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On March 12, our family began our social distancing un-journey. That evening we went shopping for essentials and found full racks of toilet paper, paper towels and sanitizers. We were ahead of the curve we were hoping to flatten. By our next trip on Sunday March 15 our grocery experience changed. Toilet paper was gone. By the following week, Target limited my purchase of sanitizing wipes to a tiny 20-sheet packet. The week after that, floor signs paved the cashier aisles restricting people to stand 6 ft apart; toilet paper, paper towels, sanitizers were now guarded behind velvet ropes to be handed out one by one by staffers.
This new normal may seem minor compared to what people endure in wartorn countries. Yet for the mainstream American it is certainly testing our resolve and reminding us of our mortality just the same. The question to ask now is: Who do we become after this?
It’s a good question to contemplate because everyone has sacrificed. For me, I didn’t self-quarantine because any family member was ill. We social-distanced early because my elderly parents live with us.
We sacrifice our passions as we hide from an apocalyptic fear of a microscopic organism. Just like the fictional short story The Lottery death looms over us as we wonder if we will be the unlucky ones selected to die. Or as in Passover, as it is befitting to think of during this Holy Week, we fear the angel of death may come to our house and snatch away our firstborn son, though we are hopeful that the blood of a lamb smeared over our doors will save us. As of this writing, there are 18,695 dead in the U.S., up from 41 on the day we self-quarantined.
We’ve been denied the opportunity for fame, fortune and fun, as I recounted in a post about sacrificing as a society. We have gone through our own sense of vulnerability, grief, panic, paralysis, mobilization, disorientation, and more dizzying disorientation. Life is not the same, and won’t be for long after the immediate threats have passed.
Yet we’ve also accepted this new way of life, found gratitude, solace and meaning in much-needed routines of family sit-down dinners, Sunday church services (though virtual) and quality conversations.
The fear of our mortality may soon be replaced with the confidence of immortality. I can feel it and see it already. People walking around without masks and getting closer than the requisite 6 ft. Once shelter-in-place policies are lifted, we may avoid hugs and handshakes, but we’ll forget to wash our hands, sanitize door knobs, and make the chicken wing when we cough. We will soon go back to being our semi-aware, slightly germy, social beings, as we should.
At the same time, I don’t want it to happen so quickly because I like who we’re becoming. I like what we’re experiencing. This pandemic has denied us of what we want and has given us the time to pursue what we need. For some, we may not be lucky enough to have the time to recognize what our soul yearns for because we are on the front lines battling this crisis or we’ve lost our jobs and can only think of survival, or we’re responsible to keep thousands employed. But in those brief moments each of us have in silence and stillness, let’s hope we can reflect on whatever is good from whatever is left.
All things considered we have it pretty easy. Our contribution is largely to stay home. So for us we’ve been able to reinstitute family practices we haven’t had since our kids were young. Every night at dinner, my sons share what they’re grateful for and what they’ve accomplished that day. It has helped them realize that they can deny themselves of everything they thought defined them, and somehow still survive. They’re reminded that life is about sacrifice and suffering and it’s how we cope and the decisions we make during these times that define us.
This pandemic has forced us to ask questions we have ignored at our peril: What is evil? What is a well-lived life? What does it mean to be human? These deep questions about human nature have receded almost in lock step with society’s declining belief in God. Maybe for good reason as these ancient questions have always been divisive. Since the founding of America, we have put those questions aside to focus on rational economic and scientific progress. But when life is on the line, we’re forced to awaken from our intellectual slumber and reckon with our humanity.
We are in a new normal that will become a different normal soon, but we will certainly never be back to the old normal. At least not for a long while. The question is: Do we take what we learned during this time and put it to good use? Do we take these new routines and apply it to our lives going forward? In The Lottery, a person is sacrificed for the good of society.
The pandemic has taken lives, but they don’t have to be deaths in vain. We can take what we’ve learned about evil, sacrifice and gratitude to become better individuals and a better society.
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