A few years ago, I found myself reading books about post-apocalyptic worlds. Zombies. Viruses. Electromagnetic pulses. You know the genre.
People roaming in murderous packs, driven by self-preservation and a kind of pre-historic tribalism. Take. Kill. Hoard.
One sub-genre was the lone individual, who happens to find himself (it’s almost always a man) thrown into a new world he doesn’t understand, but soon discovers a perfect place to weather the after-effects of whatever catastrophe has taken human life to the brink of extinction. He also happens upon various undiscovered caches of food, medical supplies, and ammunition. His only real task is to protect his newfound post-apocalyptic paradise from bands of roving goons, bent on taking all he’s managed to scavenge and stockpile.
What all these books seem to share is a bleak view of human nature. That is to say, all these stories operate under the assumption that human beings at the bottom are selfish bastards. Civilization, on this reading, operates as a thin fiction that keeps us from decorating potential hellscapes with the blood of the vulgarians who insist on driving the speed limit in the lefthand lane, of the self-centered baboons who refuse to clean up the considerable piles of poo left by their only slightly less civilized dogs, of the monsters who believe that “15 items or less” extends to 100 items for them … because, you know, they’re really important people for whom “rules” are merely kindergarten suggestions meant to keep the unenlightened from ruining everything for the folks who matter.
Once that layer of utilitarian politeness is stripped away, however, we find that, underneath it all, our neighbors have been secretly plotting ever more creative ways to sautée our livers and plunder our prized caches of toilet paper and Beanie Weenies. It’s like Lord of the Flies, but with less maturity and sharper sticks.
Since we’re currently experiencing a coronavirus pandemic with exponential infection rates and social distancing and frenzied social media forecasts/threats/toilet-paper-updates, my mind immediately turned to the grim genre of post-apocalyptic Darwinianism. What will our world, which is shrinking to geographies of smaller and smaller square-footage, look like next week, next month, in November?
The prospects are scary.
Nevertheless, it seems that all the hand-wringing about hand-washing has a potential upside: What if humanity’s not an amygdala-fueled pack of hyenas? St. Augustine and John Calvin aside: What if our nature isn’t Hobbesian predatory egocentrism?
What if we dig deep and find that the communal impulse Aristotle said characterizes the human-animal is actually what drives us?
Instead of making us more insular, what if our enforced time of separation opens our eyes and ears to a world we were conveniently able to avoid when going about our daily lives as we chose was something we took for granted?
What if we used this as an opportunity not to isolate ourselves from threats, but to embrace other humans?
What if we saw this as a time not to stoke the fires of fear and hatred, but as a time of rest and refreshment?
What if, instead of endlessly scrolling through infection rates, heat maps, and helpful advice from uncle Kevin—who’s pretty sure either that we don’t have anything to worry about or that wandering gangs of masked stormtroopers will come to tattoo our foreheads with UPC codes as the “mark of the beast”—we read a book, or learned a new language, or wrote a blog post for the first time in like … a long time? (Quit judging me.)
What if we used technology not to hold our hand or to distract us, but to force us to learn to live with one another in ways that required we communicate clearly and honestly with compassion and grace?
What if our youth-driven culture learned that the elderly are treasures we must protect, and not nuisances we must warehouse?
Without being unjustifiably Panglossian, what if we started thinking not about how little Purell we have on hand, and started thinking about whether our neighbors have enough Ramen noodles and Mucinex to ride out the storm?
What if we started raising money to help wage and gig workers in our community to be able to stay home and not to worry about whether the lights, the medicine, or the rent would be paid?
What if we set up calling/emailing/social media networks to check on one another’s physical and emotional health?
What if houses of worship (who most likely won’t be in heavy use otherwise) allowed some of their space to be used to house the houseless who fall ill but who can’t find a bed in a hospital—you know, so they don’t have to force their febrile bodies to seek shelter under a bridge?
What if congregations bought food and toiletries and set them out to be used by whoever needs them—not based on some self-justifying intake form, but on our concern that everybody has a chance to get what they need?
What if congregations began to see their budgets, not as private stashes deployed as a hedge against the future, but as gifts to provide a terrified world a vision of what we could be if we stopped viewing every new wrinkle in the world as a threat?
I’m a pastor (and not a particularly good example of one either), but what if we saw this as a time of possibility for a new way of being in the world, as an opportunity to see one another not as problems to be fixed but as fellow travelers, as a chance to recalibrate our knee-jerk reactions to share, instead of to grab for ourselves?
What if we learned that the post-apocalyptic world is actually a place where everyone is welcome and where as long as there’s enough for me, there will always be enough for you?
Maybe if we did, we’d learn that this was how we should have been living together all along.
If true, Covid-19 could be the thing that saves us.
Previously published on Derekpenwell.net.
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