Much debate has ensued over the past couple of months as to God’s role (or lack thereof) in the current pandemic. Whether the pandemic is seen as God’s explicit or permissive will, or whether God has created an autonomous world in where certain things require human or natural intervention to change, there has been no end to the questions and opinions on this matter.
Despite all of this, it is extremely unlikely that we as a people will gain the absolute confirmation on this topic that we are seeking. Yet in the midst of our uncertainty, it does not, nor should not, prevent us from finding meaning and clarity amid the struggle. As Ross Douthat recently stated in a New York Times editorial, “meaningless suffering is the goal of the devil, and bringing meaning out of suffering is the saving work of God.”
As the pandemic persists, it does appear, though, that general themes are emerging that suggest keys for all of us in finding meaning during this difficult time. One of these themes is our need to empathize with others in difficult straits, which I detailed here. But beyond this, there are other messages that are forthcoming:
1) Nothing replaces direct human contact. Nothing.
There is a curious thing that seems to be occurring, especially with the younger population. As we all have become more isolated from each other, and relying more on virtual platforms to keep connected, it seems that we are all becoming increasingly aware that nothing takes the place of being in the presence of others and absorbing each other through our senses.
In my own home, I have seen our oldest kids go through “friend withdrawal,” and I increasingly know of teens who are tired of connecting online; many teachers are tired of e-learning, and friends can’t wait to get together (not just virtually). Although certainly using technology as a means of communication will always remain to some extent, it may have taken a pandemic to remind us that truly being with each other is impossible to replace.
2) Some aspects of health are uncontrollable; but for those that aren’t, we have a responsibility to take this seriously.
Long before the coronavirus came to the U.S., another epidemic had seized the country. Years ago, complications from obesity officially became the No. 1 cause of death. Despite this dire reality and the fact this trend threatens to bankrupt our health-care system, a peculiar reality exists.
As it was noted in the introduction to a recent American Psychologist article on obesity, Americans seem “somewhat ambivalent” about the obesity epidemic, “often seeing obesity as a cosmetic issue most appropriately addressed by personal responsibility” (pg. 136). Yet, as was posed in a 2013 National Geographic article entitled “Sugar Love,” “Why do 1/3 of adults [worldwide] have high blood pressure [U.S. statistics are now around 46%], when in 1900 only 5% had high blood pressure?” Whatever the answer, a link is emerging between the pandemic and these health issues that we might want to consider even further. For example, increasing evidence is finding that those with high blood pressure are at greater risk to get COVID-19, to have worse symptoms, and to die from this condition. In Italy, statistics indicate that 76% of people who died from the coronavirus had high blood pressure. Certainly some that have suffered and died from the virus did so without any preventability, but we certainly have to wonder if our ambivalence toward preventable health conditions will now be taken more seriously.
3) The natural world demands our utmost respect and care. It is one of the greatest resources available, and we should regard it as such.
Across the world, something remarkably positive is happening while we as human beings are struggling. The natural world is flourishing. Rivers and oceans are becoming cleaner. Air pollution is reducing; in fact, Los Angeles experienced the longest stretch of “good” air quality in March 2020 since 1980, when statistics like this were first recorded. And this happened during just the beginning of all the coronavirus mandates.
Meanwhile, my daughter showed me a funny but telling meme the other day. The first picture was labeled “family before the quarantine,” which showed them all sitting around the table, busy on their personal devices. The second was “after the quarantine,” which showed them all taking a walk outside together. In what has been a brilliantly colorful spring for many of us, it appears that we may be finally giving our planet a much needed break and becoming aware of what a phenomenal place it is.
4) Most of our lives were moving too fast, and we needed to slow down.
One of the silver linings of the pandemic for many families such as ours was it provided a great excuse to step back from a frenetic calendar and just enjoy a simpler existence. It’s true what they say: that too much of a good thing is just, well, too much. So many of us have felt that our constant motion before the pandemic was inhibiting our ability to appreciate the best things that life has to offer. Now, I have to admit that coming home after work to eat dinner, hang out and read some books has been really nice. The challenge for all of us as we go forward is how to harness this message when engagements become available once again.
5) If we continue to bicker, divide and disparage, it will only bury us further.
If there is one thing that the pandemic has done, it has illuminated just how ridiculous, unproductive and misguided so much of our conflict is. Whether it is in our homes, our politics, or between different nations and cultures, this pandemic period has reinforced the idea that we as a people waste massive amounts of time and money on unnecessarily conflict.
If governments across the world spent a fraction of their military budgets on addressing infectious disease, it is safe to say that this situation would look much different. If news organizations and politicians reallocated time spent in flaunting and exploiting disagreements, what a different place it would be in which we reside. It’s not that the pandemic has reduced conflict (although warring countries certainly are having to refocus their finances), but it has magnified just how much conflict is based on ego and self-interests. Meanwhile, common goals that we could all embrace (e.g., health and safety, economic inequities) are there for the taking if we as a world would put empathy and reason first and ego second.
6) Life is not an expectation, but a gift. Nothing will insure it, and the only thing more important than learning from it is embracing it.
Legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden once said, “When you’re through learning, you’re through.” As we consider our current situation, it begs the following question. Am I willing to embrace and learn from life as it comes, or am I willing to only accept it on my terms? As challenges to our usual existence continue to emerge, it is understandable that we all yearn for a sense of normalcy and predictability. Yet as has repeatedly been shown through history, those who are willing to adapt to what comes are those who learn that joy does not lie with others, but rather lies from within (and, ultimately, from God!). All of us have these “off limits” entities of our lives that we fear will be taken away from us. And while there is nothing wrong with praying that this does not occur, there is a particular danger for each individual and humanity in general to cling to these desires as if we couldn’t carry on without them.
As Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl (who once lost most of his family in the concentration camps) once said, “when we are no longer able to change the situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”
Jim Schroeder, Ph.D., is the vice president of the Department of Psychology and Wellness
and training director of the pre-doctoral internship and postdoctoral fellowship at Easterseals Rehabilitation Center in Evansville, Indiana.