With Memorial Day just a few days away, I’ve been reflecting on a conversation I had with a now-deceased parishioner who, along with more than 150,000 other soldiers, had stormed the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944. While he lived to tell about it, he often jokingly acknowledged that he might have been killed had it not been for his short stature. “The bullets flew right over my head,” he confessed. “It was the only time in my life that I had been grateful to be short.”
Surviving the slaughter on Omaha Beach led him to deep introspection. He thought about what he would do with his life if he ever made it home. Having witnessed the atrocities of that battle, how would his life be different than it had been before he had left? Surveying the carnage along the shoreline, he pledged that if he were ever given the chance to return to his family, he would never waste another minute of his precious life. He would give himself to some higher purpose or calling. He would do better.
George, like both of my grandfathers, did return home from war. They each made good on their foxhole promises. My uncle, however, who years later fought in Vietnam, was not as lucky. He died in a firefight in Duong Lam while dragging three of his fellow wounded Marines to safety. Thirty years later he was posthumously awarded the Silver Star for his bravery.
Memorial Day reminds us that some soldiers come home from war and some do not; some get a second chance to start over again, while others fall on the battlefield dreaming of how life might someday have been different for them.
The coronavirus pandemic has been likened to a kind of war. We honor our front-line workers who put their own lives at risk to save others. Daily, we count our fallen, who now total nearly twice those lost in the Vietnam War. We wait for a signal that might point to an end—a viral ceasefire at the least, or even a vaccine to defeat the virus. But most of us fight this war by staying home and binge-watching Netflix between Zoom calls and Instacart orders, all while debating the ethics of mask-wearing on after-dinner walks.
Call this pandemic what you will, but we have this rare moment in our lives, and in the life of our nation, to dream of the kind of world we want to live in when this is all over.
We can’t go back to the way it was before it all began, because a country that can be brought to its knees so quickly by an adversary so small was sick far before this virus ever invaded our shores. If you’re like me, it’s hard to acknowledge this. Our pre-pandemic life was good for many of us. But coronavirus has exposed some deep and chronic diseases and disparities in our national social fabric—in our nation’s very soul—that call us to genuine repentance.
That word, repentance, can be such a loaded word for many of us. We often associate it with feelings of remorse and regret. In ancient times, the Hebrews marked a season of repentance by wearing sackcloth and ashes, tearing their clothes, and fasting—in essence, generally feeling miserable about themselves and the choices that they made as a people and a nation.
Remorse is an appropriate and necessary expression of repentance. But genuine repentance requires not simply remorse, but right action brought about by a changed mind. The Greek word is “metanoia.” It means, literally, to go “beyond” (meta) the “mind” (nous)—to think beyond our old and tired answers that do not seem to work anymore, to get out of our minds altogether and into our gut (the seat of human compassion), trusting that “right loving” is more important than “right thinking.”
What has the coronavirus pandemic revealed about our society that calls us to national repentance—a changed national consciousness that leads to greater compassion and collaboration for the sake of the common good?
For one, COVID-19 has exposed the deep inequities suffered by people of color. Blacks and Hispanics are disproportionately at greater risk than whites for contracting and dying from coronavirus. This is due, in large part, to chronic poverty, inadequate health care, hourly wage jobs with greater exposure to spread, and the lack of benefits like sick leave and PTO. When, due to racial profiling, young black men are afraid to walk in public, or into a store, while wearing a mask, we know we’ve yet to genuinely repent of, and redress, our nation’s original sin of slavery and racism.
COVID-19 has exposed a broken health care system that had left 28 million Americans without adequate care before the pandemic, and now leaves at least another 32 million Americans not only jobless, but also without the health benefits that their jobs once provided. Lack of health insurance can mean not only death for those who contract the virus, but death for those among the general population exposed to persons who lack access to testing and treatment. We all live downstream from one another.
COVID-19 has revealed the disparities between how we value a human life and how we value our American way of life. Are some lives more dispensable than others for the sake of a thriving economy? Will we allow some to die in order to restore our former way of life? These are existential and consequential questions.
COVID-19 has exposed our broken immigration system and the xenophobia upon which our nation’s immigration policies have long been founded. Chinese-Americans in particular, and Asian-Americans in general, are now held under deep suspicion and scrutiny due to the politicization of the virus’ origin. Immigrants from Latin America, who make up a significant portion of the meat packing industry’s workforce, remind us that our economy is reliant upon those who are willing to take the low-paying, high-risk jobs that few of us are.
COVID-19 has exposed our unsustainable abuses of Earth’s resources and our human contribution to increased greenhouse gas emissions. Air pollution has dropped by 30% in the US over the last two months. Fuel demand has dropped by 28%. We know that the virus was a zoonotic event, originating from the human consumption of infected wild and domestic animals—a consequence of global hunger and food shortages that are entirely solvable by greater collaboration among first-world nations. Perhaps Americans on both sides of the aisle can finally find common ground on green solutions that may not only save our economy and feed the world, but may also help us avert a greater climate catastrophe in the future.
And COVID-19 has exposed the deep emotional wounds of an American populace that is profoundly lonely, socially isolated and disconnected, depressed and dissatisfied with modern life. The annual suicide rate in the US is projected to double in 2020. Deaths of despair, especially from alcohol and opioid abuse, are projected to skyrocket. We were all longing for deeper human connection before this pandemic, and social distancing has only exacerbated that longing.
It’s time to explore the power and possibility of metanoia, or repentance, for such a time as this. The truth is that the vast majority of us will get a second chance. Like my friend George, we now have this rare moment in our lives, and in the life of our nation, to reconsider the kind of world we want to live in when this is all over. And now is the time, like our ancestors before us, to repent: to think beyond the old and tired answers that no longer seem to be working, and to get out of our minds, knowing that “right loving” is more important than “right thinking.”
Will we make good on our foxhole promises?