled prosperity for some companies or even the death of our current economic expansion, resulting in the resurrection of a recession.

But I want to focus upon another death that this epidemic of fear implicitly produces that is a death with dire consequences:

It is the unspoken tragedy of the death of the willingness to see the other’s personhood—it is the death of empathy . . . The death of feeling for the other.

It is the death of connection in which there is a life-giving energy when one is seen, heard and valued. Fear drives out empathy as is seen in our competitiveness to buy every last piece of toilet paper on the shelf before anyone else.

Empathy cannot exist amidst this fear.

And so, for now, fear is triumphing.

So why is fear the current champion? I suspect that in part it is because the coronavirus is new and unknown, but even more importantly, it is without a cure. It cannot be fixed, which means we are exposed. We are vulnerable. Since it is exceedingly contagious, since there is an absence of a cure, and since people die from it, our innate need to protect ourselves at the expense of others surfaces with a vengeance.

With the emergence of the coronavirus, our inclination to fix is exposed amidst our feelings of vulnerability. With our culture’s emphasis on individuality and independence, we are a nation of fixers. Fixing hides our vulnerability. But death, which we cannot fix, exposes our ultimate vulnerability; thus, we would rather avoid the subject of death, even when the discussion of the death is not about ourselves but someone else. If you doubt this, just talk to someone who is grieving. The griever could probably tell you instances of her effort to mourn (grieve outwardly) that were quashed. She could probably tell you about occasions when she attempted to talk openly about her husband’s death in a search to find someone who would walk with her and share her need to mourn. Instead, she heard phrases like, “Well, at least you had 40 good years with him,” or “He’s in a better place,” or “In time you will get over it.” Instead of finding a co-journeyer, she found a “fixer,” such as when a friend was too uncomfortable to dwell with her in her brokenness and suffering.

The fixing mentality of our nation’s culture came home to me a few years ago while writing Who Is Present in Absence? in which I recall

a current television commercial on protection against identity theft in which robbers enter a bank and command everyone to lay on the ground. The security guard, who is present in the lobby, simply stands by the patrons who are lying on the floor, causing one customer to insist that the guard takes care of the situation. The so-called guard replies that he is not a guard but “a security monitor.” His job is to inform others only when there is a robbery. He pauses and calmly states, “There’s a robbery.” Thus, the failure to visibly act and intervene in the midst of clear and present danger is portrayed in the commercial as being useless, in effect leaving the customer abandoned.[1]

The problem with the mentality of fixing is that it silences the mentality of indwelling in the other, which is being with and connecting deeply with the other in the other’s suffering.[2]

Unfortunately, the travesty of the panic over the coronavirus, the desire for the fix, is the increased isolation that fosters loneliness.

The emergence of the coronavirus in our nation arrives at a time when fear and loneliness are already on the rise. Brené Brown speaks about our nation being divided into two groups that completely separate themselves from each other. Correspondingly, there is an increase in loneliness as people feel less connected to others.[3] In other words, the coronavirus emerges at a time when we are already focused on ideologies, not persons. It comes at a time when members of our nation seek to influence the other to believe “just like me.” It arrives at a time when we are already struggling to see the other’s humanity, the other’s personhood. It surfaces at a time we are more captivated on fixing the other or coming out ahead of the other.[4]

The need to fix and the expression of empathy cannot and will not exist in the same space.

If we are going to survive this crisis in a healthy way, it is fundamental to engage with others. That is, to genuinely see our neighbor—to indwell the being of the other through empathy. Now is time to reach out and be a neighbor. If the neighbor is quarantined, this is the time to strive to see our neighbor’s brokenness and connect at that place of our neighbor’s need. This could involve dropping off groceries at their front door as a way to suffer/feel with the other. In other words, we offer to give them our toilet paper.

As a Christ-follower, we are instructed to love God and our neighbor.

Such love appears by way of indwelling as seen in the members of the Trinity. The love of the Trinity is so complete that each person of the Trinity indwells in the other while not being consumed by the other. Humanity is now invited to enter into the love of the Trinity by way of Jesus Christ, who joined us in our ultimate vulnerability, death. Becoming a Christ-follower, then, is about a faith in which Christ indwells in us and we indwell in Christ. As Andrew Root argues, we are now called to participate in this ministry of indwelling by seeing each other as persons via empathy, not individuals we are to fix.[5]

A parable that captures the power of empathy, the importance of indwelling the other, is the parable of the Good Samaritan. Unfortunately, the power of its punch  may be somewhat lost to us because we are so far removed from the original culture in which it was set. Of course, ministers and scholars attempt to explain it, but even then, it is difficult for us in the 21st century to fully comprehend its forcefulness to the original audience. To help us, the remainder of my blog plays with this parable by applying it to our context.

It is March of 2020 when you become infected with the coronavirus. You are very weak and unable to help yourself or remove yourself from your own home. As you stare out the window, you catch a glimpse of an elected federal government official of whose ideals you support. Since you had voted for this person, you believe that this elected official would definitely come to your aid since this official is aware of your sickness. However, to your dismay, you watch as the government official makes eye contact with you, waves, and walks to the other side of the street, avoiding your home altogether.

A short time later you notice a doctor coming down your street. Oh, good, someone who knows what to do for you! However, once again to your dismay, you watch as the doctor quickens his/her pace and stares at the ground while quickly walking by your home. You are shocked! What kind of a doctor would do this?

A short time later you observe someone else driving down your street. When you see who it is, you immediately assume this individual, who is a neighbor, will not lift a finger to help you. First of all, you are very contagious, and you assume your neighbor, who is a member of the opposing side, would only focus on him/herself. Second, this neighbor’s values are completely the opposite of your own Christian values (in which you are right)! You have sought to expose and quell the very ideals that this neighbor holds. You have attempted to influence and persuade others to see the true light via social media. You have joined others in rallying against convictions like your neighbor’s, all in the name of protecting what you believe.

Yet, it is this neighbor who, upon hearing you have the virus, comes into your home. It is this neighbor, upon seeing how weak and sick you are, lifts you carefully from your sofa, and places you in his/her vehicle to take you to the hospital. At the hospital you overhear your neighbor saying, “I think this check will pay for the costs, but I will return in a couple weeks to cover any other accrued expenses.”

For Christ-followers, this illustrates Christ’s empathic action toward humanity. Jesus Christ reaches out to us while we are enemies of God and tabernacles among us. But unlike the “Good Samaritan,” Jesus Christ not only touches us, but he also becomes the patient in order to heal us. God indwells in humanity’s suffering so that we may indwell in God. James Torrance captures this thought well:

Christ does not heal us by standing over against us, diagnosing our sickness, prescribing medicine for us to take, and then going away, to leave us to get better by obeying his instructions—as an ordinary doctor might. No, He becomes the patient! He assumes that very humanity which is in need of redemption, and by being anointed by the Spirit in our humanity, by a life of perfect obedience, by dying and rising again, for us, our humanity is healed in him. We are not just healed “through Christ” because of the work of Christ but “in and through Christ” (italics in original).[6]

While I am not advocating entering the home of a neighbor who has the coronavirus, I am inviting us to remember we are relational beings. During these times of great angst let us strive to recall that we are called to be participants in the lives of others in a similar way Christ participates in our lives. We are called to indwell the other through empathy as Christ indwells in us and we in Christ. We are called to feel with, to be alongside others in their suffering. We are called to be a neighbor, not an influencer. We are called to see others as persons, who are also broken like we are, and connect at the place of our needs. This may be a simple gesture such as dropping off a bag of groceries, or toilet paper, at the neighbor’s front door.

During this Lenten season, I leave you with the words of Andrew Root:

God becomes a broken person in the cross of Christ so that we might share in God’s person, so death and sin might not keep us from sharing in God’s life. Empathy, the very desire to indwell us through relationship, sends God into flesh and into broken flesh, to the cross.[7]

 

[1] Pamela F. Engelbert, Who Is Present in Absence: A Pentecostal Theological Praxis of Suffering and Healing (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2019), 110.

[2] This blog is inspired by The Relational Pastor by Andrew Root as seen in my use of the word “indwelling.” See Andrew Root, The Relational Pastor: Sharing in Christ by Sharing Ourselves (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2012), Kindle Edition.

[3] Brené Brown, “Brené Brown: America’s Crisis of Disconnection Runs Deeper Than Politics,” Fast Company website, September 12, 2017, https://www.fastcompany.com/40465644/brene-brown-americas-crisis-of-disconnection-runs-deeper-than-politics (accessed March 7, 2020).

[4] Root writes, “This is so because fear always refuses to indwell another, to be with another; fear pushes away from relationships, deceiving us into even ending relationships so that we might be ‘safe.’ Fear believes that the point of human existence is safety, is self-fulfillment, is your own interest.” Root, The Relational Pastor, 103.

[5] Andrew Root, The Relational Pastor: Sharing in Christ by Sharing Ourselves (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2012), Kindle Edition.

[6] James Torrance, “The Vicarious Humanity of Christ,” in The Incarnation: Ecumenical Studies in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed A.D. 381, edited by Thomas F. Torrance (Edinburgh: Handsel, 1981),141.

[7] Root, The Relational Pastor, 99.

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