(March 23, 2020 / Jewish Journal) I can’t recall a time when life felt so dark and foreboding. Our economy is shutting down. Whole industries are crashing. Retail businesses are closing. Countless people are losing their livelihoods. As if that weren’t enough, there is a genuine fear that our health care system may be overrun.
Meanwhile, for the multitudes stuck at home, we keep hearing that things will get worse before they get better.
But every rock bottom has a trap door. We are dancing with uncertainty, whether we like it or not—and yet, despite all this darkness, despite all this fear of the unknown, I can’t recall a time when I have seen so much light and so much strength.
Humanity is fighting back.
My email inbox overflows with hundreds of initiatives from activists, spiritual leaders, organizations and individuals who have decided to combat this disease with love, creativity and light.
I never imagined I would ever stand on my sidewalk at sundown on Friday and sing along with my neighbors. Well, I did. Since all synagogues are closed, a neighbor decided it’d be a good idea to gather on the street and sing the soulful Shabbat melody “Yedi Nefesh.” I’m hoping we’ll turn it into a weekly tradition—crisis or no crisis.
Programs have sprung up to help feed the needy and mitigate the coronavirus pandemic’s economic fallout. Communities are joining hands to better leverage their efforts. Even our politicians in Washington are trying to put partisanship aside in favor of the nation’s interest.
Individuals are chipping in. People are sharing their phone numbers with the elderly and the lonely to offer simple conversation.
I saw this in one of my emails: When Taran Tien and his sister, Calliope, heard their 78-year-old neighbor, a big classical music fan, was self-isolating, they put on some nice clothes, took their cellos to her front porch and gave an impromptu concert.
This is one of thousands of examples of people trying to do what they can with what they have.
We ought to retire the term “social distancing.” It’s really “physical distancing.” It may be difficult to touch each other physically, but we can touch each other emotionally and, yes, socially. We are blessed with technology that can do an end run around this nasty virus.
We are also blessed with our humanity, and nothing can stop that. As Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky writes:
“Every hand that we don’t shake must become a phone call that we place. Every embrace that we avoid must become a verbal expression of warmth and concern. Every inch and every foot that we physically place between ourselves and another, must become a thought as to how we might be of help to that other, should the need arise.”
The great irony of this moment is that we’re facing an unprecedented crisis with an enormous amount of time on our hands. Stuck at home, many of us are asking: What can we do with this unexpected free time? Beyond taking health precautions and bingeing on Netflix, how can we help the greater good? How can we retain, and even double up on our humanity while being so physically isolated?
Among the many poems I’ve read that speak to these questions, here’s one of my favorites, “And the People Stayed Home,” by Kitty O’Meara:
“And the people stayed home. And read books, and listened, and rested, and exercised, and made art, and played games, and learned new ways of being, and were still. And listened more deeply. Some meditated, some prayed, some danced. Some met their shadows. And the people began to think differently.
“And the people healed. And, in the absence of people living in ignorant, dangerous, mindless, and heartless ways, the earth began to heal.
“And when the danger passed, and the people joined together again, they grieved their losses, and made new choices, and dreamed new images, and created new ways to live and heal the earth fully, as they had been healed.”
Those evocative thoughts remind me that it’s not easy being a journalist in these harsh times. We don’t have the luxury of poetry. We must get the story out. But this particular crisis is too overwhelming for us to stay calm and professional at all times. Yes, I spend most of my days as editor-in-chief focusing on how best we can cover this story from as many angles as possible.
But my biggest challenge is balancing the darkness with the light. I feel this dilemma every morning on my podcast: How much bad news should I share? How much hopeful news? I worry that if I sugarcoat the darkness, listeners will see through it and tune out. But if I focus too much on it, listeners will get depressed and also tune out.
This is the dilemma we all are facing right now and will face for the foreseeable future: How do we balance the horrible with the hopeful, the vulnerable with the powerful, the anxiety with the action?
Times of crises fuel anxiety, but not all anxieties are created equal. There is productive and unproductive anxiety, as psychiatrist Jennifer Yashari writes:
“In the context of this COVID-19 pandemic … we do need to be anxious, enough so that we can practice hyper-vigilance around hand-washing and be responsible about social distancing.”
When anxiety is unproductive, she adds, our minds engage in “obsessing and ruminating,” “cognitive distortions” and other “unhelpful ways of thinking, such as catastrophizing and fortune-telling.”
The “activists of light” who are stepping up these days are clearly channeling their productive anxiety. Can we all do the same? It won’t be easy. There will be no shortage of anxiety in the weeks and months ahead. We’re at the beginning of a collective journey where the finish line is not yet in sight, where darkness and light will continue to clash.
Can we remember the light in the darkness? That will be our challenge.
It’s tempting for some of us to draw grand conclusions about “what all this means” and “where this is going.” Yes, this moment feels biblical, but let’s stay humble. Let’s not pretend we can know the unknowable.
Here is what I do know right now: In the midst of a pandemic darkness, humanity is rising up to show that there is still plenty of light to go around.
David Suissa is editor-in-chief and publisher of Tribe Media Corp and Jewish Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com.
This article was first published by the Jewish Journal.
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