As we’ve become aware of the coronavirus threat over the past two weeks, a certain hysteria has arisen among the digitally privileged — those of us for whom working or studying from home presents more of a social setback than a direct financial one. (If you’re reading this, that’s probably you.) In order to combat loneliness (just look at how often Ezra Klein’s “social recession” phrase has been cited), the mentality goes, we must rush to set up plenty of Zoom happy hours, Facebook Live prayer gatherings, FaceTime calls with long-lost friends and isolated grandparents. How wonderful that the digital tools we’ve created are finally being put to their most virtuous use.
Of course, this is the natural inclination for a society addicted to the Internet: in times of crisis, we’re now conditioned to look to it for solutions and balms. And we should certainly be thankful for the ways virtual connection can help stem the potential mental-health impacts of this crisis.
But we should not fool ourselves: we’re in this for the long haul, and Skype won’t save us.
As many columnists have pointed out, the likelihood of the coronavirus resurfacing after an initial peak and subsiding means that multiple rounds of social distancing measures will probably be required over the next 12 to 18 months, until a vaccine is developed or most people have caught and become immune to the virus. This means that for a consequential time — economic and health fallout aside — we’re going to have to adjust to a different way of life in which in-person social contact and worldly pleasures are limited. We’re going to have to give up a lot.
If this sounds Lenten to you, you’re right. I think we need to lean into this more.
It’s going to be tempting to spend a lot of our time scrolling through, commenting on, and sharing coronavirus clickbait. (Or, as I’m doing right now, contributing to the never-ending coronavirus cultural commentary.) Let’s resist that temptation. Instead of trying to replicate the frenzy of modern life through virtual means, let’s realize that maybe the frenzy itself is what’s causing our loneliness and sense of disconnect in the first place. Maybe we’ve been living too much in the cloud and not enough on the ground.
A disconnect with the social world can lead to an exponential deepening of our relationship with God.
The most striking biblical stories of exile, fasting, and penitence share a common theme: a disconnect with the social world can lead to an exponential deepening of our relationship with God — that is, with the life-giving presence that sustains all that we are and do.
Let’s take Moses. As you’ll recall, the tablets with which he returned, alone, from the mountain, were not iPads: they were the moral code that still underpins the secular West. When he was speaking to God, and God responded with thunder and lightning, Moses probably wished he could have his friends and loved ones with him, even in his ear buds. But no: “the people remained at a distance.” The only way for Moses to encounter God’s transformation was by himself, amid a storm.
Jonah’s story is similar, although it is more nuanced than the children’s tale most of us remember. Jonah tries to run away from God’s mission for him, so God sends a storm upon his ship. To save themselves, the sailors throw Jonah into the sea — they quarantine him. Jonah doesn’t then get swallowed by the whale for punishment; the whale saves him. This living cocoon is his second chance to reconnect with his God in a time of harsh social distancing. In the belly of the big fish, he sings:
For you cast me into the deep, into the heart of the sea,
and the flood enveloped me; …
The waters swirled about me, threatening my life; …
seaweed clung about my head. …But you brought up my life from the pit,
O Lord, my God. …
Those who worship vain idols forsake their source of mercy.
But I, with resounding praise, will sacrifice to you. (Jonah 2:4,6-7,9-10)
A bit later, Jonah’s anger still gets the better of him, but we can choose to be like this Jonah: given a second chance in isolation, we can repent of the vain idols of technology we have perhaps come to worship, rather than give ourselves over even further to them.
Jesus didn’t spend 40 days in the desert with his smartphone so he could sort-of keep in touch with his friends.
And then, of course, there’s Jesus. He didn’t spend 40 days in the desert with his smartphone so he could sort-of keep in touch with his friends. He was alone. He fasted. He was hungry. And he was tempted. Instead of believing that we can live by the bread of social media alone, let’s listen for the nourishing word of God right where we are. Instead of thinking we can be everywhere at once virtually — a sort of temptation to rule all the kingdoms of the world from behind our screens — let’s live into the pain and the hunger of this time of trial, not try to numb it. We have to descend into hell in the hope that new life will come on the third day. We have to live as resurrection people, not digital-Purgatory people.
Like Jesus, we’re entering a metaphorical desert, led by the Spirit. The desert is characterized by a simultaneous collapse and extension of space. It appears homogeneous, so moving doesn’t yield any change or difference — much like the days start to blur together when we’re perpetually sitting at home and have nowhere to go — and yet it appears to stretch out infinitely — much like the uncertainty of the outbreak’s timeline.
But if we start to look more closely, the monotonous desert is home to rich micro-ecosystems. In fact, species exist in deserts that aren’t found anywhere else in the world. Time in the desert is an invitation to live more fully with what we’re given. Of course, we should be wary of the temptation to romanticize the grief and hardship this will bring for so many. But in this narrow range of spaces and routines we will have to inhabit, let’s deepen and expand our relationship to God. Let’s expand our notions of prayer and spend more time blessing each thing we encounter.
So, yes, call your grandma. Virtual-hang-out with your college roommates. But also, bless your shower head. Bless your instant oatmeal. Bless your annoying roommate or your crying infant. Bless your weird wall art. Bless that pocket park you’ve always brushed past. Bless that creaky floorboard. And maybe even bless an Easter Vigil celebrated all by yourself, finding the new fire of resurrection not somewhere out there, but in the light of the blazing sunrise on your resilient potted succulent.