Tag Archives: covid-19

Valuing Connections, Finding Joy

Valuing Connections, Finding Joy   —by Jinny Batterson

The corona virus pandemic has impacted every nation on earth, few more severely than the United States of America, which has rarely seemed less united. Many of us, especially if we are older, have mostly hunkered down in physical isolation at home (assuming we have a home), venturing out rarely, masked and sanitized, for shopping or medical appointments. It’s easy to feel disconnected.  

An American friend who’s widely traveled and now makes her home in France sent me a link to a lengthy article by Colombian-Canadian anthropologist Wade Davis. His early August 2020 commentary is titled “The Unraveling of America,” and includes this quotation: 

“In a dark season of pestilence, COVID has reduced to tatters the illusion of American exceptionalism. At the height of the crisis, with more than 2,000 dying each day, Americans found themselves members of a failed state, ruled by a dysfunctional and incompetent government largely responsible for death rates that added a tragic coda to America’s claim to supremacy in the world.”   (You can read the entire article at https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/political-commentary/covid-19-end-of-american-era-wade-davis-1038206/?fbclid=IwAR1STn3hp2VywUqvGxjPpSUqMItAGBnF7oEPorxsZ1OeUZERQbrTpSHEe78.) 

Some of us Americans are still involved in blaming each other for the mess we currently find ourselves in. Some are foolishly conflating “freedom” with the license to spread harm via a tiny airborne pathogen none of us can see. Some, though, are also remembering glimmers of our underlying interconnectedness, even while physical distancing remains an important tool for reducing the spread of illness, misery, and death. 

Earlier today, I attended this week’s “Friday Action Parking Lot” event at our mostly distanced congregation, a sort of modified “tailgate party.” Since March, Sunday services and most weekday meetings have gone virtual, but we’ve adapted some of our sharing practices to fit our changed circumstances. Before the pandemic, we participated, along with other religious groups and non-profits, in various feeding and affordable housing programs. Hosting an in-person group luncheon is no longer practical, but food still needs to be provided. Lengthy in-person visits to affordable housing complexes are not advisable, either, but families whose children may soon continue “virtual” schooling in apartments lacking air conditioning could really use donated portable fans. Each week a virtual call goes out via email for items especially needed—this week, in addition to fans, there was a premium on face masks and reusable grocery bags.

If few in our congregation are among the wealthiest, few are destitute, either.  It’s important to maintain connections with others who may be economically challenged at the moment, for a whole host of reasons. One of the strongest is that we are all inevitably interconnected, so generosity helps maintain health and brings joy. 

Recently I picked up some books ordered online from my favorite local bookshop, which now has “book take-out.” As I’d ordered a different book by a favorite author, another book he’d co-authored came up as a possible selection: The Book of Joy. The title was especially appealing. Once I got my treasures home, I found the book jacket cover of two famous octogenarians broadly smiling at each other worth the price of the book all by itself. Created from notes and insights garnered during an in-person 2015 meeting between Desmond Tutu, retired Archbishop of South Africa and  convener of that country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Tensin Gyatso, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, The Book of Joy chronicles some of these two Nobel Peace Laureates struggles along the way to developing abiding senses of joy. It examines “eight pillars of joy:” perspective, humility, humor, acceptance, forgiveness, gratitude, compassion, and, finally, generosity. 

Tutu speaks from his religious tradition about the importance of generosity: “I’ve sometimes joked and said God doesn’t know very much math, because when you give to others, it should be that you are subtracting from yourself. But in this incredible kind of way … you give and it then seems in fact you are making space for more to be given to you.” 

“And there is a very physical example. The Dead Sea in the Middle East receives fresh water, but it has no outlet, so it doesn’t pass the water out. It receives beautiful water from the rivers, and the water goes dank. I mean, it just goes bad. And that’s why it is the Dead Sea. …And we are made much that way, too. I mean, we receive and we must give. In the end generosity is the best way of becoming more, more, and more joyful.”   

The Flowers Have Not (Yet) Gone

The Flowers Have Not (Yet) Gone   —by Jinny Batterson

It’s been a rough week to be an American. The death toll in the United States from the covid-19 pandemic crossed the 100,000 mark, while multiple U.S. cities experienced repeated, sometimes violent demonstrations in the wake of Monday’s death of yet another unarmed black man, George Floyd, at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  

Our economy has sputtered to a halt. Partly as a result of virus-related lockdowns, nearly a quarter of the U.S. labor force is unemployed. Our president sporadically spreads hatred and gibberish through his favored media platform, becoming so blatant in his misrepresentations and lies that Twitter has recently put “fact check” warnings on some of his posts.  

As various U.S. states attempt to restart their economies in the midst of a highly contagious novel corona virus with no known treatment or vaccine, cases have started to spike again in multiple hot spots. No one seems to know a good solution to the multiple crises besetting us.  

I sometimes get a “deja vu” feeling about our current problems and unrest, as someone who in 1968 was a young adult with much idealism and little experience. Then, an escalating and increasingly stalemated war in Vietnam was killing a disproportionate number of young black American men. Most American men between the ages of 19 and 26 (though less so the wealthiest or best connected) were susceptible to being conscripted into the military. In early April, Martin Luther King, Jr., an outstanding proponent of non-violent civil disobedience and a leader in the fight for legal equality for African-Americans, had been assassinated by a sniper while helping organize a peaceful protest for sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. In the wake of his death, over a hundred American cities had erupted in protests that often turned violent and destructive.  

Conditions in many U.S. cities in 1968 were unequal, with housing projects and decaying urban neighborhoods receiving little in the way of substantive government assistance, while billions were being spent to advance presumed U.S. political interests overseas. Other government programs either intentionally or collaterally favored “white flight” to the suburbs, which were largely off limits to non-whites. Sound vaguely familiar?

Many collegians of the 1960’s had become enamored of a folk song revival, one of its signature songs being “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”  penned by Pete Seeger in 1955. Joe Hickerson had later added more verses, turning the song into a circular questioning of the premise of warfare. The folk/rock trio of Peter, Paul and Mary popularized the expanded version, which remains a touchstone for many of us who lived through that era. (You can view their 25th anniversary rendering of the song at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZgXNVA9ngx8.) 

In 2020, I’m somewhat creaky in the knees and a bit too virus-averse to participate in large gatherings, so I admire from a distance the courage and forbearance of many of the protesters (and many of the police officers who work to deescalate tensions, both short-term and longer-term). Meanwhile, I continue to send emails and postal letters to elected officials at all levels. I support voter registration and voting rights initiatives. I sew and give away protective face masks. I tend gardens. I plant flowers. I want to remind myself and others that the flowers have not yet gone. 

lilies and black-eyed susans near our central NC condo

Flowers near our central NC condo

Wandering in the Wilderness of COVID-19

Wandering in the Wilderness of Covid-19 —by Jinny Batterson

When as a child I read Bible stories about the forty years the Hebrews spent wandering in the wilderness after they fled Egypt and before they entered the promised land, I could partly identify, as someone who easily becomes lost. However, even as a child, I thought forty years seemed a very long time. I guess they probably didn’t have an app back then for directions on their cell phones, but couldn’t they ask someone for directions?  Didn’t anybody have a map?

As we humans try to navigate our way through the covid-19 pandemic, I’ve become more appreciative of the Hebrews’ difficulties. It wasn’t just physical distance the Hebrews needed to traverse. Turns out, the space between one “normal” and the next was just as much psychological as physical. The Biblical Book of Numbers tells of the challenges of life in the wilderness. At first, some Hebrews wanted to return to Egypt. There, though enslaved, they at least had plenty of varied food:  “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers… and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.” (Revised Standard Version, Chapter 11, verses 5-6). 

As they neared what they expected to be the promised land, overall leader Moses sent twelve tribal chieftains to assess the area: “Go up into the Negeb yonder, and go up into the hill country, and see what the land is, and whether the people who dwell in it are strong or weak … and whether the land that they dwell in is good or bad… Be of good courage, and bring some of the fruit of the land.” (Chapter 13, verses 17-20). The majority report, ten of the twelve, recommended giving up—the people already in the promised land were too strong. This majority even discounted the land’s good points, saying, in essence, that it was not worth fighting for. A minority of two believed the land was indeed worth trying to possess. They thought the challenges were not insurmountable, given spiritual assistance. It took an entire generation, plus lots of disease and death, before the rest of the Hebrews were persuaded.  

Another example, from the medical field, is closer to modern America in distance and time. It concerns the spread of the use of antiseptics to prevent post-surgical infections. In the nineteenth century, surgical advances made more complex operations possible, but deaths following surgery soared, sometimes taking half of all patients. One British professor of medicine then observed: “A man laid on the operating table in one or our surgical hospitals is exposed to more chance of death than was the English soldier on the field of Waterloo.” 

British surgeon Joseph Lister in 1865 read the results of experiments by French scientist Louis Pasteur, who connected microscopic bacteria with fermentation in foods and wine. Lister wondered whether what caused fermentation in food might also cause infections in wounds. In the late 1860’s, he began experimenting with different procedures and chemicals to reduce the chances of infection. He published the results of his cases in medical journals. Over time, he refined his approaches. Still, it took nearly a generation before antiseptic practices were widely used in hospital surgery wards. 

The wilderness of covid-19 response is disconcerting. Recommendations of currently available best practices can be confusing. As my home state of North Carolina begins the second phase of cautiously reopening its economy, the NC Department of Health and Human Services advises that I’ll still be “safer at home,” but that I’ll have an expanded range of businesses and non-profit groups I may visit. When getting my hair cut at a reduced-occupancy salon or dining in a reduced-occupancy restaurant, I’m advised to “wear, wait, wash”—wear a face covering (except, presumably, while eating), wait at least six feet from other customers, and wash my hands frequently (https://covid19.ncdhhs.gov/materials-resources/know-your-ws-wear-wait-wash). 

My guess is that it will be a good while before we’ll reach a post-covid “normal,” though I hope it will take less than forty years. Those of us who survive this pandemic will mourn our losses. In hindsight, we’ll realize that some preventive measures we tried were more effective than others. Some people will remain unenthusiastic about the longer-term changes we will need to make to reduce the threat of future pandemics. 

Still, we may take heart from the experiences of those venturing toward a promised land or safer surgery. The wilderness, however disorienting or longlasting, is neither uniform nor useless. It provides the venue and the time to develop and practice new skills we need. We cannot go back; with good guidance and courage, we can go forward. Please stay as safe and sane as possible, all, while we venture toward our post-covid world!  

 

Earth Has Its Day

Earth Has Its Day   —by Jinny Batterson

Had this been a “normal” year, there would have been big crowds today commemorating the 50th annual Earth Day. There would have been lots of in-person speeches. There would have been live exhibits from corporations and non-profits with a mixture of important initiatives and “greenwashing,” spotlighting small impacts for mainly public relations value. There would have been more exhortations to “reduce, reuse, recycle.” 

This is not a normal year. A small pathogen whose exact origin is still unclear began spreading a respiratory ailment among the global human population in late 2019. As of today, covid-19 had caused nearly 2.5 million known infections and nearly 170,000 deaths. Much of the globe’s human population is on “lockdown.” Public gatherings are few. 

In parts of the world, other variations in nature are wreaking havoc in different ways: a plague of locusts in east Africa is destroying food crops, threatening the food supply of tens of millions; forest fires in Ukraine near the defunct Chernobyl nuclear power plant have recently caused the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, to have the worst air pollution of any place in the world; widespread bush fires during Australia’s 2019-2020 summer have blackened millions of acres and killed roughly a billion animals, endangering such unique species as kangaroos and koalas and putting Australia’s agricultural sector at risk; Greenland and Antarctica have ice sheets that are melting at increasing rates. 

Perhaps earth is reminding us, in increasingly urgent terms, that we are not the masters of the planet, but its guests and its (temporary) stewards. 

For much of my adult life, I’ve accumulated a clipping file of quotations and short pieces of prose that seem meaningful to me. During a personal or societal crisis, I reread them for wisdom. A while ago, I came across the World War II era diaries of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, War Without and Within, edited and first published long after that war was over, in 1980. Anne and her husband, aviator Charles Lindbergh, had spent part of the 1930’s living in Europe to regain some privacy after the highly publicized U.S. kidnapping and murder of their first child.  A pacifist often identified with her isolationist husband, Anne was deeply affected by the 1939 onset of war in Europe and the entry of the U.S. into a globalized conflict in late 1941. A diary entry from Easter Monday during the spring of 1942 expresses both sorrow and hope: 

“Today is the real Easter morning. Yesterday was overcast and chilly. This morning is still, warm, newly awakened. One walks out into it like a flower just opened. …
When I was young, I always felt a morning like this meant a promise of something wonderful … love in someone’s heart far away from me, or the success of some venture of my own. I thought–quite literally–it was a sign from heaven. The person who was ill would get well. … Or maybe something wonderful was happening for the world–some new spirit blooming. … the morning was a ‘sign.’
I still believe it is a ‘sign,’ but not for anything good happening to me or the world, anything specific. The love is not blooming in someone’s heart. The ventures fail. The one who is sick, dies, and the one who is lost is never found. Hate and cruelty and evil are still rampant, war goes on.
And yet it is a sign. It is a sign that in spite of these things beauty still exists and goes on side by side with horror. That there is love and goodness and beauty and spirit in the world–always. This is only one of the times when it is clothed in flesh–in the flesh of a spring morning.”

Amid the global concern about the covid-19 pandemic and the seemingly unending series of recriminations about whose “fault” the pandemic is, there have been occasional notes of clearer air in unexpected places, of a resurgence of birdsong alongside nearly empty highways. 

This morning where I live dawned crisp, cool, bright, with almost jewel-like clarity. May it be a sign. Happy Earth Day!   

Sluggish Livers, Fingers in Dikes, Resurrected Economies

Sluggish Livers, Fingers in Dikes, Resurrected Economies  —by Jinny Batterson

Those of us who’d previously lived comfortably sedate lives as middle class U.S. retirees have had our world shaken by a tiny virus. The Covid-19 pandemic has dominated our news cycles for weeks, causing disruptions in the daily habits of many not directly infected. Whether it’s making a face mask and wearing it on shopping expeditions, compulsively cleaning the bathroom for the fourth or fifth time, praying and worrying about vulnerable loved ones and friends near and far, or playing endless rounds of board games, our previous habits and perspectives have been called into question. A friend with connections in the airline industry recently forwarded a description of a passenger airline system that slowed from a torrent to a trickle practically overnight. Real estate transactions have become more difficult and more uncertain as financial systems try to change their in-person business practices and to adapt to widespread fear. Several personal analogies come to mind.

The one previous time I personally faced serious illness, an Asian friend with extensive training in traditional medicine explained to me that I had a “sluggish liver.” This did not necessarily pertain to a discrete organ, she told me, but a general slowness of circulating energy in my whole body. It’s sometimes seemed to me that our current distribution of wealth and income is a societal “sluggish liver,” one that I don’t pretend to know how to correct, but that does not serve our overall body politic very well. This pandemic has highlighted the differences in vulnerabilities and access to services among those at different places on the income/wealth distribution curve. However, some high-profile cases of the virus have also shown that wealth and privilege do not grant blanket immunity. 

Having a partially Dutch ancestry, I was raised on the story of the little boy who stuck his finger in the dike to forestall a major flood, while friends ran to get adults to engineer a more permanent solution. I’m tremendously grateful to the health workers and first responders who are currently putting their fingers in the dikes of our medical testing and delivery systems. I want to believe that at least some of our political and social leaders are the adults who’ll help create a more permanent solution. Perhaps a better “global pandemic warning” system is a partial remedy, vaguely akin to some improvements in the tsunami warning system that were put in place after a 2004 earthquake in the Indian Ocean caused widespread devastation and loss of life. 

In the religious tradition I’m part of, this is Easter weekend, a time of traditional gatherings to celebrate spring and the renewal of life, as embodied in the resurrection of a crucified savior. Other religious traditions have not-dissimilar celebrations: Jewish friends celebrate Passover at this same time of year; the Moslem holy month of Ramadan will start this year in late April. In China, an early April weekend features tomb-sweeping, honoring one’s ancestors. Most celebrations this year have been curtailed, transferred to “virtual,” or postponed or canceled in order to reduce the spread of contagion.

It’s too early to tell what our global society will look like after this pandemic subsides. Studies of previous epidemics and pandemics, whether the “Black Death” that wiped out nearly a third of Europe’s population during periodic outbreaks starting in the fourteenth century, or the 1918 flu estimated to have killed nearly 50 million globally, or smallpox, or polio, can perhaps provide clues. As I look forward to a somewhat muted Easter morning, I pray that the society and economies we come together to resurrect post-covid-19 will be more just, more responsive, more joyful. My best wishes to all for a blessed Easter.