Before the pandemic, it was really nice to believe in the myths of progress and human goodness – that technology promised us a better life and we could make the world a better place by paying for the person behind us at the drive-through.
Such beliefs allowed us to ignore harsh realities plaguing many people worldwide and enjoy our good life.
It required no change, no asking hard questions, and no consideration of how our actions impact others.
Surely, our random acts of kindness would make a difference and, ultimately, make the world into a kinder, gentler place.
Of course, it didn’t work for everyone.
Those who could maintain their good lives might attribute that inequity to some defect in others; they didn’t have enough motivation, were lazy, or perhaps were just unlucky.
The haves could continue to get more because if the have-nots tried harder, they could have it too.
In the meantime, donations to the food bank or thrift store would make up the difference.
We could enjoy our cake, not concerning ourselves with the others who had no bread.
Rent-to-own stores, credit cards and payday loans trapped some in a spiral of debt, moving them farther from the good life they were trying to emulate.
The elusive dream beckoned: If I could just work harder, find a better job, catch a good break, then I would be able to “move up” too.
When a job disappeared, a spouse left, or sickness resulted in huge medical bills, we asked, “If God is a good God, why did this happen?”
These apparent failures created dissonance with our construction of reality, and resolving that dissonance was not easy.
If the world was good, God was good, and we were good, why were bad things happening?
We sought explanations in science, business and religion. We sought technological fixes that could prevent or alleviate suffering.
We hoped for better solutions. We became disillusioned when our religious answers seemed to lack sufficient explanatory power – sometimes abandoning faith completely.
Then, faced with a novel coronavirus, we followed the same patterns:
- “It’s not as bad as the flu.” (We minimized the dangers.)
- “It doesn’t affect the young and healthy.” (I won’t be affected.)
- “We have the best healthcare system in the world.” (Technology can solve this.)
- “Just wash your hands and don’t touch your face.” (Simple precautions can keep us safe.)
- “There’s no benefit in wearing a mask.” (The main consideration is protecting yourself.)
We waited to make significant changes, long past when prudence instructed us to take action.
We needed to keep traveling (just get a window seat and don’t sit next to a sick person), shopping (but don’t panic-buy or hoard), working, and enjoying our good lives the same as always, showing that we were not afraid of a little virus.
Even when it started looking dangerous, many leaders resisted making the big changes required by other countries.
Our disjointed, uncoordinated, and delayed response allowed the virus to spread and the situation to worsen.
That brought us to where we are today: amid a pandemic – a global outbreak of the virus that has killed over 400,000 people worldwide and infected millions.
Most of the world’s population has been confined to homes except for essential tasks; now the news is about reopening.
Health experts say, however, that until there is a vaccine, life will not return to normal.
In the West, we pride ourselves our ability to “think on our feet” and think our way out of difficult circumstances.
Now, we must allow the virus to teach us, rather than relying on our ability to conquer it.
I am not saying God sent the virus to teach us something, merely that, now that it is our reality, we should learn what we can from this experience, allowing it to bear some good fruit.
The pandemic’s isolation teaches us something important that we experience in the spiritual disciplines of solitude and silence: We use many strategies to distract ourselves from our interior lives, our relationship with God and our relationships with others.
These uncomfortable disciplines strip away the distractions that protect us from serious reflection or listening for God’s voice.
Isolated in our homes, we have the opportunity to make space for intentional solitude and silence.
On March 11, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. This date, two weeks after the start of Lent, reminds us that the virus calls us to penitence.
COVID-19 is not divine judgment, but a pandemic overlapping this penitential season asks us to reflect on our own lives, express regret for our sins, and practice true repentance, turning from our wrongs.
The solitude and silence brought to us by a lack of social activities provides fertile ground for our own penitential work, guided by the Spirit of God.
As a result, we must continue to ask God to change us, to make us different; we ask that when the light of the Holy Spirit illuminates our dark places, we would have the courage to change and become more like Jesus.
We pray that repentance would lead us into sanctification. We need that now more than ever.
Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series. Part two is available here.
Rebecca Shenton earned a PhD in Christian ethics from Fuller Theological Seminary. She teaches ethics and serves as the Administrator of the Agriculture, Food, and Human Values Society.