There’s something cheering about walking around my neighbourhood and seeing people swerve into the street or climb into flowerbeds to allot each other our six feet of safety. Even though I can only see eyes crinkle above masks in lieu of smiles, every action communicates, “I’m taking care of you. We’re in this together.”
The crisis has made us all look at each other more closely. In a time of lockdown, it’s the people nearest us, whom we may not have known or chosen deliberately, whom we have to rely on. The pandemic is pushing us past the limits of whom we previously trusted or entrusted ourselves to, and we have the opportunity to learn to extend ourselves in love, even when we no longer are forced to.
At present, no one feels like a stranger, since the biggest thing in all of our lives right now is shared, and known to be shared. Any pair of people passing may have very different levels of risk, and one may be more worried for his health while another is more concerned about her laid-off employees. But both know that the other one is swept up in the same storm. And that camaraderie isn’t specific to the coronavirus crisis. Rebecca Solnit, in her book on solidarity in disasters, A Paradise Built in Hell, contrasted the feeling of unity in shared suffering with the isolation of individual catastrophe. She highlights the work of sociologist Charles Fritz, who compared widespread disaster with the way people “suffer and die daily, though in ordinary times, they do so privately, separately.”
It has been hard for me, in the past three years, to live through disaster again and again, as my husband and I lost six children in quick succession. Each child died in the first trimester of their lives, and two (Camillian and Luca) were lost through ectopic pregnancies that had the potential to put my own life in danger too.
Although we told friends and family, it still felt like our grief was lonely and private by default. I spoke publicly about our children, and I started ignoring the advice to keep a pregnancy secret until you were out of the first trimester and the baby was a little more likely to be safe. I wanted friends to know our children, no matter whether they made it to birth or not, as a living presence. But I had to keep a list of everyone I told, so that I could work my way back down the list to tell the sad news later.
My experience made me wish we still lived in the era of Victorian mourning clothing, so that everyone I met would know, without words, that we were missing someone. If nothing else, it would have given an answer to the casual, “How are you doing?” If I answered honestly, it was a jarring reply to small talk. If I kept quiet, I felt like I was lying by omission. I missed the way that the slow progression from jet black to grey to lavender would make our long climb out of sorrow visible. In the pandemic, there is less of a need for mourning clothes, because everyone is alert to the possibility of loss.
The coronavirus crisis hits the already vulnerable hardest—it makes them suffer, but it also restores them to visibility.The grandmother in a nursing home running with insufficient staff; the children who rely on free school lunch to be able to eat; the warehouse worker, who, despite taking extra shifts, is still one of the 40 percent of Americans who couldn’t raise the cash to cover a $400 expense on short notice. Those vulnerabilities will persist long after a vaccine.
Pope Francis reminded the world, in his out-of-season Urbi et Orbi blessing, that the unusual suffering caused by the novel coronavirus should also draw our attention to the suffering we ignore because it is not novel.
He said, “We did not stop at [God’s] reproach to us, we were not shaken awake by wars or injustice across the world, nor did we listen to the cry of the poor or of our ailing planet. We carried on regardless, thinking we would stay healthy in a world that was sick.”
His prayers aren’t focused on simply returning to normal, since in the “normal” world, many people live through daily, lonely cataclysms. We are called to retain our present sense of solidarity, and, if we love our neighbour as ourselves, to enter into their suffering and need, even when, especially when, it becomes a choice again.
The pope gave his blessing with a nearly life-sized crucifix behind him. The wounded Christ looked out with him into the empty St. Peter’s Square. The crucifixion makes visible the full cost of sin. Every spiteful word, every charity withheld from the needy, every lustful look reducing someone else to a thing, wounded its immediate target invisibly, but that harm is shown in Christ’s flesh on the cross, undeniable.
In America, Martin Luther King Jr. and the non-violent protestors of the civil rights movement offered a different sort of passion. At lunch counters, with Freedom Rides, and on the long walk the Little Rock Nine made to the schoolhouse doors, people offered their bodies to make visible the hatred and violence festering within their communities.
Segregation, de jure in the South and often de facto in the North, was a division rent in the nation and in the body of Christ. The degradations suffered by African Americans, and the corruption of the souls of their white neighbours, were insidious. The poison of hatred could remain, if not invisible, then ignorable.
The non-violent protestors made the violence visible. They faced down police, and even their neighbours. In windows shattered by bricks, in flesh torn by police dogs, in bodies bruised by firehoses, they suffered in order to make the invisible wounds of Jim Crow starkly visible to those who had shut their eyes. They relied on news cameras to film their witness, but today’s protestors carry their cameras themselves. As people stream into the streets, many protestors offer their peaceful presence—sitting down, raising their empty hands—as the canvas for police brutality to be recorded.
And, as Martin Luther King Jr. preached in a sermon at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, the aim of all that suffering was not simply a matter of entering evidence into the record against their persecutors. While the world saw the wickedness of the South, King asked his followers to keep their eyes fixed on the image of Jesus Christ in everyone, even their oppressors. They were called to act not only out of solidarity with each other but also as an offering of love for their enemies. For, as he said from the pulpit, “love has within it a redemptive power. And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals.”
It is a hard teaching to love our enemies, to overcome hatred with meekness. But, at present, we also struggle to see the face of God in our neighbour not because we are tempted to hate our neighbour, but because we have rarely glimpsed our neighbour’s face. We have sought each other out in the present moment of extremis.
In the grip of the virus, our collective suffering is unchosen, forced on us. In the days and months to come, we have a responsibility to retain the present sense of compassion, which means “to suffer with.” As stores eventually reopen, and parks fill again, we have to remember and seek out the people whose need was particularly acute in the pandemic, but for whom “normal” is still a slow-moving disaster.
Part of the work is a matter of individual initiative—we have to practice not averting our eyes from suffering, from vulnerability. In small moments, in our daily lives, that may mean not turning away from a homeless person. It might mean saying more than “It’s not polite to stare” to a child interested in someone with a visible disability, and instead finding a way to teach them that averting our eyes from someone vulnerable can be as bad as gawking. We need to tutor our interest, so it can grow into love, rather than curdle into an idle curiosity or atrophy into apathy.
I can tell I need to do more to see my own neighbourhood. Since I started checking Princeton’s website for local cases and new rules, I’ve been learning the names of all the assisted living and elder care centres near me. But I’ve discovered their existence only as I read the town’s press releases, which teach me their nature-inspired names as I see “Acorn Glen” and others on the notices of deaths.
On my own block, I went door to door handing out flyers so we could all sign up on a mutual aid email list together. It was the first moment that I learned that a ninety-something-year-old woman across the street was a painter. People have emailed with their small needs: a couple in quarantine who needed stamps, a volunteer mask-maker who needed first a sewing machine and then extra bobbins to keep up with the work.
Individual effort is worth it, and it’s the easiest place to begin, but it’s not sufficient. We are held at a distance from each other by structural factors that need reform. Labor law, zoning law, and health-care policies all play a role in hiding away the weak. The infirm and the poor are hidden from the stronger and the richer. The people who work under inhumane conditions are hidden in the hopes of selling a frictionless experience to consumers. Alternatives are possible and sorely needed.
One model is offered by Mount Mary University in Milwaukee, which planned (pre-pandemic) to break ground this year on a new residence for single mothers and assisted living for religious sisters. The mothers would enroll at the women’s college and have built-in support, while the sisters would receive the medical care they need and live as part of a vibrant, growing community.
Tiffany R. Jansen profiled Providence Mount St. Vincent in Seattle, a flourishing community, which combines a nursing home and a nursery school. The mix of small children and elderly people is a particular blessing to residents with mild dementia, whose lapses or repetitions are accepted by children who aren’t disappointed by their weakness. Children grow up knowing people of any age, and loving them as they are—which must be a relief to their parents, who will one day depend on the children who used to depend on them.
These lively, mixed-age communities are rare, and often received as experimental. But they mark a return to the way people commonly lived before families were defined as nuclear units. When both parents are expected to work to stay afloat, it’s harder to have room for people who require care. A lack of exposure to children makes it hard for twentysomethings to prepare for marriage, and everyone has a little less of a spur to hope. We also miss the witness of the elderly—both the benefit of their experience and the reminder that we must learn to live with infirmity and suffering as we, too, grow old.
These mixed communities stand in contrast to the homes where elderly people seem to be marking time as they wait for the end. The nursing homes ravaged by the COVID-19 virus have frequently been understaffed, leaving them particularly vulnerable to the pandemic. But, even in better times, a staff stretched so thin can only provide triaged care—sometimes focusing on medical needs above simple human needs for friendship and conviviality.
Service workers in nursing homes, grocery stores, and restaurants have been hailed as heroes during the lockdowns. They have put themselves at risk to help others (and also to be able to take care of their families), but in ordinary times, their work is undervalued and often underpaid because it is routine.
Restaurants, which have been particularly hard-hit by the lockdowns, need to think about how to more justly compensate their workers, which will require making the effort that goes into the work more visible to diners. Our system of tipping rests on an illusion—that the price on the menu covers the cost of the work, and we generously add a “gratuity.” But it is anything but superfluous.
Restaurateur Danny Meyer tried pricing meals honestly and eliminating tips in 2015. Unfortunately, his restaurants and staff have struggled in the transition, as diners balked when they saw the full cost of their meal reflected on the menu. Many chose other restaurants, where they might have spent as much but felt like the final total was a reflection of their largesse, not simple the amount fairly owed.
Some of the businesses that have profited from the pandemic actively mischaracterize their tipping structure, with companies like Doordash offering the customer what seems like the chance to tip their delivery person. However, the company claws back the tip, so if a customer tips $5, some or all of that money is used to cover what Doordash has committed to pay the worker. The tips save the company money, rather than adding to the worker’s take-home pay.
The only way to be sure the tips stay with the worker is to tip off the books, in cash. The customer has to reintroduce the friction and inconvenience that comes with deliberate action, while the company tries to make the whole process as smooth and invisible as possible.
Now is a time to be honest about the cost of other people’s work, especially the workers who are hidden from the people doing the purchasing. As Christ teaches in the parable of the lantern and the bushel, “Nothing is hid that shall not be made manifest, nor anything secret that shall not be known and come to light” (Luke 8:17). The epidemic has exposed abusive workplaces like the Tyson meatpacking plants, because the illness ripping through their factories threatens to disrupt the usual deliveries of meat to grocery stores.
A plant that won’t offer sick days in a pandemic will continue to behave badly in a post-pandemic time. The danger just shifts from scarcity to the moral perils of eating from an abundance that is premised on the denial of dignity. We are in the position of the Jews in the desert in Numbers, who clamour for meat and rail against God, until the Lord declares, “The Lord will give you meat, and you shall eat . . . until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you—because you have rejected the Lord who is among you” (Numbers 11:18–20).
We reject him whenever we spurn our neighbours. We reject him when we build systems to hide our neighbours so that we are never offered the opportunity that came to the good Samaritan, to bind up the wounds of the person placed in our path by Providence.
We don’t want to live our lives so that we require, or even invite, a visible disaster in order to open our eyes and see the less visible wounds that still afflict our neighbours. God loves us and longs for us to repent. If we turn to him, our healing will be easier than if we persist in error and he must lay obstacles in our path to persuade us to turn back. Like Jonah, we may find our lives wracked with storms when we ignore his call.
We are our brothers’ keepers, and they ours. We must shore up both our private charity and our public institutions, so that, at every level of society, we are guided by a preferential option for the poor. The material harm to the poor of neglect is exceeded only by the spiritual danger to the rich of indifference. We can’t afford for life to go on the way that it did.
In King’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church sermon, he said that we are called to love with agape—the Christlike love that seeks nothing in return. Reaching agape can require overcoming hated, but, for many of us, the obstacle is apathy and obscurity. The pandemic has been apocalyptic, in both the colloquial sense and the classical one—it has torn down veils.
The present period of sudden, shocking visibility is an invitation to at least start with storge, the love of fondness and familiarity. It’s the kind of love my husband and I have for the tree that marks the turn onto our street. We love it not because it is the best tree, but because it is ours. We love it by expecting to see it and feeling a sense of rightness when we do.
We love who and what we can see. We can grow protective of them, and stiffen our spine to resist having them hidden from us again. We have to look so we can learn to love.