Thoughts in the Summer of the Virus

As the biggest global catastrophe of my lifetime lurches ahead with no close in sight, at least one thing has become clear amid the fog of war: we need to get better at responding to crisis, and fast.

In the USA, most of us now alive have enjoyed a lifetime of political and economic stability with only minor interruptions, a track record rare in human history. Sometimes we’ve remembered to be grateful for this fragile blessing; but in the manner of our forgetful species, that gratitude now seems often to have been replaced with a creeping entitlement. Many of us seem to have concluded that we are blessed because we deserve blessing. An addiction to ease and security has left us woefully unprepared for sudden shocks, bereft of essential tools to navigate a shifting world.

Photo by Steve Long on Unsplash

This is everyone’s problem, regardless of their faith or lack of it. But as a disciple of Jesus, I’m especially concerned about the behavior of my tribe, those who claim to be driven by the Spirit of power, love, and a sound mind. Our King has called us to lead our broken world toward sanity, peace, and restoration. Unless we can renounce our entitlement and gracefully adapt to change, we will not thrive even as individuals, much less lead our families and communities through hardship to healing and wholeness.

An addiction to ease and security has left us woefully unprepared for sudden shocks, bereft of the essential tools to navigate a shifting world.

Hope Lies Uphill

To keep our spiritual balance in a world shaped by social media means taking the road less traveled; refusing to be controlled by our gut reactions and the black-and-white thinking of propaganda farms and campaign rallies. It means slowing down, embracing nuance and paradox, and giving the benefit of the doubt to contrary views.

These slower, harder, more constructive thought patterns have never been our defaults, which smooths the road for the opportunists and puppeteers who want to drive sound thinking out of circulation altogether. The puppeteers profit from passive, gullible followers who lack the imagination to ask meaningful questions and who mistake rage and bluster for substance, and it’s much easier to let them pull our strings than to resist. But if we do, it is always the puppeteers who benefit, not us.

Empty outrage, oversimplifications, and demonizing the Other are viruses of the mind, cunningly engineered to bypass our defenses and hijack and steal our spiritual resources for alien goals that will destroy us in the end. These habits of thought harm us because they are designed to crowd out love and erode relationships, leaving us alone at the mercy of the puppeteers. They weaken us further by making us rigid, reactive, paranoid, unable to adapt when circumstances change around us.

Bending Without Breaking

During ordinary times these harmful thought patterns might just make us annoying to our friends. In especially dangerous periods like the one unfolding now, times of breakneck change, panic, and runaway emotions, these thought patterns can destroy us, or worse, transform us into destroyers ourselves.

Again and again, history favors those who can meet change calmly; who seek within, not without, for responsibility and solutions; who trust only leaders who have shown themselves worthy; who can cooperate well with others; and who can change their approach and perspective without losing a grip on their moral anchor points.

This is not hypothetical. We can examine past crises and see who emerged wiser and stronger, who collapsed into helplessness, who threw themselves into the task of healing, who died, and who suffered that fate worse than death—to be twisted by fear and rage into monsters who justified brutality and evil that makes their memory stink forever among the legends of their people. Again and again, history favors those who can meet change calmly; who seek within, not without, for responsibility and solutions; who trust only leaders who have shown themselves worthy; who can cooperate well with others; and who can change their approach and perspective without losing a grip on their moral anchor points.

In the rest of this post, I want to offer some thoughts on how to apply this flexible, teachable, open mindset as we confront our responsibilities in the face of a pandemic none of us really understands yet.

The Mess We’re In

First, a summary of where we are. I hope it’s unnecessary to point out that novel coronavirus is not going away. The point of any precautions we take now is not to eliminate the virus, but to reduce the rate at which it spreads through society and the risk of exposure by the immune-compromised and elderly long enough to develop more effective treatments.

Government lockdown measures have created ripple effects that are hard to measure but real and destructive, including increased mental illness and suicide, increased opportunities and triggers for domestic abuse, and loss of work and income, which leads to mass hardship and even starvation, often far from where the restrictions happen.

Rushed schedules, uncertain data, and incompetence resulted in many policies that were needlessly harsh and intrusive, or not strong enough in the right areas, sometimes both at the same time. In some places it’s arguable that the policies caused more harm than they prevented.

Furthermore, governments around the world, always eager to add tools to their arsenal of power, are implementing “emergency” invasions of privacy and erosions of personal freedom that will probably outlast the immediate crisis, handing the powerful more opportunities for tyranny and abuse.

But it’s equally true that the pandemic itself has resulted in mass illness and death, and there’s abundant evidence that these illnesses and deaths would be far higher without the preventive measures taken. Humans have been studying viruses, including coronaviruses, for many decades, and while we don’t know everything about the rate and spread and deadliness of this new one, we know that reducing contact between people slows down the spread—and that without sufficient measures, a new virus can spread so fast it overwhelms healthcare resources and causes needless deaths even among people who didn’t contract the virus.

Indeed, in Texas, as I write this, some hospitals are overwhelmed with Covid-19 cases and hundreds of people are dying of Covid-19 daily. When health systems are overwhelmed, people begin to die needlessly, not because they were going to die regardless, but because when they need lifesaving care, the limited resources available are stretched too thin.

Getting Free and Taking Control

The above is an assessment of the big picture as I understand it. There’s a lot to be troubled about here, but the problem with such a focus is that most of us have little direct influence on government policy, and the big trends tend to proceed from decade to decade mostly uninterrupted, despite the temporary burst of hope and enthusiasm that draws voters to the polls each election season in Western democracies.

The 24-hour outrage cycle delivers a cheap, reliable high, but it ultimately accomplishes little positive change. Politicians and officials generally pacify an angry crowd with a concession or two and then go ahead and do whatever they want—and on the rare occasions when they do yield to an unruly majority, that majority is as likely as not to be in the wrong themselves.

Fortunately that doesn’t mean we are powerless. But to take constructive action, we might need to clear our heads by turning off any voices—regardless where they fall on the political spectrum—who tend to leave us feeling agitated, outraged, helpless, and exasperated. Those voices are there to manipulate and weaken us. Our negative emotions are their power source. They need us; we don’t need them.

Once we shake ourselves mostly free of the propaganda fire hose, we can begin assessing the situation by seeking out information from sources whose job is to inform good decision-making rather than to trigger votes. This more reliable information is rarely flashy or packaged to give us a satisfying jolt of validation or outrage, so lazy thinkers find it boring, and it isn’t likely to spontaneously surface in our social media feeds.

To make good decisions, seek out boring information from a range of sources.

To make good decisions, seek out boring information from a range of sources. Try to lay aside what you want to be true and be open to the possibility—even the likelihood—that you are at least partly wrong. Remember that most people—not all, but by far most—are basically decent, even those you strongly disagree with. And in the current crisis, all decent people want the same things: to avoid needless illness and death from Covid-19, while getting businesses, churches, and social interactions back to normal as fast as possible.

The Limits of Policy

Governments, good or bad, are limited in how much they can assist. Reopening businesses and gathering spots helps restore the economy and boost business—unless such actions cause massive spikes in illness that scare people away from work and public events, as is happening now all across the South, where I live.

One telling example of this: no government policy prevented people from attending Trump’s June rally in Tulsa, for instance—the city’s mayor, GT Bynum, even suspended Tulsa’s curfew to make it easier for people to attend—yet the stadium was less than one-third full, for a president who regularly sells out venues, in a state where he has a massive base of enthusiastic supporters. That a prominent attendee of that event, a former presidential candidate, subsequently died of Covid-19 will not likely boost enthusiasm for further mass events.

Acting Constructively

Given this reality, life will only move back toward normal in the short term when enough people are confident that it’s safe to resume their normal activities. To do that, we need some way to keep transmission low without shutting down our daily activities and killing exchange and commerce.

And here is one way regular individuals actually can make a dramatic difference. We can wear masks, which reduce virus transmission everywhere they’ve been tested, by reducing droplets ejected from the mouth and nose to be breathed by others. Don’t let black-and-white thinking trip you up here: a measure does not need to be 100 percent effective to be helpful.

Though you wouldn’t know it from social media, people can practice mask wearing and also advocate for sensible exceptions for the minority of people whose trauma triggers or anxiety issues make masks impractical. In fact, if we reduce our own transmission by wearing masks when possible, we actually help those who cannot wear them by reducing their exposure when we are around them. Furthermore, we can help people whose inability to wear masks draws negative attention, by running errands or otherwise helping them avoid situations where they’ll be especially exposed to infection or poor reactions from others.

Despite the lies of propagandists and politicians, most state officials are desperate to reduce the economic harm from lockdowns and eager to reduce case numbers to levels that justify reopening. Widespread mask wearing and moderate social distancing measures are proven to dramatically reduce case numbers, which results in quicker reopening and allows us to resume normal life as quickly and safely as possible.

Wearing a mask, like anything else, is not an all-or-nothing issue. We can decide, where the law allows, to wear a mask in some places where we deem the risk higher and not in other places where the tradeoff between inconvenience and risk is less clear. But these decisions should be based on a careful attempt to understand our unique local situation and its risk, not on outrage, reaction to a political narrative, or the urge to make a point to people who disagree with us.

You can wear a mask, as I do, because you’ve done the research—carefully, doing your best to reject politically driven narratives and emotional appeals in favor of non-partisan data—and have decided it’s a good way to love your neighbor; an effective way to reduce both the likelihood of giving others a serious illness and the motivation for governments to overreach based on runaway infection levels.

Masks are just an example; one simple, immediate measure that makes things better while we solve the longer, more complex problems that stretch out before us. But those problems, too, will be solved by people who are mentally and spiritually free, who can’t be yanked around by the chains of propaganda and tribalism and momentary outrage. You and I don’t have the power to reverse government malfeasance and injustice: for most of us, that’s well outside the locus of our control, and our outrage is the emotional resource equivalent of filling a sinkhole with gold bricks.

Truth is knowable, empowering, and deeply calming.

We do have the power to figure out what measures we can take on our own to reduce the pain and harm we and our neighbors experience now and in the future, and to apply those measures personally, regardless of our political tribe or the opinions of our peers.

Getting Busy

Remember, most people who go viral on social media or who make campaign speeches do not benefit from a thriving and happy populace. Whether they identify as Left or Right, they win when you are paranoid and anxious and fighting mad. If someone you follow regularly leaves you feeling those emotions—especially if they make those emotions feel righteous and satisfying—turn them off, tune them out, walk away, and find someone who points the way to concrete, empowering action that brings you closer to those around you and leaves you peaceful and clearheaded and pleasant to live with.

Truth is knowable, empowering, and deeply calming. It won’t come from the maelstrom of conspiracies and political talking points that are now the defaults for our cultural conversation. So be a maverick. Get off the outrage train. Be steady. Be calm. Be reasonable. Be adaptable. And be at peace.

This is a time of immeasurable opportunity. Don’t miss it. Gather a band of builders, and while others stand cursing each other astride the ruins of the old world, use the fallen stones to lay the foundation of the world to come.

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