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The Lesson Never Ends
In early September, Roman Catholic Bishop of Providence Thomas Tobin resumed his regular column in the diocese’s newspaper, Rhode Island Catholic, with an essay titled in accord with his characteristic humor, “Okay, God, You Can Stop Now.” In brief, his point was that the COVID-19 pandemic has taught some important spiritual lessons, and now that we’ve learned them, God can safely set things aright.
The lessons Bishop Tobin lists are these:
- “We’re not completely in control of our lives and fortunes.”
- “Our behavior affects others. … And what’s true on a physical level is equally true in the spiritual realm. … Our righteous conduct and good example encourages others, but our sin contaminates society and brings us all down.”
- We “need to keep our priorities in order. … Every day we should treasure the blessings the Lord has given us as if they’ll disappear tomorrow, because maybe they will.”
As much as we might wish the bishop’s literary device were true, however, we’re nowhere near done learning the lessons that our current predicament can teach.
Consider the story of Canadian nonagenarian Nancy Russell. Already struggling with the newly restrictive lifestyle of her nursing home, Russell did not want to go through another full lockdown. So, she sought and received a medically assisted suicide.
Wesley Smith notes a deep perversity to the story: “for her death, she could be surrounded by friends and family! … So companionship to be made dead but not to remain alive.” Indeed, by choosing death, Mrs. Russell gained permission to leave her nursing home as it went into full lockdown and spend eight days with her family before they all gathered around her bed to sing her to death.
A deeper illness than the coronavirus has settled upon our civilization. We are so frightened of death that we’ve consented to turn over our freedom and much of the substance of our days in order to avoid a small elevation of risk. Yet, we’re so callous about life that we consider death preferable to inconvenience.
In our response to COVID-19, we’ve laid entire industries to waste and cost countless people their livelihoods. We’ve restricted religious services and social activities. We’ve cut children off from their friends and elderly spouses off from their dying soulmates. But can we muster a willingness to expend the resources and accept the inconveniences of making life worth living?
This question reflects not only on the limited circumstances of our global panic. Did we have a willingness to sacrifice for others before the pandemic, and will we have it after? Bishop Tobin’s point is well taken, that we should treasure our blessings in the moment, because they may not be there in the next. Just so, we should be willing to make sacrifices as if we are addressing a temporary crisis even when we are not aware that one exists.
That doesn’t mean living always in panic or eschewing long-term planning and a measure of comfort. It does mean a more-reasonable balance — accepting a little more risk in crisis and a little less complacency during times of ease.
Also as the bishop says, our behavior and decisions affect each other. In the acquiescence to the fear of some, our government has imposed a strict regimen on all of us based not on actual illness, but merely on positive tests. Our ability to tell, with modest accuracy, whether somebody has the virus in his or her body has shifted the standard from being sick with the disease to simply having the virus.
Thus, a positive test can have devastating effects on a family, which influences the decisions of its members. People who might make one decision based on the risk of actually getting sick are having to make more-restrictive decisions based on the risk of testing positive. With such a test in the household, children can no longer go to school and parents can no longer go to work, which ripples to other families to the extent our coworkers and clients truly require our presence.
Yes, our behavior affects others, but we can’t apply this principle selectively. One person’s reckless behavior may bring harm to another. But that other’s timorous excess can spread harm, as well. The request for sacrifice of security so as to minimize despair has as just a claim as the request for sacrifice of liberty so as to minimize illness.
From the story of Nancy Russell, we should learn that the scale shifts if on one side we place despair unto medically assisted suicide while on the other side we place a mere positive result from a nose swab.