Compassion

We are each trying to figure out exactly what form our social distancing should take and how to live our lives with this new sense of isolation. From the beginning of the crisis our policy at the church has been to trust the judgment of our members. We understand that there are different levels of vulnerability and different people will make different decisions. This is quite natural for our congregation. We know we are not bound together by sameness. We have never striven for everyone to agree or to see things from the same perspective. We are a diverse group of people.

Yesterday I was exchanging text messages with a member of the congregation. Our church has a small staff and a large number of volunteers. Right now we are without a janitor and cleaning is being done by volunteers. Last week we had a deep cleaning event with about ten people, all well spread-out, systematically cleaning and sanitizing rooms. We also performed the usual chores of vacuuming, cleaning bathrooms, emptying trash, mopping floors, and washing the glass doors in the entryways. The person with whom I was exchanging messages has a family member who has compromised breathing and has every reason to be very cautious about reducing risk of contacting the virus. She was looking for a time to come to the church for some business “when there would be no possibility of someone coming into the building.” That last part poses a special challenge, because there are a lot of people who have keys to the building and I don’t exactly know when there is a time when there is NO possibility of another person entering the building. I know from experience that not many people come in between 6 am and 8 am. Our security logs show that no one comes into the offices between midnight and 4 am. It wasn’t hard to make a plan for this person to feel comfortable with what needs to be done, but I couldn’t provide an absolute guarantee that there is no risk.

Another member of the congregation touched base by telephone to report that her daughter had been hospitalized. Tests indicate that the daughter does not have the coronavirus, but she does need treatment. The mother is elderly and partially disabled. Her husband is recovering from a stroke. They have to be very careful. The mother said, however, that she would visit the hospital if she was needed. Her capacity for risk is higher when it has to do with her daughter’s care. I was touched by her very appropriate love and concern.

Each day it remains possible that I might become a vector of transmission. I am out and about more than many members of our congregation. I am careful about social distancing, but I do walk on public sidewalks and in the parks. I go to the office every day and work in a nearly empty building, but see the folks who come and go. I respond when emergencies occur. Yesterday morning I went to the site of an unattended death with several officers and a coroner. I spoke with bereaved family members. We’ve dropped the custom of handshakes and mostly conducted our business from a reasonable distance, but I was among folks whose medical history I do not know. My risk was no greater than that taken by the officers, but it isn’t fair to say that I was taking no risk.

My concern is partly for what will happen when the virus touches a member of the congregation. I’ve heard quite a few fairly harsh and judgmental words about those of us who are not completely isolating in our homes. I know that we have members who are trying to avoid all contact with other people. I wonder how the congregation will react when someone becomes ill with the virus. I suspect that there will be those who will blame the victim. They will point out ways in which the behavior of the victim contributed to the situation. I hope that they will show the kind of compassion that they show when someone is injured in an accident. I hope they can accept that we have different levels of risk-taking. But I don’t know. I worry that in the mood of social isolation we might fail to express compassion to those who are ill. I’ve certainly felt that in conversations about a nurse who has contracted the virus. She continued to work without knowing that she was exposed and inadvertently exposed others, including patients. There have been some pretty harsh words said about her from people who are normally caring and compassionate. Their voices sound angry. And I know the connection between fear and anger. What happens when dozens or perhaps hundreds of our community have contracted the virus? It is a worry if you think the way that I do.

The entire pandemic is a kind of huge social experiment. In Sweden, the government has taken a different approach than other European countries. While many in Europe are under full lock down, Sweden is allowing life to go on in a nearly normal fashion. Ice cream parlors are open. People are eating at outdoor cafes. Gatherings of less than 50 people are allowed. That stands in contrast to Denmark where no meetings of more than 10 are allowed or England where people are not supposed to meet anyone outside of their household. Prime Minister Stefan Lofven, in a televised address to the nation, said, “We who are adults need to be exactly that: adults. Not spread panic or rumors. No one is alone in this crisis, but each person has a heavy responsibility.” This high level of trust in the people is reflected in a high level of trust for public authorities in Sweden. The Swedes love the outdoors and believe that keeping people physically and mentally healthy is important in their response to the virus. It will take months, perhaps even a year or more, to know if the Swedish approach works better than the more restrictive approaches of other countries.

In the meantime, I continue to venture out of our home to do work at the church. I practice the social distancing rules and am careful, but I know that my behavior is not free of risk. I trust the wisdom and decisions of others who chose a different path. And I remain committed to community and the care of all. That includes the sick, regardless of the cause or name of their illness.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!