In her brilliant new book, Weather, Jenny Offill shares that the late climate scientist Sherwood Rowland commented to his wife one day upon returning home from his lab: “The work is going well, but it looks like it might be the end of the world.”
Let’s turn it around: It looks like the end of the world, but the work might be going well.
Can a pandemic be a promise?
Can a curse be a blessing?
Can an ending be a beginning?
Billions of people around the world have been under lockdown for months. Four and a half million people have been infected with a relentless virus and more than 300,000 have died. Economies have collapsed. Supply chains have broken. Hunger is spreading as jobs disappear and financial strain grows. Animals are being killed and food is going to waste as farmers lack distribution networks and safe working conditions. People are dying alone. Families are separated. Friends are isolated. Communities are distanced. Anxiety and depression are rampant. Students struggle to study and teachers to teach. Medical workers are depleted. Researchers are baffled. Neighborhoods are still and roadways are empty.
Ecosystems are healing. Skies are blue. The air is clean. People are out in nature. Families are becoming closer. Friends are reaching out. Communities are organizing. Intimacy is increasing. Many are learning new skills. Home kitchens are bustling with shared meals. Online social clubs are flourishing. Priorities are being recalibrated. Social injustices are being recognized. Scientists are energized. Discoveries are abounding. Schools are innovating. Creativity and collaboration are displacing competition. Music is flowing. Gratitude is showing. Tzedakah is growing. Spirituality is consoling.
This is not the old “glass half empty or half full” insight. That adage risks freezing time. In that moment, it asks, how do you measure your life? We have no such luxury to stand still. Time may feel like it’s moving slowly, but it’s not. It’s moving forward and taking us with it. What we have, for now at least, is the power to direct where we’re going.
We’re not going back, that’s for certain. For better and for worse, the last few months have challenged many of our assumptions and disrupted many of our behaviors. Politics, health, finances, work, mobility, family, love, religion, identity, culture, and the climate are all areas of life that we will rethink as we renew. What will we have learned about ourselves and one another from this crisis that we will carry forward into the world as it slowly, and carefully, emerges into a new normal? What will we have learned about ourselves and one another that we will leave behind as we reimagine life not only in the wake of COVID-19 but life in the age of other potential pandemics?
These questions belong not only in boardrooms and faculty lounges, laboratories and legislatures, periodicals and podcasts. They belong around kitchen tables and in family Zoom chats. They belong in our diaries and in our prayers.
The lessons will be many. They must be. But there’s one that, to me, ought to frame them all, a peril that becomes our potential: Our strength can only emerge from a recognition of our shared vulnerability.
The way we do business, the way we build community, the way we love, the way we protect, the way we heal, the way we give, and the way we care for our planet will reward us only when we acknowledge our mutual fragility.
Ancient legends of all kinds have gods and prophets appearing to humanity as beggars to see if we would welcome or reject them. The legend continues, and the choice is ours to make. How do we wish to write the next chapter of the human story here on earth?
For a most heartfelt retelling of the hope embedded in this very moment in time, watch this four-minute video, The Great Realisation.
Tomorrow the reading of the book of Vayikra will end. Its final chapters ask us to choose between blessings and curses. But we know life never so neatly divides. So let us become the moral and spiritual alchemists our time demands. Let us turn curses into blessings, endings into beginnings, pandemics into promises.