Wednesday, July 28, 2021

The Pandemic Broke Our Narratives, and We Haven't Found New Ones Yet

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.

Do you remember January of 2020? I mean, really remember? What sorts of things were you spending your days thinking about?

Humans are story-telling creatures, and we usually have a number of stories that we tell ourselves about what is going on in our lives and in our world. So, in January 2020, people had stories that they were telling themselves about their lives, their families, their churches, their denomination, their city, state, and country. We remember what some of those stories were: In US politics, foreign election interference and the impeachment of President Trump dominated much of that January. For United Methodists, the story of the impending division of the church and the Protocol loomed large. People made plans based on the assumption that the narratives they were telling themselves would continue to carry them forward.

Then, in March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic shut everything down. And with it, all of the story lines that we thought we were living in suddenly changed. The legacy of the impeachment or the possibility of church division suddenly became less relevant than trying not to get deathly sick while grocery shopping. In churches, not only worship but other programming and strategic initiatives like capital campaigns were suspended. In families, gatherings were postponed. Schools and companies shut their buildings and had to radically rethink their model of operation. The things that people thought they were preparing for in January or February of 2020 probably didn't happen, and if they did, they looked dramatically different than anticipated.

Of course, the pandemic itself was a tremendous source of story lines as people struggled to come to grips with what COVID was and what it meant for their individual and collective lives - spiritually, politically, socially, economically, etc. Although everyone experienced the pandemic differently, everyone had a story about what the pandemic meant for them and for those around them. The pandemic became one of the most significant stories in most people's lives and an overarching narrative impacting almost all other narratives.

The pandemic did not completely forestall other narratives. Some stories begun before the pandemic, whether they were about climate change or presidential elections or denominational division, continued, albeit with alterations and likely less attention. New stories emerged, too, most notably a reckoning with race in all aspects of US society and a divisive presidential election and its long aftermath. These new stories, however, were inflected by the story of the pandemic.

Even with the continuation in some form of old stories and the addition of new stories, the narrative worlds in which people had lived in January 2020 were broken by the pandemic. It was no longer possible to care about the same things in the same way to the same extent or to plan for the future with the same level of certainty about what it would be like. The pandemic had foreclosed that possibility.

The rollout of vaccines in the United States and elsewhere this spring raised the question then: Would it soon be possible to go back to normal? By June, people were discarding masks and returning to places they had not been in months, including, for some, in-person church. Would it now be possible to move on from the dominating story of the pandemic and return to focusing on all those stories that had shaped our worlds in January 2020?

No, as it turns out, and for several reason.

First, the story of the pandemic is not over. Granted, the pandemic no longer dominates all other aspects of life in the ways that it did six months or a year ago. Yet the rise of a fourth wave of the virus in the United States shows that the pandemic is still going in the United States, still capable of generating plot twists and uncertainty, despite the extensive availability of vaccines in this country. And the pandemic is certainly not over in other countries where vaccines are less available. The story of the COVID-19 pandemic will continue to evolve, but it will not be over, not for a while, even if it gradually becomes less all-encompassing.

Second, even when other story lines are no longer subsumed under the larger story of the pandemic, we cannot go back to where we were in January 2020. In many cases, relevant details have changed: Main characters of the stories of our lives have died or moved or changed jobs. Organizational and financial realities have changed. Political realities have changed. And we ourselves have changed. Even when everything else is the same, we have, each of us, been shaped in some way by the pandemic. And for that reason alone, we cannot go back to things just as they were.

We must, therefore, continue to go forward.

But in so many areas, I don't think people yet know what that looks like. Church worship may be back in person, but does that mean we should resume planning for that building renovation? What work meetings will we continue to hold by Zoom? How can we address the racial and economic inequalities highlighted by the pandemic? What will school look like in the fall? Is it worth restarting that annual Christmas cookie sale, or should we replace it with something new? The answers to these and many other questions are still not clear.

So, we find ourselves in a liminal space. The old story lines from before the pandemic are broken. The story of the pandemic continues, but with less force. And it is not clear what new stories we will create about where we as individuals and communities are and where we are going. The future is never given, but we seem to be at a moment of cultural and narrative inflection, where it is particularly hard to predict what will come next and what will consume our time and attention in the months and years to come.

And there's not much we can do but wait to find out. Wait to see what stories will grow around us.

Waiting is rarely enjoyable or satisfying. But it can be deeply spiritual. Much of the rhythms of Christian life are built around waiting. Advent is the liturgical season of waiting par excellence, but Lent is a season of waiting in its own way. As members of Christ's already-but-not-yet kingdom, the entire Christian experience is situated within one large narrative pause, a period of waiting that has persisted for two millenia at this point.

Paul often acknowledges the incompleteness of our knowledge about the future, especially the eschatological future, though he always affirms that knowledge will come. Now we see dimly and what we will be has not been revealed; but later, after the waiting, we will fully know.

So what can we do but wait, and try to keep faith that whatever comes, whatever stories emerge to shape our lives and the lives of those around us, God will be with us, will be part of our stories? What can we do but wait, knowing that there may be no more Christian practice to which we can devote ourselves at this time.

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