Wednesday, June 9, 2021

The Window to Learn from the Pandemic Is Closing

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

Back in January, I listened to a podcast (which unfortunately I cannot find again) in which the host interviewed a historian to talk about the 1918/1919 Spanish flu epidemic and what it could teach us about the COVID-19 epidemic. The historian argued that despite the staggering death toll wrought by the Spanish flu around the world, it quickly faded from collective memory. People were eager to get back to "normal" life, and thus once they no longer had to worry about the Spanish flu, they stopped thinking about it altogether, at least in direct ways. Indirectly, one could argue that the hedonistic culture of the "Roaring Twenties" was a reaction, at least in the United States, to the death wrought by World War I and the Spanish Flu epidemic.

This example is worth keeping in mind, especially at this point in the COVID-19 epidemic. While persistent global vaccine inequality and the on-going danger of new variants or other unexpected twists mean that the COVID-19 pandemic is far from over on a global scale, for those in the United States, where vaccines are readily accessible and infection rates are plummeting, the end of the pandemic seems in sight.

That means, though, that for those in the United States, the pressure to return to "normal," to some semblance of pre-COVID ways of doing things, will be the highest in the coming weeks and months, as restrictions are dropped and more activities become possible again.

The opportunity to resume certain activities, especially those such as church services, family get-togethers, and community events that connect us to God and to one another, is certainly a milestone to be celebrated.

Yet, at the same time, the danger will be that in our rush to embrace the opportunities created by the end of pandemic restrictions, we will fail to learn deeper lessons from the experience of the pandemic. If we are too focused on getting back to our old ways, we will not reflect on what the disruption of those ways over the past year has taught us about those ways and about ourselves.

During the pandemic, especially during the height of restrictions, when there was little else to do besides look for the next buzz-worthy think piece online, a lot of digital ink was spilled in trying to process what the pandemic was teaching us about the church, about mission, about American society, about postmodern culture, etc. Yet those reflections will be for naught if, when given the opportunity, we rush back to doing the same old things we did in January of 2020.

Perhaps rather the risk is not that we return to our old ways, but rather that our actions and our selves will be shaped by the pandemic, but in ways that we are not conscious of and do not fully choose. We may end up in another debauched "Roaring Twenties" (which was, incidentally, generally a bad time for organized religion) if we are only able to process the losses and the learnings of the pandemic indirectly. While I don't mean to cast aspersions on all aspects of the 1920s, and while World War I was a significant contributing factor to the cultural dynamics of that decade missing from our present situation, I do think the church should be interested in avoiding another "lost generation," another generation of disorientation and meaninglessness.

But avoiding a "lost generation" means learning from our losses.

Thus, I pray that we all (and not just those readers in the United States) are soon able to enjoy the warmth of hugs, the fellowship of in-person worship, the conviviality of a gathering with friends, the stability of gainful employment, and the return of all the good things that we have so sorely missed over the past year and a half.


And I also pray, that in the midst of our thankfulness for the return of those good things, we will not turn entirely away from the sorrow and the pain of the past year and a half. I pray that we may face them, process them, and learn from them, that following the practice of Christians for centuries, we may be able to find meaning and spiritual, personal, and social growth from contemplating suffering. That will not be a pleasant prospect. But it may be a necessary one.

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