The Lent You Didn’t Choose

With a mix of embarrassment and defiance, I’ve spent a lot of the last couple of days explaining my family’s response to Covid-19. For starters, let’s all agree right now that it’s foolish and dangerous to dismiss this as “just like the flu.” A video by Nassim Taleb, a statistician who studies probability and randomness, points out that it’s wise to prepare and take serious steps now (he even uses the term “panic”) than to wait until the spread becomes overwhelming. The death rate isn’t static — if the disease moves rapidly while we maintain an illusory “business as usual” stance, those who are made seriously ill by the outbreak will overwhelm the medical infrastructure, resulting in unnecessary deaths.

So it doesn’t matter if you, like me and my household, are unlikely to be made severely ill by coronavirus. As I explained to my children, the worst case scenario for our immediate family is just a couple rocky weeks while Mama and Papa have flu symptoms and the kids watch a lot of TV. If we were the only part of this equation, we’d still be bopping about living our normal lives. But, as John Donne’s reminder rings over the centuries, no man is an island, and if we proceed as usual, we will be five more people potentially shedding contagion and risking infecting those around us who can’t handle the disease as well.

A February 27 piece in the Scientific American urges,

“Preparing for the almost inevitable global spread of this virus, now dubbed COVID-19, is one of the most pro-social, altruistic things you can do in response to potential disruptions of this kind. We should prepare, not because we may feel personally at risk, but so that we can help lessen the risk for everyone. We should prepare not because we are facing a doomsday scenario out of our control, but because we can alter every aspect of this risk we face as a society.”

God does not always give us the Lent we chose. (I’ve spent two of them cripplingly morning sick, and one increasingly homesick to end my stint in Uganda. I’m sure you’ve had ones, too, where your plans flew out the window for whatever reason.) He may be calling many of us to offer up things we’d never considered: play dates and church socials, vacations and library runs. Over at Under Thy Roof, Kirby gives us a quick walkthrough of the social distancing measures that led to the canceling of Mass in the 1918-19 flu epidemic, as well as during the Ebola outbreak in west Africa several years ago, lest all the US ends up having to go the way of Italy and now Seattle and Kentucky.

Review the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. (I’ll wait.) Could your Lent this year, like ours, involve dropping off a meal for quarantined families? (Visiting the sick, feeding the hungry) Could you call or FaceTime your aging family members? (Comfort the afflicted) Can you give up the entertainment of going to concerts, movie theaters, restaurants and sporting events and donate the money you save to a relief effort? (Shelter the homeless) The Atlantic piece cited above urges, “[A]nyone in a position of power or authority, instead of downplaying the dangers of the coronavirus, should ask people to stay away from public places, cancel big gatherings, and restrict most forms of nonessential travel” — a currently unpopular stance that could give us ample opportunity to bear patiently those who wrong us. And surely, surely we all must double down on our efforts to pray for the living and the dead.

Because my husband’s teaching at the local college has been moved online for the next several weeks and I homeschool, we are prime candidates for taking a step back from society. Our outings are mostly wants, not needs, unlike so many whose work still demands them leave the house. And so we can sacrifice those outings for the safety of others and take what we’re calling a “prolonged snow day approach”: walks and gardening, lots of books and snuggles inside, more than usual TV, but a comforting adherence to our basic schedule. We can treat grocery shopping as a game of musical chairs — trying to keep our pantries and fridge at around 90% in preparation for when the music stops and staying entirely at home becomes absolutely essential for nearly everyone.

Because I think the music will stop, and soon, for a little while. (Epidemiologists suspect eight weeks might be required to contain the pandemic.) And when the music starts back up and we assess the damages, I don’t want to suspect I took unnecessary risks and endangered the people I love. To the best of my very limited powers, I’m going to try to ensure that this Easter is an especially Eastery Easter, when we can give thanks for rebirth and reunite with those we love. And the only way to get there is to embrace the sacrifice of Lent.

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