Last week I wrote that one of the lessons I learned while leading a community during Covid was that shared agreements are vitally important to getting along. This week I will write about another lesson that I learned during Covid: people experience events differently, sometimes very differently. That may sound obvious, but Covid provides vivid examples of how our circumstances affect the impact an event had on our lives. Here are a few examples of what I mean:
When Covid hit the Navajo in Northern Arizona in May of 2020 it was utter devastation. Families living on reservations often have limited access to basic resources, like medical facilities, electricity, and running water. Native American tribes are also close-knit, multigenerational communities. All of this meant that Covid hit the Navajo Nation like a raging wildfire in a drought-stricken forest. Initially, the per-capita death rate was the highest in the country, almost double what it was in New York. Not only that but because people couldn’t leave their homes, food became hard to come by and people were in danger of starvation. Eventually the strength of their communal values overcame their challenges—they now have one of the highest vaccination rates in the country and they had none of the disagreements about masking or social distancing that other communities had.
Adolescence is a critical time for emotional and social development. When the pandemic caused schools to shut down and severely limited social interactions, the impact on teenagers was significant. Two classes of high schoolers had very important rituals taken away from them, like senior prom, graduation, youth group, and summer camp. As chaplain of a youth camp in 2021, which was the first social event for many of these kids in over a year and a half, I watched as the emotional impacts of these losses came spilling out of them. In the long term, I believe this generation will prove to be incredibly resilient, but such strength was earned through some hard knocks.
Most of us are familiar with the vulnerabilities of aging. But for many older people, the threat of covid was a matter of life and death, particularly for people who live in care facilities. For these people, complete social isolation was imperative. For some, the quiet was welcome and refreshing, for others it was a hardship. The discovery I made as pastor of a mainline church was that older adults have deep reserves of emotional strength that younger people have yet to develop. It is not as if covid wasn’t hard on people in their 80s and 90s, it’s just that their physical vulnerabilities were often compensated by perspectives gained over a long life.
Then there are people like me for whom the pandemic was a major inconvenience and lifestyle change but that was it. All that I had to give up was an overly scheduled life. I’m not sure I’ll ever know if I have had Covid to this point, but if I did I suffered no symptoms. For someone like me it is tempting to think the pandemic was relatively easy and that people who are suffering emotional or mental fallout are exaggerating the costs. But people had different experiences and our losses and our resources are definitely not equal. It’s impossible to tell how the past two years have affected someone until you get to know them and, as the saying goes, “walk a mile in their shoes.”
For this reason it is all the more important that we be patient and suspend judgment of each other. A guiding principle for all time but especially for these days can be found in Ephesians 4:32:
“be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”