When this is all over, let’s not forget who the real enemy is
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”
So begins Charles Dicken’s A Tale of Two Cities, and it might as readily apply to the last few weeks as it did to the French Revolution or Robespierre’s Reign of Terror, though the worst of times, for most of us so far, have been mostly confined to brawls over toilet paper and hand sanitiser and disagreements over the squandering of resources and the strictness of social distancing measures.
But the worst is—as the authorities warn, and countries such as China and Italy have already demonstrated—undoubtedly yet to come. Along with coronavirus, I fear people. I fear their greed and their selfishness. As a trained psychologist, I also fear their despair.
And yet, as Samwise Gamgee says to Frodo in The Lord of the Rings, there is so much good still in this world.
My grocery trip this morning was the happiest shopping excursion I’ve ever had, even with social distancing. Three Coles employees laboured over an aisle-long spill, joking about the waste of toilet paper. I laughed with another woman about the fresh produce section still being fully stocked. An older couple bailed me up at the register to tell me about their cruise-ship friends now in isolation and their fears about losing their jobs in disability care. As long as he had his bourbon and his chocolate, the older man assured me, he would survive quarantine just fine.
Everywhere, I’m hearing stories of people sitting down to lunch with their families for the first time in years. People reaching out to the neighbours they've, until now, barely spoken to. Even in Italy and Spain, the new epicentre of the virus, people are sitting on their balconies singing.
(Yes, there are parents about to throttle their kids after a week of trying their hand at home-schooling, but what does that say about the salary we pay teachers and the hefty expectations with which we saddle them?)
As the song "Big Yellow Taxi" asserts: "Don't it always seem to go/That you don't know what you've got/'Till it's gone."
Why does it take a world-wide pandemic to remind us what’s most important?
When we walk out of this in three or six or twelve months’ time, let us remember what was truly important when everything else we believed to be essential was stripped away (sports, concerts, social gatherings, material stuff…even toilet paper).
Time with families.
The wisdom of our grandparents and great-grandparents.
A day of rest to recover from the week’s labours.
Let us no longer sacrifice our mental and physical health, our family time, our relationships, our connections with our neighbours, our creativity, the worship that is our spiritual lifeblood, and our generosity towards others at the altars of human busyness, workaholism, and mindlessness.
Let us also remember who the real enemy is.
Our enemy is not COVID-19. This virus is only one soldier—albeit, a powerful one—in a war that was waged before you or I were even born.
Our enemy, as COVID-19 makes us acutely aware, is death. It is death that we must rage at, as the poet Dylan Thomas urges: “Do not go gentle into that good night.” It is the incontestable wrongness of death that we must despise, whether it claims an elderly grandmother or a young man in his prime.
When this is over, let us never again feel comfortable with death, or sanitise it, or forget it. Let us groan along with the rest of creation for liberation from this state of bondage and decay (Romans 8:22).
It is a consequence of our world’s indenture to this grim fate that all the worst traits of humanity are usually revealed in times when death becomes more than a distant reality: human selfishness, and greed, and dishonesty, and hatred. COVID-19 is merely a crucible that unveils the true face of our enemy, as well as the ugly behaviour of the humans who sit beneath its oppressive yoke.
Though I am not a humanist (that is, I do not believe that humans are inherently good), we must never forget that our enemy is not each other. Two things were most important, taught Jesus of Nazareth:
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength,
Love your neighbour as yourself.
COVID-19 provides us with the unique opportunity to do both. This, my dear friends, is perhaps the great world war of our lifetimes. A foe as formidable as mutually assured destruction or Spanish flu. The choices—and the sacrifices—you make now will echo into eternity. The actions we take will shape the future, and not just our future, but the futures of others.
And though COVID-19, this microscopic soldier, might at this time seem impossible to defeat, let us never forget that its most long-lasting and far-reaching effects may yet be contained by the seemingly smallest tools among our arsenal: kindness, grace, compassion, generosity, love for our neighbour, and hope in our God, who, through the greatest of sacrifices, has defeated death forever.