We are at war. The actual combat began in January 2020. A declaration of war was not made by Congress as required by the United States Constitution. But virtually every member of the House of Representatives and the Senate, along with the President, has publicly asserted America is at war with COVID-19. Almost 90,000 of us have paid the ultimate price and almost 1.5 million are causalities. Many more losses are predicted.
While wars of any description are great stressors on people, our enemy in this war is truly virulent. If we were fighting another country we would know where to direct our fear and fire. With the Coronavirus we cannot even identify our enemy without a microscope and it is not wearing a uniform. Further, it often attacks us by attaching itself to casual social contacts, businesses, friends and even our loved ones. COVID-19 is a Mata Hari’s dream. Few are immune from its invidious, silent, unseen and sometimes deadly infection and even those who suffer no ill effects themselves can operate as Typhoid Marys.
Another major stressor people feel from the virus is the uncertainty we experience from the fear there is no end in sight. Most people can muster enough courage to combat major stressors if it is fairly certain they will end, even if that end is far off. However, with COVID our scientists keep cautioning us that we may never find a vaccine. After all, the first polio outbreak in America was in 1894 and we did not have a reliable vaccine until 1953.
In our war against COVID-19 we have already been in live-fire combat for at least two months. An official United States government report on battle fatigue among American soldiers in World War II declared:
“There is no such thing as getting used to combat.
“The general consensus was that a man reached his peak of effectiveness in the
first 90 days of combat [and] that after that his efficiency began to fall off …”
“Psychiatric casualties are as inevitable as gunshot and shrapnel wounds …”
“Most men were ineffective after 180 or even 140 days.”
As cited in John Keegan’s The Face of Battle at p. 335
America’s “Combat Exhaustion” over our war with COVID-19 is manifesting itself throughout the United States. A majority of Americans still fear the virus more than they question our multilayed, hodgepodge governmental response to it, whether federal, state, county or local. However, the stress of only 60 days or so of fighting the virus is already exposing fissures in our good will toward one another. Unless we come up with a successful Manhattan Project type response to the virus fairly soon perhaps we should develop some new strategies.
Peg is a born and reared Yankee. What she used to know about such places as Oklahoma came from Gunsmoke and The Lone Ranger. Now she is learning about the Wild West from personal experience. This morning she received an up close lesson in herpetology. Whereas not long ago rattlesnakes and copperheads were only in Peg’s psyche as metaphors, now she understands why westerners check their boots before pulling them on and make sure doorways and windows are carefully sealed. Of course, these precautions also work well with scorpions and centipedes. But Peg’s education about ferocious arachnids and arthropods has been previously addressed in this space. For now our concentration is on snakes.
Peg has always been an avid online shopper and an imaginative and energetic adaptor of household products. This probably stems from her father’s expertise in engineering. Regardless, during our marriage I have often been impressed by Peg’s ability to envision uses for knick-knacks she finds on the internet, most of which originate in China. No, I will not go there.
Anyway, Peg ordered exterior screens for our veranda double doors so that we could benefit from the relentless prairie breezes. The UPS person delivered the box yesterday and we let it season until this morning. Upon opening the box and reading what purported to be instructions, we installed the screens which stretched from the top of the doors to within four inches of the veranda floor. This let in clean, sweet-smelling air but the material could not be stretched to close the four inch gap. While I had reluctantly entered into the installation as ordered by Peg, I did feel duty bound to point out to her that such uninvited houseguests as scorpions, centipedes and snakes might choose to join us, especially after we went to sleep, if we left the doors open and relied upon the screens to exclude them. Need I say, “I told you so!”?
After spending the better part of an otherwise gorgeous day deciphering the Oriental translation and affixing screens to doors, we stepped back so Peg could admire the affect. Then we ate supper while we talked about the inscrutable mysteries of the magnetic closure on the screens. After supper Peg went to the porch to once again check my work on the screens as I prepared to watch the latest misinformation on cable TV. Then I heard Peg scream, “JIM!” I ran for my 20 gauge as I assumed we had been attacked by some inconsiderate violator of COVID-19 ethics.
“Jim, come here now!”
I eschewed my shotgun and rushed to the veranda doorway where Peg was standing on a chair and pointing a finger at the doorsill where a copperhead was offering to engage with her.
After dispatching the serpent I expected to be allowed to relax on the veranda and admire the prairie view. Wrong! I spent the next hour removing the screens and making sure there was no light coming under the doors. On the other hand, I am fairly confident it will be at least another week before Peg enlists me to modify the entrances to our cabin again.
For about 200,000 years Homo sapiens did without air conditioning. Other than opening or closing the animal hide, reed or cloth flap covering their cave or hut openings our ancestors did not worry about the atmosphere, whether inside or out. Setting beside a fire pit or chimney, people were happy to simply huddle together when it was cold, probably in groups of ten or less. When it came to keeping cool we just opened windows. This provided untold benefits that humanity appears to have now lost sight of.
Fresh air, reduced utility costs and portals for tossing out dirty dishwater disappeared. We began to regurgitate air previously breathed by others and which sometimes contains mold spores and other unhealthy elements. Remember Legionnaires Disease that was traced to air conditioning units for large buildings such as hotels and convention centers and which was and still is particularly deadly for people fifty years of age, people with weak immune systems, those with lung problems and smokers. Sound familiar?
When combating COVID-19, fresh air and warmer weather make sense to me. And while I chose not to pursue a graduate degree in psychology, I can confidently assert that better mental health results from fresh air rather than social isolationism made even more isolated by closed windows. We used to be able to rent a hotel room and eat at restaurants while enjoying the ambiance of open windows. Then pencil pushers began to control every aspect of our days and nights by requiring windows that could not be raised. This may be good for corporate earnings but it is anathema for human health, physical and mental.
If governors and state legislators want to do some real good at no cost to taxpayers they can require that all windows be openable. They can still have locking devices available. Under the Tenth Amendment to the United States Constitution these issues are the province of the states.
Should we be concerned that as people watch the economy continue to slide toward 1929 levels they might be tempted to jump out, a couple of bars on the outside of windows should discourage such impulses while still allowing for fresh air.
I know that simply opening windows suffers from the anti-governmental approach. It is inexpensive. It has proven effective for a couple of hundred thousand years. And it puts control in the hands of the public, not bureaucrats. In spite of these political drawbacks I still recommend it.
Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) sought wisdom in living simply on Walden Pond outside Concord, Massachusetts just twenty-five miles from Boston. Thoreau spent two years there in a hut he built himself. Part of the wisdom he imparted then that speaks to our COVID 19 society now was the observation that government is best that governs least and less can be more in many aspects of life.
Since March 5, 2020 Peg and I have discovered that as long as the computers keep turning out our Social Security checks and Medicare continues to cover us a great deal of government is superfluous, at least for us. We used to dine out regularly and occasionally engage in person with friends and family. If the UPS driver is excluded, we are now as though on an unknown archipelago where armadillos play the role of giant sea turtles, coyotes stand in for killer orca whales, rattlesnakes imitate Komodo dragons and mooing cattle provide cacophonous concerts. We no longer commune in coffee shops and cafes but find ourselves quietly hiking up the rocky tor we call JPeg Peak or around the cloudy pond down from our cabin. Our interaction that once was among friends, family and general society is now almost solely between us. And while I have never considered myself misanthropic, I find solace in the absence of unlimited casual connections. Also, after lifetimes of sowing and sometimes reaping crops of worldly goods we are less compelled to further heed those siren calls. Our satisfaction is now found among non-speaking species and sweat producing projects where the rewards are temporary fatigue and long-term practicality. Netflix is our new opiate along with the rest of the socially distanced masses and George Orwell’s Newspeak dominates public discourse through the TV.
Our government that only a few months ago considered itself so essential to most aspects of our lives that it always took our tax tribute and sometimes rewarded us with services now declares its services suspendible until further notice but still collects the tribute. One might wonder if we could not permanently forego many of these costly bureaucracies whose only purpose may appear as “noisy gongs or clanging cymbals”, (1 Corinthians 13). When our government buildings lock us out for months at a time we may find there is no need to completely reopen them. Perhaps the trillions of treasure our government borrows from countries such as China could be reduced to levels that our grandchildren can afford to repay long after we have matriculated.
Neither Thoreau nor I call for a complete lack of government or society but instead better versions of both. As we gradually and carefully emerge from our individual Waldens perhaps we should take this opportunity to reevaluate what parts of our government and our general culture actually serve us. After all, what some may find to be the bitter medicine of isolation we are forced to take may not have just negative side effects if we properly apply the lessons taught by history.
It is not only our various tiers of governments, local to federal, that have exposed much of their avoirdupois by doing us the favor of shutting us out. Many businesses and other organizations have been forcefully confronted with the reality that much of what they do can be done better with less expense and fewer people or need not be done at all.
As we face the possibility that COVID 19 may give us few choices and all of those bad, perhaps we can salvage some good from our situation. Just as President Lincoln used the horror of the four years of the Civil War as the means to end slavery when he had not been able to persuade America to do so earlier, maybe we can take the harsh punishment of the Coronavirus and emerge with a more productive and more egalitarian society. Some experts estimate it will take up to four years to develop an effective, safe and universally deliverable vaccine. The most hopeful estimate is twelve months from January 2020.
When it comes to treatment we have a shorter estimated timeline but still will have several more months to go. Of course, any treatment has to be deliverable on a wide basis. If we soberly consider the scientific opinions, we probably have to conclude that our most reasonable currently available option is to institute and maintain social distancing for several more months and maybe for up to four years. Of course we can decide that approach is of more harm to us than the virus is. In that event we might concentrate on categorizing different at-risk groups and then apply different procedures to each one.
For example, Peg and I are in our seventies and our children, grandchildren and great grandchild are not. Maybe Peg and I should take the responsibility for our own health and proceed accordingly. If we were at war folks such as Peg and I would be the draftee soldiers and the rest of the country would support us with supplies and care as the non-soldiers, the less vulnerable members of society, carry on with their lives. As a country we have generally accepted that we are at war with this enemy. Perhaps we should address this fight as we would have in World War II. Peg and I have already volunteered by isolating since the beginning of March and believe it is our obligation to continue to do so until it is safe for us not to.
As the generation who benefitted most from the great sacrifices of the World War II generation, the Greatest Generation, we see it as fitting that we take our turn. And, frankly, a Walden Pond, or JPeg Osage Ranch, lifestyle is a lovely respite. We look forward to once again joining the rest of the less vulnerable society when science shows us the way. In the meantime we express our best wishes to those who can more safely join into all those social activities that Peg and I have already enjoyed for many years. That is, if that is their choice and they can safely do so.
My sister, Jane Redwine Bartlett, is a retired psychology assistant professor and a working lay minister. She gave the following Easter message electronically. As she received some Good personal News the following week she may see that as a reward. It is a nice thought.
“Good Morning! We gather in worship on this strangest of Easter Sundays—almost as strange as that first Easter 2000 years ago. When in your life have you ever given up so much for Lent? Forget giving up chocolate or starches or alcohol. Forget, “Don’t give something up; get out and do something good for others.” This year Lent has called for big time sacrifice.
We have given up freedom of movement, freedom of choice, jobs we love, family time around Easter ham, Mom’s brownies and colored eggs. We also mostly gave up Shrove Tuesday Pancake Breakfasts, Maundy Thursday’s fellowship meals and Good Friday’s Stations of the Cross.
Some have given up income. Students have given up school and the important social interaction with friends, settling for parents REALLY as teachers—with results sometimes good; sometimes not so good. Many Moms and Dads have jobs or are trying to work from home. Teaching six different subjects to three different kids at three different grade levels while stirring the fried potatoes just isn’t fun.
As writer David Brooks says, we humans are social animals. We have always been stronger and served our God better when we reach out to others. Now we are cautioned against reaching out. Touch has always healed yet now touch can carry a death sentence. Because kids aren’t in school, child abuse reports have dwindled—school is about more than education; school is often the only ‘safe’ place for hungry, abused and neglected children.
Most worrisome for many of us is the giving up of our sense of safety and security—the, silent, unseen Covid 19 virus may be insidiously waiting just around the next corner or next aisle, not only for us but more importantly for one or more of our loved ones or friends. We may still have a job but are waiting for another round of layoffs. Almost 20 million unemployed boggles our minds as do the miles and miles of bread lines.
When shopping for groceries or taking a walk in the park turns in to a possible contamination of self or others, our world is rocked. Few of us have ever experienced such restrictions, and most of us have not experienced such pernicious fear or anxiety. When all has passed, what will our nation and our world resemble? Will we recognize those things we hold dear or will they have been forever changed? How about each of us? How are we being changed by this pandemic?
Today’s scripture finds Jesus’ disciples in a very similar situation. Their leader has been crucified, killed, buried. Roman and Jewish authorities are attempting to herd and capture them. They are frightened, hiding and fearing what will come next.
Hear the words from John 20: 1-18. As you listen, put yourself in the place of each character—Jesus, the Angels, Peter, John, Mary. How do you think each was feeling? Just as everyone around us now is reacting differently to what is going on, Mary, Peter, John and the others each react differently to Jesus’ arrest, trial, crucifixion and the empty tomb. Some with awe; some with fear; some with disbelief, some with action.
As observant Jews, the disciples and faithful followers of Jesus had to leave his body unattended until the next day or bury him quickly. Two of the Sanhedrin took charge—both wealthy enough to receive favors from their fellow Sanhedrin and from Pilate, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea. I wonder if they were present for Jesus’ trial and chose not to speak? What gave them courage now, these secret followers, to claim the body of this homeless, itinerant carpenter?
Peter fearfully and shamefully denied he was a follower of Jesus’, yet he almost beats John to the tomb on that first Easter Sunday morning and as the story plays out is still seen as a leader. Mary, grieving deeply over this man who accepted her with all her wrongdoing, came to anoint Jesus’ body, but finds him missing. Mary rushes to tell Peter and John then returns to linger and mourn her loss. John, the disciple who the Bible tells us,” Jesus loved”, raced Peter to the tomb– John’s ability to beat Peter at this race might have something to do with John’s youth. But apparently John didn’t have the nerve to enter the tomb, leaving that to Peter. When they saw the grave cloths were not disturbed but folded neatly, they were amazed.
Fear that the Roman or Jewish leaders had stolen Jesus’ body coupled with fear of what was going to happen in this new world environment had to be as disturbing as our fears of what our new world environment offers. As Christians we celebrate Easter as a day of Life Breaking Death—we rejoice over the renewal and rejuvenation of all things that have been lost. What a relevant celebration for this scary time.
Just as Mary didn’t recognize Jesus until he called her name, we too have difficulty seeing God and Jesus in the midst of this pandemic—particularly since we not only have to winnow out what is true and right and good, but because we must discard so much misinformation and despair. As Mr. Roger’s said when asked what you tell children to do in times of disaster or despair, “You look for the helpers. Keep your eye on the helpers.”
Excellent advice for all ages. I would say to you that God is in our midst, despite our inability to see God’s continual creating. In moments of doubt and confusion, darkness and struggle, fear and anxiety, it is normal for even faithful Christians to fail to see God, to find his loving goodness in the midst of despair.
If we remember our mandate to “Love One Another as Jesus Loved,” we can see sparks of hope, in the dainty pink tulips I discovered on my front porch, in the effort of my eldest brother who called to play, “The Holy City” on his saxophone for his siblings on National Sibling Day, in caring neighbors who bring soup and cinnamon rolls, in parents and teachers working together; in research scientists searching for a cure, in medical personnel who continue to treat Covid 19 patients even at risk of their health, in the RV’s for MD’s program New Song is investigating—we have the land and facilities; hopefully we can provide a service.
The fear and pain are huge right now. The message of Easter is that we are called to act in large and small ways to mitigate that pain wherever we can, including not encouraging others to gather—even in small groups.
The church has never been about the building but about our individual relationship with God and with one another. We will continue to Seek God, Create Community and Serve Humanity—that’s who we are.
The message of the empty cross and the empty tomb is that Jesus lives. As long as he lives within our hearts, as long as we continue to step up and serve others, being safe and cautious as we push through our fears, being faithful to our calling to love as Jesus loved, Easter may be celebrated differently; Easter might feel strange; but we each can come out of this quarantined, physically distanced world more connected, more loving, more kind and assured that God is alive, God is in our midst. He has risen; he has risen indeed.”
Modern Americans have been blessed by the sacrifices of many before us. We can hope each person who gave their lives in service to America believed the Roman poet Horace (65 BCE-08 BCE) was correct: Est dulce et decor pro patria morte.
One of those previous Americans to whom we owe a debt of gratitude was John Kennedy (1917-1963). Kennedy was injured in battle in World War II and suffered severe back pain because of it. As a young man he sat in a rocking chair to ease his pain. Yet Kennedy did not take the position America owed him anything. In his presidential inaugural address of January 20, 1961 he exhorted us to ask not what our country can do for us but what we can do for our country.
And as the English poet John Donne (1572-1631) advised, when one hears a bell tolling because someone has died, it tolls for each of us because we are all involved in mankind. As Donne observed, each person’s death diminishes us all.
Our current conflict pits all of us against a frightening enemy. It is COVID-19 against us all much as our country has been attacked many times before. Previous Americans have had to make similar difficult sacrifices. Through no one’s fault, including our own, it is now our time to face tough choices. My experiences with Americans and a reading of our country’s history convinces me that we are up to the challenge.
Oh, I am aware we could ignore the virus and it would eventually die out as we develop natural anti-bodies to it. We might lose a couple of million people from COVID-19 and then millions more later as COVID-19 becomes COVID-20, 21, etc., as it mutates. But chances are most of our country’s 330 million people would survive, the economy would recover quickly and as the folk singer Phil Ochs (1940-1976) wrote, probably hardly anyone would long notice, “.. outside of a small circle of friends”. Fortunately, most Americans see their duty to their country more as recommended by President Kennedy.
However, it is not easy. A great many people have had important matters in their lives simply devastated by the enemy and our collective response to it. Weddings, funerals, religious services, life savings, graduations and countless other vital and important matters have been ravaged by something completely beyond the affected people’s control and something for which they bear no blame. We should recognize these sacrifices just as we know we have been blessed by the selflessness of previous Americans. But with a steadfast resoluteness we can weather this storm by applying proven guidelines until we defeat this scourge, which we most certainly will do within the next few months.
We are in a Marathon. It started out as a battle against a fierce enemy from Asia much as the ancient Greeks faced when the Persians attacked. We are now well on the way to victory. It is no longer more than twenty-six miles. Athens is in sight but we must stay the course for awhile longer. Pheidippides made it the whole way in 490 BCE and so can we.