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Pardeep Singh Kaleka is the executive director of Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee and author of “The Gift of Our Wounds.” In this piece, he reflects upon the disparate responses to COVID-19 and the personal commitment he’s made to learning through the crisis.
A few days ago, my 14-year old daughter expressively ranted about her wish to be in school with all of her friends and teachers. She spoke at length about how she misses even her most dreaded classes and that her school bullies would be a welcomed sight for her sore eyes.
It is clear that the outbreak of COVID-19 and the social distancing that we are engaged in to slow the spread of this virus is taking a spiritual toll on us all. Over the past few weeks, as U.S. and global death rates continue to rise, there have been several other consequences besides sickness, death and loneliness. These repercussions include: the loss of livelihood, significant economic losses, risks to our health and well-being and severe cabin fever. We’re experiencing all of this communal pain while physical communal fellowship is inaccessible.
At times our children can teach us much more than we can offer them. After more than a week of being self-quarantined as a family, I admitted to my daughter that it has been a very difficult week indeed and sometimes it takes these types of things to happen for us to really appreciate what we have. I said this out loud to her, but I was really speaking to myself.
Our lives are lived in such a way that we are constantly coming and going, justifying our existence and qualifying our labels. Right now, it feels like none of that matters. All that matters is how compassionate we can become during these troublesome times to the communities we serve, friends, families and ourselves. Judging from the many news stories surfacing over the past week, there have been countless accounts of human goodwill and kindness that have been a direct outcome of this communal threat.
With that understood, we have also witnessed stories of those who have engaged in extreme selfishness. Examples have included the hoarding of cleaning supplies, disinfectant, guns, ammo, and yes, toilet paper — America’s “individual-first” mentality on full display. Instead of understanding that we are all in this together and working towards a communal betterment, our thin-skinned president put yet another minority community in danger with his blame-goating, racist comments and his appeal to this American individualism.
Reflecting on this, I wonder what causes these two polar responses to fear? Why does danger bring out the best in some and yet the worst in others?
Fear causes anxiety, and while anxiety is a natural human response to stress, we must understand that stress does different things to us all. Fight, flight, freeze are the commonly understood ways that we cope with feeling overwhelmed.
While this may be our natural response to fear and anxiety, there is something that gets lost. How do we grow? How do we get better? As a person? As a community?
The way we can grow is to understand our response to fear as natural, but our ability to get better as an overriding spiritual journey that ultimately invokes love over fear. Abundance over poverty. Vision over the unimaginative. Virtue over depravity. Gain over what we might lose.
With the sage words of my 14-year old daughter, I decided to give myself a gift; the gift of embracing the current vulnerability and invoking love over fear. I decided to spend more time with my children, family and myself, reflecting on COVID-19 symptoms of causing respiratory difficulties to human beings while the earth recovers fresh air with the lowering of its global CO2 levels; engaging in prayer of the interconnected spirit that reaffirms that we are all in this together; working to help in any small way that I can to contribute to the public good because there are those who are much more vulnerable during these times than me; being mindful that our spiritual wholeness may need to mature through this communal suffering.
This is a gift that we can all give ourselves because this is the path to communal growth. The days and weeks going forward will bring challenges and we will witness the constant tug-of-war with hope and hopelessness. During these times, please remember the words of the Hopi Elders:
“You have been telling the people that this is the Eleventh Hour, now you must go back and tell the people that this is the Hour.
“There is a river flowing now very fast. It is so great and swift that there are those who will be afraid. They will try to hold on to the shore. They will feel they are torn apart and will suffer greatly.
“Know the river has its destination. The elders say we must let go of the shore, push off into the middle of the river, keep our eyes open and our heads above water. And I say, see who is in there with you and celebrate. At this time in history, we are to take nothing personally, least of all ourselves. For the moment that we do, our spiritual growth and journey comes to a halt.
“The time for the lone wolf is over. Gather yourselves! Banish the word ‘struggle’ from your attitude and your vocabulary. All that we do now must be done in a sacred manner and in celebration.
“We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”