thoughts on how we make sense of a pandemic from a therapist who once thought she’d be a pastor.

What a strange and overwhelming time it is to be a human in this world.

Regardless of age, ethnicity, place you live – there is no life untouched in some way by this new reality of life with COVID-19. Inevitably, living in the grips of a global pandemic impacts us all, though the reverberation is felt in differing ways depending on factors like geography, privilege, and access to healthcare.

I read a post recently that offered the perspective that the world ‘needed’ this pandemic in some ways, to offer a wake up call to the world. As I read it my heart sunk a bit in my chest and stomach turned. I think the intent was to highlight some of the ways that we are seeing things move adaptively in light of recent circumstances. I think it was intended to highlight our collective need to take better care of each other. I think it was intended as an encouraging sentiment.

But I also found it to be blind and universally not applicable, therefore making it a statement that was rooted in privilege and that effectively served to dismiss the experience of large swaths of the population.

I think that a global pandemic is a brutal and unfortunate and harsh experience for humanity, and that it is one that highlights inequalities between those who have and those who don’t. I think it exacerbates the struggle of those who live in spaces of marginalization and oppression, and privileges those with economic, social, and medical resources. I think that those who were underemployed or living in fragile economic spaces, that those in older bodies or disabled bodies who might fear being deemed less worthy of a ventilator, those who counted on social programming or school lunches, or those living in refugee camps would suggest that a pandemic was the last thing this world needed.

I think it’s easier for people with privilege, whose food supply is secure and whose jobs can still happen remotely to frame the pandemic as some sort of needed worldwide reset. Perhaps the privileged folks whose sense of security is fixed and firm are finding this reminder of their own fragility, and of the need for interdependence, helpful and enlightening. No doubt it is. Yet I think the marginalized and oppressed folks have had enough hard things to navigate without a pandemic, are all too familiar with insecurity, and have long learned that healing belongs to and in communities, and to suggest there being a silver lining can effectively minimize or erase the inordinate extra weight that our present realities pile on those with already unbearable loads.

I hold these thoughts with the awareness that we are a people of narrative. We understand the world through story, and we are all making our way through this shitshow of a time trying to write out our own account of how and why these events are unfolding, many trying to write a story with a feel-good message to hold it all together. Likely because framing it as a needed worldwide reset feels more palatable than this being utterly ruinous and globally traumatizing.

I understand that we need a story. That we need a way to cloak these events that can give it some form and structure; and truly, we need a container for all the beauty that has emerged in light of this crisis. Because in the midst of deeply grievous and sorrowful realities, I wonder what we do with the redemptive moments of this global experience, and how we story them in ways that are not minimizing or erasing the pain and struggle of so many during this time. How do we fit moments of collective caring, kindness, generosity, innovation and the altruism that is emerging into our broader pandemic narrative? How do we notice and celebrate the ways in which the earth is healing as a result of reduction in emissions without suggesting to the mom that can no longer make rent and fears eviction that this is a necessary and good thing?

Before becoming a therapist, in another life, I studied theology and was actually seriously considering becoming a pastor. Faith and Christian community was for me a space of healing and landing in my earlier life, with only minimal amounts of unbearable shame, though many I work with have had very different and incredibly painful experiences in faith communities. While my own faith has deconstructed and exists in a form that is no longer recognizable or identifiable in the way it once was, I still am drawn to ideas and metaphors within the Christian tradition as tools of understanding, or ways to make sense of realities around us.

What I pondered this morning as I held these things together was the idea resurrection, maybe because Easter is coming and my body is feeling this on a visceral level – or maybe because in ways so prevalent, death is all around us at this moment. We read of it nightly in the news, tallying up the bodies and hearing stories of impossible choices that have to be made between who lives and who dies, and for some we are confronting our own mortality in real ways. Thinking about resurrection, the idea of life emerging after death, I wonder how perhaps this idea may lend itself to what is transpiring in our world today as we grieve the death of what was, and observe new ways of living emerge in the here and now. I recalled a paper I wrote in my undergrad where I provided an exegesis (an explanation or interpretation of a text, often biblical) of an Old Testament verse that talks about a tree stump. The context of the text is that there had been a massive war, and a nation was destroyed – with a wasting disease sent to the warriors that decimated their numbers, with the writer noting that the remaining trees of this nations’ forest would be “so few you could count them on one hand.” The rest would be destroyed. Yet in spite of this destruction – out of a stump would grow a shoot, and this shoot would grow and bear fruit in generations to come.

Death. And then life. Desolation, and hope. [And there’s the whole Jesus/resurrection story but that one is murky and problematic for me on many levels, so I think we’ll keep it focused on trees.]

Now biblical literacy aside [and truly, my scholarship here is totally rusty] this image of a stump with a little shoot growing out of it is what is burned in my brain as I reflect on the reality that we are living in. There is mass decimation, and so much of the vibrant aliveness has been sapped from life as we know it. There is deep loss, and in many ways, an unrecognizable landscape. And yet, tiny shoots still spring forth in the midst of the carnage.

This image has left me with my own metaphor of understanding here, and as I sit with it – what settles in is a deeper disappointment with what some of our culture’s available narratives may offer us in this time. As I’ve let words leave my fingers here I think what’s distressing about some of the languaging and storywriting that’s happening around this crisis, especially when there is a silver-lining, or cosmic-purposing of the reality can be explained in two parts. First, it feels so very rushed. This crisis is far from over. Our lessons are far from gleaned. The story is not even close to finished. Yet the human propensity to avoid discomfort is so great, and so we rush to line reality in platitudes and optimism and cheer. But doing that brings me to the second aspect that gives me pause, which is the way that we can easily neglect to acknowledge that even within resurrection and the brilliance of new shoots teeming with life – that there is death. Something that was is no longer.

In an effort to bypass pain, suffering, loss, devastation, grief, and the reality that the world is no longer as it was, there can be a premature leap to find a more soothing story and in doing so we neglect the reality of death. Literal death, and the multitude, the extreme multitude of deaths that accompany these times for so, so many humans.

Loss of life. Loss of relationship. Physical disconnection. Lack of safe housing. Loss of jobs. Loss of touch. Breakdowns of families. Being stuck with abusers. Death of dreams and plans. Loss of basic necessities of living. Loss of safety. Ever growing divides between those who have and those who don’t. Those with privilege will come out of this infinitely less scathed than those who don’t have social, economic, political, or health resources to weather these storms, and I would suggest that at some level this has the potential to – when it’s over – further escalate the gap between those who have and those who have not, which I think speaks to a loss of equity, or perhaps it is simply an illumination of the glaring inequities that exist in our present day.

Perhaps these words resonate more in my own body than they do on page, but all this to say that I think this space and time we are walking through is grievous and devastating. I think that anything that exacerbates vulnerability and the lack of equity that exists in our world, that leaves some with greater access to care and resources and others more vulnerable is painful and sorrowful. And, in spite of the many deaths and the multitude of losses that will accompany this season of our global history I am still confident that life will emerge. That there will be fresh green shoots of hope and care and generosity and beauty, and hopefully a collective awakening of our shared humanity, and if we are lucky, a renewed sense of our collective human identity and the myriad of ways in which we belong to each other.

But that fresh hope comes on the heels of devastation and destruction. And it is essential to remember that living with loss is part of what it means to be human. I think it’s our duty to practice holding space for both realities in this time, and our job to be careful about the stories we’re writing as we do our best to attempt to make sense of our present reality and the collective experiences we are sharing, recognizing that our stories are shaped by a multitude of factors – and that our narrative isn’t necessarily the universally true narrative.

Let’s make space to sit in the death. To let the reality of resurrection be about both dying and rising, about pain and beauty – and let’s not hurry into hope before we give space for grief.

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