One of the things missing in the midst of Year Two of the pandemic is the overriding sense of fear. I remember last year I was afraid to leave my house, go on campus, talk to people. When that wore off, I went out mostly to get supplies, and occasionally see people. I felt like this kind of venturing out of the sheltering-in-place zone was equivalent to risking my life. Because I was, in fact, risking my life, and the life of others, until the community found ways of protecting each other through appropriate personal protective equipment and social distancing.
Then there were the empty shelves, reminders that many things were so disrupted that common goods were no longer available. Not to mention toilet paper and paper towels. Email conversations about work included where to find paper products. I remember sitting in a parking lot, waiting for a van to unload, then running in and asking for a canister of hand wipes. I felt like I had won the lottery.
Then there were the emails from friends and families, about people who have become ill, and some who have died. Each death was a sad reminder that the pandemic was real, and that the changes like social distancing created fear, but also helped make the community safer.
The pandemic may have been one of the great changes in our lifetimes. While it was happening, it just seemed unreal, but now, in retrospect, I realize that it was a shock that was disruptive and unpredictable in how it would affect our lives. We had no idea what was happening, but whatever it was, it was happening to all of us. I remember the beginning, when the days felt like going from one Zoom meeting to another. We could not even imagine that this would be the new norm. And now, a year later, a day of Zoom meetings, unfortunately, is the new normal.
This year, months after so much loss, illness, and death, things feel a little bit better. It’s still dangerous, but what happened to the fear? I think what may have happened is that we became less fearful and more resilient.
Resilience is the capacity for absorbing shock without breaking or permanent damage, or the ability to quickly recover from change or misfortune. While resilience is great, please do not underestimate how getting rest makes us even more resilient, if not relieve some of the exhaustion. The one thing I believe we need to really think about is how to get some rest. Being constantly in reacting mode is exhausting. And that’s not the only exhausting thing. The new racial reckoning is exhausting; seeing yet another trial of a person accused of shooting an unarmed black man is exhausting; the increase in hate crimes against Asian Americans and an increase in random workplace shootings is exhausting. And it’s exhausting trying to figure out what’s happening with the economy when it feels like things are getting worse.
During one recent day off from work, while riding around the Berkshires, I visited a shop and experienced the oh-so-familiar bad service and inhospitality that often happens to African Americans. I looked at the person, tried to engage with them, but I was ignored. “Here we go again,” I thought. But I was tired. And they were tired. It was my day off. It was not their day off. I tried to calculate whether or not this was bias-related or whether or not they had also been a victim of previous class or perhaps even racial bias, and my mind could no longer do the mental gymnastics that come with navigating spaces as a person of color. I just left the store. I did not react negatively; I did not spread more pain and suffering through a harsh reaction. I thought, I need a rest, and probably so does that person. Then I ordered online from another business with my phone and, within minutes, picked up the goods and went home. An increase in online ordering services is one of the many changes that came with the pandemic; the contact-free, humiliation-free purchase of goods and services.
Driving home, seeing the Black Lives Matter signs scattered through the lawns on the major roads, I was amazed at how much has changed in a year. These uncomfortable encounters have a new aspect — doubt. Instead of being faced with full-frontal rudeness and fear, I have noticed a pause, a silent question: Is it really worth the energy to make this person feel unwelcome? And is it worth my energy for me to fight back when goods and services are a few clicks away? In this space of doubt for both parties is a pause into which may creep something new. Compassion, maybe? Justice? An apology? Sometimes I think my reaction to this situation actually had more to do with being in a state of rest, and not so much about race relations or the pandemic.
We cannot control how things will play out with the pandemic or the national racial reckoning, but we can continue being active participants in justice movements, making our voices heard and challenging systems. However, these things are best done when we are not exhausted to the point of collapse. Perhaps the best thing we can do for injustice is to take some time to rest, recharge, and exercise newfound resilience. If you don’t know what to do, do not fear. Take a break, step back, reflect, and perhaps your increased resilience will put you in a better place to deal with these issues tomorrow.
Valerie Bailey Fischer is Chaplain to the College and Protestant Chaplain.