Where Are We in the Pandemic?

With omicron burning through Americans, vaccinated and unvaccinated (though, sadly, with very different outcomes), it feels like a total vertigo moment.

It’s as if we’re either:

  • In a Chutes and Ladders moment, in which we slide back to April 2020 and start all over again. Or …
  • On one of those people movers at the airport, and omicron’s lesser severity and crazy transmissibility accelerates us toward the end of this dread time.

I know we are not sliding back to vaccine-less 2020, but right now we’re in the middle of Little O’s spread and it’s depressing to see so many people who have avoided covid this far into the pandemic getting sick, and dealing with all the dislocation, frustration and postponement that comes with a country full of sick people (many mild, some deathly) all at once. Hospitals are delaying elective surgeries again, not because they are full of seriously ill patients, but because they can’t staff an OR. Schools are closing not because all the kids are sick, but because too many teachers and aides are. Same for restaurants and thrift shops and corporate offices.

The next 6-8 weeks are gonna be this twilight period. Maybe it’s the coming dawn. Maybe it’s a terrible dusk. My hope and best guess is dawn. Regardless, right now, we lack light and sight. I simply want this to end, and I know I’m not alone. Yet it feels so darn lonely. I’m grateful for my wife and for friends and family, AND I realize that I’ve got some level of PTSD from this time. That we all do.

I wish I could Rip Van Winkle this and wake up in April.

Into this jumble of feelings, this article from the New York Times Magazine landed like a dose of Dramamine for a seasick traveler, introduced a new term (“ambiguous loss”) and gave me another person in this world to be thankful for, researcher Pauline Boss.

And Virginia and I started to watch Station Eleven, on HBO Max. The opening episode felt a lot like the opening to Stephen King’s The Stand, though it then goes in a much different direction. It reminded me that the world closes and opens, though rarely for all of us at the same time and in the same ways, and a realization comes to me: Things can always be worse. That reminder — and an always fledgling mindfulness practice — is a way to keep my head above water these days.

And walk, or ruck, or run, when I can.

The Great Shift

shipwreck

Virginia and I went on a Saturday night date (to the Mann Music Center to see Ballet X after a dinner out) for the first time in 16 months and then attended an outdoor church music event the next afternoon and it’s starting to feel like we’re increasingly out of the teeth of the pandemic. (I’ll worry about variants on another day.)

I am very, very curious what things are going to look like on the other side of this, if we ever truly get all the way to the other side (see variants), but for now I feel like alI I know is that there has been a Great Shift. I feel it as if we’re on a ship and some enormous load has moved in the hold. The deck isn’t quite level, but nobody has yet been down in the hold to see what happened. Will it re-settle and we’ll come back to level? Will it keep rolling and we’ll capsize? Or are we just gonna float, a little off-kilter and bobbing, till we all learn to walk on this tilted deck as if this is the way it’s always been? I’m an optimist, and yet. There is some anxiety here.

I’ve been trying to comprehend the Great Shift. It seems that the way people understood the world or behaved in it has changed. A year-plus of retreating into our homes and very limited social bubbles if you were privileged/lucky — or braving a deadly pandemic, if you weren’t — has provided some revelatory space. People have changed, I sense, but also that they don’t quite know how. I don’t either, but here are some lessons that, to me, people seem to have learned:

  • The world can bend a lot when it has to. Things that were seemingly immutable (commutes, weddings, ballgames, live music, movie theaters, beers with the guys, book groups, dating, meeting other humans, monetary policy) either disappeared or were replaced by virtual doppelgängers that were more or less unsatisfactory. And those in-person things are coming back with a drip-drip-drippiness that’s much slower than the faucet-slammed-shut immediacy of March 2020.
  • Or not. For a lot of people, the past year has created a distance that they welcome or prefer to the uncertainty of re-emerging. Either way, they’re satisfied with or resigned to the past year’s status quo.
  • They have more say than they originally thought they had on some of these things and, this is important, that as they reconnect, they want things on their terms. Whether it’s no more supermarket trips or work commutes or going to church on Sunday mornings, if people don’t see value in their presence or attendance, they’ll insist on alternatives.
  • The world is not unipolar. Hybrid might be 2021’s Word of the Year. This will be the year of yes/and, not either/or. Or maybe it will be the year of no/and, as in I won’t do that, but I would do this with some of that. One thing that I don’t think many businesses have reckoned with is that the past year was simple. Work went remote. Many employees haven’t seen an office in more than a year. As companies begin to navigate a world where people work at home AND in an office, it’s going to be a) complicated and b) expensive. You’re going to have to equip both workplaces or risk a productivity trough in one of them. Simply saying, if you don’t like it, come to the office, isn’t going to cut it.
  • They can get away with no as an answer. Don’t like the conditions an employer places on a return to the office? Find a new job. Don’t like the idea of returning to work, period? Then don’t. Don’t like your partner? Well, people seem to have decided that can wait. People have embraced the ambiguities and figured out how to hold their breath. It might be a long time before some of them come up for air.

In short, people want what they want, it isn’t what they had before the pandemic, and they think they have the agency to make it happen, one way or another.

I expect this is going to manifest itself in the biggest mixed bag of a recovery we’ve seen in my lifetime. It’s going to lead to a tumultuous economic year, an explosion of cash being thrown around in pursuit of self-actualization and fulfillment of wishes and missions and delusions, and, sadly, an acceleration of some of the trends toward social isolation and bubble building. I think it’s going to be bad for political polarization, because as people rebuild their social graphs they are going to consider their choices through a partisan lens, which could exacerbate the kind of political sorting that has already become too much a factor in who hangs with whom. Emerging from this with political affiliation as a primary lens is one of the saddest fruits of the pandemic season. If a global pandemic, driven by a remorseless virus whose only affiliation is vulnerability isn’t enough to get us all pulling in one direction, I fear for the Commons. And the Commonwealth.

Also in the sad category, I think education is going to remain a mess for the next year, as unvaccinated kids will remain the biggest pool of viral potential for coronavirus variants. I expect schools, kids, parents and teachers will continue to be stressed and whipsawed by that reality all the way into 2022. The degree to which this is true will depend a lot of your zip code. Vaccinated zip codes will suffer less, those with a lot of vaccine holdouts more.

In short, there’s a lot of tonnage moving around in the hold. We could re-settle into a Better Way, a more seaworthy existence. There are promising signs that people realize it’s time to value sustainability. But it could flip us. I’m an optimist, but I’m also a little worried about slipping off this listing ship. Or that the ship we’re on is about to be tossed by Climate Change in a way that could make all this epidemiological and sociological hullaboo seem like small potatoes—think the lords and ladies of Westeros scrambling for power until, in the penultimate episodes, they notice the unsettling, quiet guy with the blue eyes riding an ice dragon at the head of a zombie army in Game of Thrones. But that’s for another day, and another post.

Above all, I’m curious. And curious how you think it’ll sort itself out.

How Is Church Going to Change?

A year ago, the pandemic was upon us, states were declaring lockdowns and church services (along with most everything else) went online. It was a scary moment for anyone who loves their religious community, with lots of questions:

  • Would people find online church services satisfying?
  • Would they attend?
  • Would they take part in church life beyond service?
  • Would they support their religious community in a time of extreme dislocation?

The surprising thing is the answer has been more “yes” than “no” over the past year. As more religious communities move toward in-person gatherings (in Pennsylvania, such gatherings remains very limited, with communities either avoiding it wholly or severely limiting worshipers), my own sense is that the past year is going to usher in a very different world for religious communities in 2021 and beyond.

Here are the new ground rules that I see:

  • Church is multiplatform. In my community, people from as far away as Arizona and Texas attend Sunday service. Our Wednesday mindfulness program includes a person from New York state who has never been part of a physical meeting of our community. These people are part of our community, we think there are more people who would benefit from our values and approach, and I expect we’ll continue to find ways to connect with them. When the time is right, I expect we’ll return to in-person services, but the schedule may be very different. Maybe we go from two Sunday services to one, to reduce resources needed and complexity for the physical event—but we add a livestream component that has a significant audience, both people who live at a distance and others who are physically near but decide it makes better sense for them to attend remotely.
  • Church is a mix of live and produced events. This pandemic has questioned the need to meet physically, and I would not be surprised to see a move away from physical meetings every week and a hybrid approach that includes something like what church is right now for many people (a produced service pulled together ahead of time and made available on online platforms like Youtube and Vimeo) once a month. Maybe it’s the last Sunday of the month. Consider it the spiritual equivalent of work-from-home (which is another huge societal change due to covid).
  • Church is asynchronous. Like Netflix, you can tune into church when it fits your schedule. Rather than choose between a morning hike and Sunday service on a gorgeous weekend morning, you can time-shift service to later that day, or Tuesday evening, or whenever. Church is no longer “appointment programming” in the way that it has been.
  • Church remains about connection. The religious communities that survive and thrive in this environment will be able to meet people where they are AND provide a message and presentation that is valued and, to an extent, can outcompete the variety of experiences competing for attention. The message and execution need to be compelling and values-forward, in a way that makes spending the time either going to service or choosing it over other screen alternatives makes people feel good about their choice. There will be limited ability to guilt people into choosing religious community if it doesn’t impact their lives in some way.

In addition to screens, church will be especially challenged in the second half of the year, due to:

  • pent up demand to travel
  • pent up demand to see family and friends on weekends.
  • people changing jobs
  • people spending down money saved during the pandemic

It’s going to be a very distracted time, and religious communities that assume that as covid relents people will return to previous patterns are, I think, kidding themselves. The world has changed, and relevant religious communities will change with them.

Two summers ago, my community had a practice run on this unsettled time. We were displaced from our physical location and could not worship at our usual location for the summer. It felt like an existential threat. We  went “on the road” and spent a lot of good time, thought and effort on our community’s place in the world. I can speak only for myself, but it made me feel vulnerable for our community.

A year later, poof!, that physical site again went away. It was unavailable to us and, even more unimaginably, there’s noplace else to go. So we re-formed community on the fly, missing zero services in the switch from live to virtual services. We did it for a full year, with the sense that we can do this till we do what comes next.

I dearly look forward to “next”, but I also feel less threatened about living in this liminal, “between” time. I’m confident in our resilience and ability to work skillfully with the facts on the ground to create the next “next”. My prayer is that everyone is thinking about how to connect in a world where many people will not be comfortable gathering even after the epidemiological “alls-clear” is given, because there is a lot of healing that needs to occur before everyone is ready to gather in one indoors, physical space again.