In a recent letter, Pope Francis made this comment about the Pandemic, “We never come out of any crisis the same: either we come out better or worse, but never the same; and that will depend, to a large extent, on our capacity to cultivate—especially in the younger generations—an imagination that would help them believe that another way of writing history is possible.”
As we begin to emerge from the worst ravages of this COVID year, it is good to consider what we have learned, and whether we are better or worse for the experience. Has this crisis enlarged our imaginations and enabled us to believe that another way of writing history is possible?
Among other lessons, we learned about the relation between our personal lives and conduct and the larger common good. During periods when we were effectively confined to our homes, perhaps unable to go to work or school or church, it was possible to feel that we were doing nothing—that our lives were in a kind of limbo. But with contemplative eyes we could see that by staying home we were actually contributing to the common good. We realized that by wearing a mask and practicing social distancing we were not just protecting ourselves, but serving the welfare of our neighbors.
It was possible, in our isolation, to feel that we were all on our own. Yet it also became possible under these circumstances to feel our connection with people all over the world, as well as our neighbors down the street, and to recognize how deeply our survival and sustenance depend on others, their prayers, their work, their commitment to a broader community beyond themselves.
There were lessons we could also glean from the experience and testimony of moral and spiritual witnesses of the past, who elected solitude, or had it imposed on them. In a Twitter series, #MastersofSocialIsolation, I wrote about such figures, invoking examples ranging from Emily Dickinson (“Some keep the sabbath going to church – / I keep it, staying at home”) and the Desert Fathers (“Go into your cell and your cell will teach you everything”), to Thomas Merton, Julian of Norwich, Anne Frank and Nelson Mandela.
But many of the deepest lessons came from Pope Francis, who above all discerned the deep interconnection between global, social, personal and spiritual dimensions of this crisis. In his encyclical Fratelli Tutti, he wrote, “A worldwide tragedy like the Covid-19 pandemic momentarily revived the sense that we are a global community, all in the same boat, where one person’s problems are the problems of all. Once more we realized that no one is saved alone; we can only be saved together.”
While hoping that this experience might force us “to recover our concern … for everyone, rather than for the benefit of a few,” he warned that this was useless if it did not cause us to “rethink our styles of life, our relationships, the organization of our societies and, above all, the meaning of our existence.” In other words, we were being challenged to embrace an ethic of global solidarity and accountability to our fellow human beings, thus overcoming “the cool, comfortable, and globalized indifference” that blinds us to systems of inequality and exploitation: the “pandemic” of systemic injustice that is the counterpart to the public health emergency.
Have we learned these lessons? One hopeful sign was the awakening to the effects of systemic racism. Perhaps it was no accident that in the “stillness” of this pandemic so many were able to hear the voice of George Floyd crying “I can’t breathe.” From that outcry, and the response it evoked, one could indeed glimpse the promise that another way of writing history is possible.
But at the same time, one had to wonder. As time passed, many simply became impatient or exhausted; we had had enough of this. We wanted to pretend that the crisis was over, to get on with our lives and move on. It raised deep concern for the future of our species—if we have the imagination and will, the emotional bandwidth, the courage and spiritual depth to confront the greater existential threats we continue to face from climate change and the ongoing peril of nuclear Doomsday.
Pope Francis writes, “If only this may prove not to be just another tragedy of history from which we learned nothing … If only this immense sorrow may not prove useless, but enable us to take a step forward towards a new style of life. If only we might rediscover once for all that we need one another, and that in this way our human family can experience a rebirth, with all its faces, all its hands and all its voices, beyond the walls that we have erected.”
Robert Ellsberg is the publisher of Orbis Books and the author of many books, most recently, A Living Gospel: Reading God’s Story in Holy Lives. On Twitter: @RobertEllsberg.