The Killer Virus That Might be a Catalyst for Change
‘It was the worst of times, it was the best of times, it was the winter of despair, it was the spring of hope, it was the season of darkness, it was the season of light.’
With my apologies to Charles Dickens for first daring to plagiarise and then adding insult to injury by rearranging his famous opening line! However, as Rahm Emanuel, the former Major of Chicago, once declared, ‘Never let a serious crisis go to waste… it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.’
COVID-19 has shaken our foundations – and this strange virus has drawn out some of the very worst, but also the very best in humanity.
It has shown us the selfishness of some of our attitudes and behaviours for what they really are.
It has given birth a new generosity of spirit and countless acts of self-sacrifice.
It has left the world’s poorest and most vulnerable least protected, again.
It has demonstrated there are things that matter far more than the pursuit of constant economic growth.
It has forced us to pause.
It has called us to re-evaluate.
It has posed us some serious questions.
It has invited us to search for deeper answers.
It has helped us to focus and realise that the real priority is people, community and the quality of relationships that we have; that growth in these areas is what really counts.
That’s why we find isolation and social distancing so difficult and unsettling.
Human beings are social beings. We’re made to relate. We are wired for community and interdependence. We thrive when we are connected – and struggle when we’re not.
The well-known term ‘fight or flight’ was coined to represent the two choices that our ancient ancestors had when faced with danger. But, in that case, how did homo sapiens manage to survive? Our forefathers couldn’t fly, and nor could they outsprint some of their most ferocious predators. Neither would they have stood a chance in a one-to-one encounter and battle to the death with a sabretooth tiger. The truth is that we humans only survived because we learned to work together. We learned to collaborate.
Californian Redwood trees first graced planet Earth more than 240 million years ago. They are still going strong today. An adult tree will sometimes grow to be over 300 feet tall. With its trunk more than 20 feet in diameter, it can weigh more than 5,000 tons. And research shows that some of the oldest individual trees alive today are more than 2,000 years old.
It is an extraordinary story. Across the millennia, these giants have survived earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, blistering heat, harsh droughts and ice ages, and still they stand. Yet for all this, their root systems are not deep – on average only reaching some 6 feet, to a maximum of 12 feet, down into the soil. The secret of their success lies elsewhere. Their roots may be shallow, but they extend a long way out. They reach over 50 feet from their trunks as they intertwine with those of other surrounding trees. They stand because they stand together.
So how do we respond to the huge challenge that COVID-19 confronts us with? How do we stay connected? How do we learn to do community differently?
We all have a part to play. We are in this together. Because, in truth, our livelihoods have always been bound up together. As Mother Teresa once remarked, ‘Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty.’ It is just that this present moment makes it all much, much clearer.
The challenge is that, in our chaotic world, it has become increasingly difficult to find a sense of deep and genuine community. Some find it impossible. It has become one of the most universal sources of human suffering of our age. Children, teenagers, adults and the elderly all find themselves exposed to the contagious disease of loneliness.
The irony is, of course, that most of us live in closer proximity to more people than at any other point in history. We’re surrounded by people. They are everywhere. But somehow, we’re lost in the crowd.
But Australian writer Mike Riddell goes further. ‘It’s a bizarre development in the tide of history that we have become so isolated from one another that we have begun to regard our self-contained separation with a certain amount of pride. Those who can function without significant support from others are described as independent and self-reliant, while our desire for relationship is treated as evidence of some weakness.’
It is too easy to become so preoccupied with ourselves that we simply neglect to build, or don’t have time to build, meaningful, mutually supportive relationships. We spend our time pursuing our own agendas, our own fulfilment. Yet, at the same time, the unending quest of every human being is to shatter their loneliness.
Perhaps the coronavirus crisis, forcing us to live in isolation from one another will enable us to realise at last that autonomy is never liberation; that if the value our society really does prize above all others is freedom, it is high time we invested more intentionally in community.
In truth, our lives are bound up inseparably with others from the very beginning. The mystery of life is such that our very conception requires the active participation of others. We are essentially dependent beings. Each one of us is the product of community.
More than that, interdependency is a principle which is built into the very nature of the universe.
The tree needs the soil.
The soil needs the rain.
The rain needs the cloud.
The cloud needs the air.
The air needs the tree.
Perhaps, in the end it is impossible to be fully human without being committed to others. Held in tension with our drive for autonomy is, paradoxically, a great longing to belong – to be welcomed, to be valued, not just for what we do but for who we are. We need both to know and to be known. We crave being seen, heard, loved and treasured. The delightful contradiction at the heart of all this is that we can only fully discover who we are as individuals in the context of community. Only as we become aware of the needs of others can we come to understand what it is to be truly us. Perhaps this was part of what Jesus was getting at when he uttered his famous statement ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’
A proper sense of love for ourselves is a vital ingredient when it comes to building healthy relationships. Only when we are truly at peace with ourselves, can we give ourselves to others and discover that we are able to serve others without losing anything. And this, again, is why community is essential to human fulfilment. It’s only in community with others that we can find that elusive acceptance and sense of worth that we so crave. It is this sense of belonging that leads us towards self-acceptance and self-worth.
Just before his death in 1631, John Donne, the English scholar, poet and one-time Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, wrote these famous words:
‘No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.’
But having said all this, my experience has been that the challenge of community is, of course, that people are frustrating. They interfere, make unrealistic demands of me, disappoint me and let me down. Perhaps it is sometimes this – our fear of being hurt – that holds us back from making ourselves vulnerable and makes wearing the protective shell of independence and self-reliance more tempting. We are afraid that commitment to others might make us weak. As C. S. Lewis put it, ‘There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable.’
Willard Waller, the American sociologist, gave his life to studying people in order to gain an understanding of the complex interplay that goes on in human relationships. He focussed this around two deceptively simple yet profound statements:
In any relationship one person loves more than another.
The person who loves the least in any relationship has most power and conversely, the person who loves most has the least power.
In other words, the greater an individual’s love for another, the more vulnerable they become. Those who are more deeply involved in and committed to a relationship end up giving the one who is less involved more power. Waller called all this ‘the principle of least interest.’
The way I see it, to commit ourselves to others never comes with a guarantee of success. Instead, of its very essence, it is a venture of faith and sometimes I will be disappointed. However, I’ve also discovered that there is something about being in community with those who are different to me that is very good for me. I am enriched, but more than that, the best and most lasting relationships, rather than being based on the removal of differences, or the careful avoidance of acknowledging those differences, are in fact built on confronting, embracing and celebrating them.
As I often say to my friends, there is only one thing tougher than being committed to community. Not being committed to community!