Reflections of an Evolving Elder: COVID-19 Will Bring Suffering and, Hopefully, Solidarity

If God wanted us to experience global solidarity, I can’t think of a better way. We all have access to this suffering, and it bypasses race, gender, religion, and nation.
We are in the midst of a highly teachable moment. There’s no doubt that this period will be referred to for the rest of our lifetimes. We have a chance to go deep, and to go broad. Globally, we’re in this together. Depth is being forced on us by great suffering, which as I like to say, always leads to great love. Fr. Richard Rohr

The unimaginable suffering that is flying around the globe right now will not end soon. When I say unimaginable, that is exactly what I mean. No hurricane, earthquake, tsunami or other natural disaster has ever produced the widespread devastation of COVID-19. Death, overwhelmed medical systems, lack of leadership, chaos, fear – in every nook and cranny of this “mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam,” as Carl Sagan describe our planet some 30 years ago.

On our own islands we have children with no guarantee of a hot meal because the schools are closed.

I am hearing from friends abroad who were in the middle of a job change, or big event that was canceled, or some other financial instability-producing life situation.

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I learned to my shock when New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio tried to hold off closing the public schools that there are 110,000 homeless children in New York City.

This is not a community or national pandemic. It is a worldwide crisis of a magnitude never seen in our lifetime. And it affects every single human being wandering the planet, whether they know it or not. From the jet-owning top-out-of-sights, as Paul Fussell described the American upper class in his seminal work “Class: A Guide Through the American Status System,” to the few remaining remote indigenous communities.

While we can speculate here in the Virgin Islands, due to the number of private jets at the airport and the mega-yachts crammed into the harbor and scattered about elsewhere in our beautiful bays and inlets, that while elites might find safety and isolation not available to the rest of us thanks to what their money can buy, they can’t stay out there forever.

More than ever it is clear there is no place to run.

Meanwhile back on land, the rest of us are asked now, right this minute, to decide our fate – to make personal decisions moment-to-moment that reflect a much larger reality. What we choose will determine our future.

You always hear this airy fairy comment after storms: disaster makes everyone a better person.

Sorry folks. My observation after three major hurricanes and two long aftermaths, one of which isn’t even close to over, is – disasters intensify who people already are.

If an individual tends toward the greedy and self-absorbed side, it is magnified. If he or she tends to consider others beyond the social group or family they were born into; if that person looks for opportunities to give and be of service without notice or fanfare, that force is multiplied.

Right now, there are people who fall in between those two personality types. The undecideds, as they are called in political parlance.

The playing field upon which we all depend, i.e. Planet Earth, has never been more leveled. Or more divided. That’s the truly scary part. When you see videos of people screaming and fighting over a roll of toilet paper, potential for insanity becomes glaringly obvious.

That fear-provoked insanity – the scarcity mentality it arises from – is what we need to worry about. We must face the fact that many businesses and institutions are going to crumble under the weight of uncertainty and the deprivation of the many.

But with that comes the hope of a new way of living.

When I woke up in the middle of the night because I ate a piece of chocolate (dark chocolate) too late in the day, I happened to pick up The Essential Writings of Bede Griffiths. Griffiths was an English Benedictine monk who settled in India in 1955. Griffiths, who was noted more for his lectures than his writing, found a comfortable connection between Christianity and Hinduism.

In the passage I opened to, this line jumped out at me. Referring to Gandhi’s view of economics, he wrote that to survive we must move from a “mechanistic system, which he said is the root cause of imbalance in the world, to an organic model, where nature is not dead matter to be exploited by humankind, but a living organism for which humankind is responsible.” Though Griffiths died in 1994, his prescience, along with Gandhi’s, is chilling in light of what a virus passed from wild animals has wrought in a few short months.

His advice: “What is sought today therefore is a new form of technology, which will not seek to dominate and manipulate nature, but will work in harmony with nature out of reverence for life.”

We are and have been for a long time spiritually out of whack.

I recall hearing another British man, Jon Blofeld, who traveled to the east as a young man and stayed for his lifetime to translate some fifty Chinese sacred texts into English, say at a lecture at the Buddhist center in Rochester New York in 1983, just a year before he died “It is okay to have a nice, warm, stylish, expensive cloth coat, but why do you need five of them?” Or fifty rolls of toilet paper?

He also presciently noted the disturbing, wanton use of plastic cups and utensils on the planes that had delivered him from the far east to northern New York state 37 years ago.

As for the circumstances of the oppressed that always get the short end of any stick, Gandhi was of the view that full employment of human resources is the basic need of a country. It is true, he is quoted as believing that national income will increase if each and every person (whether skilled or unskilled) is employed fully.

And yet in what is always referred to as the richest country in the world, and during a global pandemic the likes of which we have never seen, we find the following paragraph in a New York Times article:

“Most small businesses do not have the financial buffer to pay workers for long if revenue dries up. And while larger public companies may have access to cash, they also have shareholders who want executives to watch the bottom line.”

Part of the reason that small businesses struggle is directly related to dealing with massive amounts of people all getting sick at the same time. Our health care system and its attendant private insurance structure is geared to the same thing big businesses are: profits over people.

Small business or large: that’s the only way Americans who aren’t dirt poor can get insurance. Crappy insurance at that.

As a child of the sixties, it was a brutal and uncalled for war and being fed up with “the system” that brought focus and energy to social movements.

COVID-19 stands ready to make that happen again. It is time for social justice to prevail. It is time for institutions and the disgusting, mind-boggling corporate greed to be taken down. It is time to tax the rich and use that money to provide a guaranteed salary to every American whether they work or not.

The admonition from Christ – and we do think of ourselves as a “Christian” nation – was, “you cannot serve two masters.”

So what will it be, money or life?

Our choice has never been clearer.

Editor’s note: This is part two of series on the causes and therefore the solutions both short and long-term to our COVID-19 dilemma.

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