By Mark Vander Vennen
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to ravage communities around the world, I find myself struggling to make sense of it. I expect that that is true for all of us. As human beings, we are driven to make sense of things, even of what is incomprehensible and nonsensical.
One of the great psychiatrists of the 20th century, Viktor Frankl, wrote a famous book called Man’s Search for Meaning,—after his unspeakably horrific experience as a concentration camp survivor during World War 2.
Dan Hughes, one of our mentors at Shalem in understanding the dynamics of attachment—that is, how we form and keep relationships, even in the midst of serious hurt and trauma—describes emotional health as having a “coherent autobiographical narrative.” That means that our understanding of our own life story makes sense. We can make sense of all of the moments in our lives, including the most painful memories—we don’t suppress them but are able to access and talk about them in a coherent way.
How are you or I making sense of this awful pandemic? How does it fit into our understanding of how life happens? I expect that we all have different answers to that question—and that’s good. I also expect that all of us are currently engaged in the challenging, ongoing process of trying to make sense and meaning of what’s happening, whether we are aware of doing that or not.
Part of seeking health, especially during times such as these, is to bring these processes to the surface and talk about them. As a way of starting a conversation, let me offer one small window into my own inner process of trying to understand the pandemic, in the hopes that others will share their own processes.
This is just one aspect of my own struggle to make sense of things. It is merely a grasping, a wondering—and far from complete.
As the pandemic unfolds, I find myself thinking a lot about an ancient story. It’s a story from the Hebrew Scriptures. The Scriptures outline the story of God’s people being sent into “exile.” God’s people were captured and sent away from their homeland, from their normal activities, and from each other, to Babylon for 70 years. They experienced untold suffering; in fact, on several occasions their story as a people even appeared to be completely over.
Today’s pandemic feels to me like an “exile.” We have been exiled from our normal activities and from our connections with each other, including our human relationships and economic interactions. Exile brings untold suffering, isolation and pain. The virus is awful, the deaths are awful, the spike in domestic violence is awful, the increase is suicides is awful, the risks that healthcare people and others need to take are awful, what’s happening in various impoverished communities around the world is devastating. There is so much tragedy and desperation, and I wish it would just go away.
The exile of God’s people did come to an end, however, and there is a fascinating text about its end. By the end of 70 years, the land that God’s people were sent away from had received rest for the same number of years that God’s people were supposed to have given the land rest, but did not (2 Chron. 36:21).
What does that mean? God had instructed the people to practice a regular Sabbath rhythm. (This is where our word “sabbatical” comes from). Every seven years, the people were to let the earth rest by not farming it, to cancel debts, and to set slaves free (in other words, to decrease one’s work force) while giving the slaves enough provisions for them to thrive in freedom. Then every 49 years (7 times 7), they were to proclaim the Year of Jubilee, during which, in addition to these provisions, land that had been purchased would be returned to its original owners.
Later, in the Gospels, Jesus declares that his mandate on earth is to proclaim the Year of Jubilee (Luke 4:18-19).
There is a sense here that human activity leads to distortions among people and with the earth. The purpose of this Sabbath structure is to right those distortions. Justice, equity, mercy and the inclusion of all in the community would all be restored. The exclusion and marginalization of people and the earth would cease.
The message here, in relation to the exile of God’s people? 70 years of exile equaled the number of years that God’s people did not follow this prescription, from the time they entered the land until the exile. In other words, one way or the other, either through caring for the earth and each other, or through exile, the earth gets its rest.
What is happening today, during the pandemic? For the first time in decades, greenhouse gas emissions are significantly reduced, Animals, who are rapidly losing essential habitat and becoming extinct at an unprecedented rate, are reappearing. Some debts are at least being postponed (such as some mortgage and rent payments, with some government orders that prohibit evictions). Some prisoners are—literally—being set free. Some cease fires, in war situations are happening, and gangs in El Salvador, are now enforcing social isolation rules in communities.
One way or the other, the earth gets its rest.
Is this part of what’s going on with this exile, this pandemic? I don’t know. The exile brings tremendous suffering. But I wonder.
There is a lot of talk today about what life will be like after the pandemic. In the Scriptures, the Year of Jubilee starts with a “Day of Atonement”—meaning, repentance.
I hope that COVID-19 serves as a call to change our ways: in light of climate change and species destruction, to care for the earth, to implement justice, equity, mercy, and care for the impoverished, the most vulnerable, the hurting, the victims of domestic violence. I hope we will come to our senses and bring all who are marginalized back to the centre of our public life together.
If not now, then when?
This is part of my own grasping and incomplete attempt to try to make some sense of what’s happening with the pandemic. I’d be interested to hear yours!
Mark Vander Vennen, MA, M.Ed, R.S.W., is Executive Director of the Shalem Mental Health Network. Mark is also co-author of Hope in Troubled Times: A New Vision for Confronting Global Crises, Foreword by Desmond Tutu.