Safety Bubbles

My husband and I were on a Zoom visit with our children last night. Our kids are spread across the United States. Our daughter lives in Washington, DC, with her husband and their son. Our older son, who is the middle child, and his wife live in Los Angeles. Our youngest and his wife and their two sons live in Orlando. We live in a rural area in the north Florida panhandle. Our home is in a sparsely populated area on a beautiful piece of land, nine acres in size. In other words, we, unlike our children and grandsons, do not live on top of our neighbors.  We haven’t had to isolate as much as our kids, but I realized last night that we are significantly more isolated than they, during this time that I early on termed “the current unpleasantness.”

Our kids were discussing how, now that the pandemic is past the two-month mark of social distancing, they are beginning to expand their small family-unit groupings into wider “bubbles” of trusted friends who have also been isolating and whom they consider “safe” to associate with. The Californians’ expanded circle is not haphazardly arranged. Their bubble has specific quarantine rules that all members must observe to belong to the group.  Our household has not expanded beyond ourselves and our two dogs. The majority of people with whom we socialize are among the CDC-identified vulnerable population and are uncomfortable spending time with those with whom they don’t reside.

It was interesting to listen to the kids talk about how so many features of life that we all took for granted when they were growing up are now unknowns, things like summer vacations, playing with friends, outdoor get-togethers, eating out, and going back to school in the fall.  At least now they feel freer to associate with a wider, though tiny and carefully controlled, community.  I was happy for them and proud of their ability to calmly navigate their separate ways through this unprecedented time.

Also happening out there, in the wider country, are protests—peaceful expressions of frustration which too often transition into violent expositions of rage— along with out-and-out riots more bent upon destruction than facilitating change.  These actions are occurring because, once again, a white police officer killed a black man during an arrest.  This particular incident took place in Minneapolis.  Yet again, race is dividing the United States.  I don’t know all the facts in this case, but I am certain that the facts don’t matter as much to the protesters and rioters as the truth that this type of situation has occurred too often.  Tragedies such as this are less about race than about power and control.  They are about having and not having.  They are about fear of others and fear of outsiders—suspicion and the lack of trust between varied groups of people.

Police, in theory at least, are supposed to protect the interests of the innocent. Their very presence is designed to deter crime and injustice.  But in poor communities, law enforcement has become the “predator” class. This perception automatically groups others as “prey.” It’s not a good dynamic for fostering trust and/or cooperation.  I suspect this fact has exacerbated the present situation: that the very community most hurt by the viral pandemic is the same one protesting ruthless treatment at the hands of police.

All of us have become too pent-up inside. We don’t have our usual outlets of sports and our myriad outside activities. Our kids cannot go to school. Most of us can’t even gather to worship. We are told to stay home, and I believe too many people are tired of being restricted. I suspect that the numbers of those who are simply sick of what they cannot do vastly outnumber the ones who have contracted the novel corona virus.

People are more isolated from one another, suspicious of one another everywhere. The mask-wearers of the pandemic consider those who don’t cover their faces to be selfish, inconsiderate, and dangerous. People outside of our self-imposed bubbles of protection are unsafe and untrusted. People who still have employment during this time of social and economic shutdown are divided from those whose jobs have been furloughed.  I suspect that too many of those waiting for their salaries to reappear will discover that they don’t, and they will become victims of yet another financial downturn.

Too many of these people will join the ranks of the invisible masses whom the employed don’t know how to help and will eventually fail to notice over time. Like the homeless, the undocumented, the ones who slip between the ever widening cracks of society, they will become more and more those whose situation is so difficult a problem to solve that society forgets about them, not out of lack of compassion but out of the guilt of helplessness. The invisible won’t be fortunate enough to find refuge inside the safe bubbles that shelter our loved ones.  I fear that fear will eventually pit the prey against the prey in an ill-fated attempt to protect themselves against a predator who seems impenetrable.

All this is challenging my hope. It’s running up against my desire to believe that we are all beloved children of the same God who breathed life into being. It’s Pentecost today.  Our priest reminded me this morning that God sent all of us an Advocate, in the form of the Holy Spirit.  Pentecost marks the epoch when our risen Lord appeared to a gathering of his apostles and disciples and imbued them with the Holy Spirit by breathing on them.

How are communities going to allow themselves to feel protected when they fear those sent to keep them from harm?  How are we to believe that we are all in this together when we are expected to isolate ourselves from everyone else?  How are we supposed to be advocates for each other when we live in terror that someone whom we are afraid to trust might breathe on us?  And how can we expect people to trust an authority who repressed the desperate pleas of one who whispered, “I can’t breathe”?

Linda Tysall Ricke
31 May 2020

Guest contributor Linda Tysall Ricke holds a Master’s Certificate in Spiritual Direction
and writes about faith and politics from her home in rural Florida.

Image © 2020 American Inquiry.

It’s Lent

Independence Pass, Colorado

It’s Ash Wednesday, March 6, and Lent is beginning. The Christian season of Lent has many meanings, but essentially it is a season of preparation, observed during the forty days leading up to Easter. Over the centuries, many Christians have chosen to make this a season of self-denial, mortifying their flesh in imitation of Christ, who, according to the Gospel, spent 40 days fasting in the wilderness just prior to his crucifixion.   Scroll to the bottom or click here to listen to the audio version of this post.

Although Christ did withdraw for a period of fasting and prayer, during which time he was tempted in the wilderness by a “deceiver” whose temptations he resisted, the larger purpose of Jesus’s spiritual retreat was to understand his mission on earth: how he should live the remainder of his days, what he had been put here to do.  In this sense, Lent is a season of spiritual renewal, or, as our dean has informed us in this week’s newsletter, ”Lent is Easter in disguise.” It’s a time to be revived, renewed, and rejuvenated. At least, I am approaching Lent as a season of renewal this year.

Specifically, I’m going to be reading a devotional booklet put out by an Episcopal organization called The Living Compass. The booklet is called Living Well through Lent 2019, and its overarching theme is Practicing Forgiveness With All Your Heart, Soul, Strength, and Mind. Although I’m using the booklet in printed form, it’s also available as a free downloadable PDF.  Or, you can sign up to receive the content of the booklet via email daily.  There is a Spanish-language version, too.  For more information about Living Well Through Lent 2019, go to the website, livingcompass.org.

The opening reflection for Ash Wednesday, written by the Right Rev. Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows, introduces the topic of “extreme” or “radical” forgiveness. At the outset, she describes extreme forgiveness as a divine attribute. It is in the character of God to have mercy and to forgive every category of human sin. She then describes the case of Ms. Eva Kor, a Holocaust survivor who was subjected to Dr. Mengele’s eugenic testing. Late in life, Ms. Kor, who emigrated to the US, has chosen extreme forgiveness as a way to transcend the weight of all that she, and millions of others, suffered at the hands of the Nazis.

Reverend Burrows writes,

Lent is our time to be intentional about taking stock of the most broken parts of our lives and our world as we seek forgiveness for our sins of omission and commission. It may be too much to imagine writing a letter of forgiveness to someone who has caused us pain or done violence to us. It might be beyond our fathoming to recount the pain, let alone forgive. It may seem too extreme. And yet . . . Jesus, who had an enviable well of forgiveness to draw upon even as he hung from the cross, continually calls us to the Way of Love and new depths of grace, mercy, and liberation. There are many paths to liberation, and extreme forgiveness is but one. However we get there, may this Lenten journey lead to the healing of ourselves and our world that allows resurrection, not evil, to be our defining story.

For each day of Lent, the booklet offers a brief written meditation on a different aspect of forgiveness as a concept and a process, and how the work of forgiveness can engage our minds, hearts, souls, and bodies. The reader is then invited to write a response to each day’s reading. Here is my response to Reverend Burrows.

To be honest, I worry that thinking too much about forgiveness will destabilize me. It is a complex topic, embracing as it does sins of commission and omission (i.e., “things done and left undone”), as well as social wrongs for which we might bear complicity. Meditating on this topic involves dwelling on recent and perhaps slight hurts, as well as those that are more grave and may have occurred long ago. In addition, “practicing forgiveness” is an entirely different process, at first glance, than seeking forgiveness—the former involves giving pardon to someone who may have wronged me, while the latter involves being pardoned for something regrettable or damaging that I have done. The process of forgiving seems to involve almost godlike strength, but for that very reason promises to draw us into a new relationship with one another and with God. 

Many of my sins are those of omission, for I have often been indecisive, immobilized by doubt and fear: in a word, cowardly. I often wake up feeling awful about something decent that I just don’t have the nerve to do, or do yet.

 Finally, in thinking of forgiveness and those who have hurt me, I am struck by how few of those people have ever taken the initiative to acknowledge their injurious acts and how they wounded my feelings or inflicted tangible and lasting harm. But in the “practicing forgiveness” model, that doesn’t matter, because putting my finger on those hurts and proactively pardoning the people who inflicted them is all on me. When someone hurts me and doesn’t admit that or apologize, that leaves me feeling very small. So I get why Ms. Kor found that offering radical pardon to a Nazi perpetrator left her freer and lighter afterward.

Image: Independence Pass by Susan Barsy

The Carnage on American Ground

Church is uncomfortable at times.  On Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, I went to church in the middle of the day.  The season of Lent was beginning: a period calling Christians back to the church and a deepening of their faith, a call that is not so easy to respond to, given that we are errant and have only a cloudy notion of God.

The sermon, which the bishop, Jeffrey Lee, preached, was about how our personal enchantment with the world leads to spiritual misery, characterized above all by our estrangement from human society.  (Lee spoke at length about Eustace, the fictional bad-boy of C. S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, who, in his eagerness to claim a great treasure found in a dragon’s lair, clasps a gold bracelet on his hand, only to find that his greed has transformed him into a beastly dragon, too.)  Christians may resolve to “give up things” for Lent, as is customary, but without divine grace we cannot restore ourselves, nor can we hope that such measures will bring us to a right relation with other humans, a relationship that we innately desire.

Which is why (here the bishop leapt to a startling conclusion) the Christian mission is inevitably collective.  We would be miserable even if we could attain salvation alone, but, as it is, we simply can’t.  Moving away from the wrong and toward the right involves turning from individuality and toward the common good.  It involves assuming responsibility for the many wrongs we witness each day.  Lee argued, for instance, that we, his hearers, were in some way responsible for the death of a respected police commander here in Chicago, who met his fate at mid-day Monday while trying to apprehend a convicted felon in flight after committing yet another crime.  The commander, who just a few minutes earlier had been on his way to a meeting at city hall, was shot dead in the stairwell of a downtown government office building.

I left church about 1:30, pondering how I could be responsible for this crime.  At about the same hour, I later learned, a crazed nineteen-year-old entered the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland Florida and, armed with a semi-automatic rifle and ample ammunition, began shooting dead the youngsters, teachers, and staff inside.  After murdering 17 people, most of them in their teens, this ghastly creature slipped away to hide himself in the banality of a Walmart and Subway before being picked up by the police.

Fingers have begun to point, divisions to arise, as though this damning episode were a grand occasion for taking sides.  But we are all on one side in sharing the responsibility for crimes so deeply rooted in who we are, whose sources are not just individual, but moral, legal, political, and communal.  As inhabitants of a self-governing society, we are all responsible for the society we have.  When it comes to gun violence, every person of conscience in the US can rattle off what needs to be done.  That we fail to do it ranks as a tragedy, a national sin.

RELATED:
Mary Schmich on what Marjory Stoneman Douglas would have done (Chicago Tribune).