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Pandemic Lessons: The Power of What We Cannot See
Posted by Susan Baller-Shepard on: 2020-03-26 @ 15:20 pm

“Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage.

Anger at the way things are,

and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.”― Augustine of Hippo


We’d gone to all the wrong places. Of course we had. The Chinese government hadn’t yet released the news about SARS, in December 2002, the news wouldn’t be released until February of 2003. Travelers like us would go to hot spots, markets, crowded shopping areas, to an overflowing church on Christmas Eve, a busy hotel on New Year’s Eve, not knowing.


All of this comes back to me now in light of this pandemic.


We were in China adopting our daughter. Now she’s a senior in high school, and I note the circular flow of time. SARS was prevalent and feared then, Covid-19 now.


We’d waited two years to travel to China to adopt our daughter. I wrote about it here. In her room, I had one item of clothing in the closet, a white dress with a purple cotton lining. In the closet it hung on a hanger near other hangers that sounded like metallic ice cubes clinking together every time I opened the door. I wouldn’t buy anything more, besides the dress, for fear it wouldn’t come true. At that time, anything more would make me want her more, want to memorize her like I had my sons, only we had no name yet, no face to recognize, to know.

Recently, our daughter went on a weekend retreat and her room was silent. There’s usually something humming or charging in there, with the heavy scent of hairspray and perfume, but on that weekend, it was quiet. I opened her closet to put away a clean sweatshirt and my heart sank.


“This is how it will be,” I said to myself, “This closet will be empty again.”


Before December 2002, I’d open that closet, look and feel the tiny white dress, then close the closet again, close the door to the room, save it for when we knew a name, for when we knew we’d get to go see her, for when things would be moving forward.


Now in this circular flow of time, she’s moving forward. Our daughter. This is what you work for as a parent, for your kids to go forward. It is. I keep telling myself this.


Covid-19 asks for social distancing, it asks for self-quarantines, it asks for stay-at-home work, mandatory staycations. It asks for handwashing and wisdom. The CDC this time was invited to China, a change from the season of SARS. This time we recognize more that the world is connected and what happens there can happen here in the blink of a flight, the time it takes for a few to infect a crowd. A woman on a train. A minister in a church. A teacher in a classroom. A stranger on a bus.


We grieve the pandemic upon us.


We grieve that yet another worry has been added to the dystopian list of concerns for our children and grandchildren. We grieve the world we leave to them, that we didn’t leave it in better shape.


My father, a retired ophthalmologist, told me about Dr. Joseph Lister, who worked to promote sterile surgical fields, even though people mocked him for believing in what couldn’t be seen with the naked eye. Back then, the notion of something invisible being dangerous was seen as preposterous. Lister worked diligently to convince others that bacteria could kill people. Yet just this year, in China, Dr. Li Wenliang tried sounding early warning alarms, and for his diligence, he was detained for “severely disturbing the social order.” Dr. Li Wenliang later died from the virus.


As a preacher, I know about working with the invisible, saying what’s unseen has power. I know about working with the invisible that some say is preposterous. I know, as do you, that there are things we can’t see that can change the trajectory of our lives.


How this pandemic will shake out remains to be seen. Who will be seen as helpful, who harmful in this pandemic? What will prove lifesaving? Who are all the ones we’ll have to thank, and will we have the presence of mind to honor them when it’s all said and done? I often wonder how we’ll look back on this?


I’m in the middle of writing a book about my immigrant great great grandparents, Hattie and Jacob. They arrived in Illinois in time for Jacob to be recruited into the Union Army in the Civil War. Hattie kept the farm going for three years while Jacob fought in the Illinois 118th regiment Company H, a regiment who lost far more men from disease than from armed conflict. In fact, Breakbone Fever in 1865 meant that very few men from the regiment could fight at all.


Writing this book reminds me, we’ve been here before. We as a state, and as a country, have faced grave dangers. We’ve gotten through.

May we learn the lessons of history, that what we face can make us stronger, if we rise to the occasion before us. My friend’s grandmother, a woman acquainted with grief, who had lost countless family members at young ages, used to tell her family, “It’s a great life, if you don’t weaken.”


I think of our foremothers and forefathers as we face this crisis. I think of my children, how they’ll put this pandemic into the context of history.

May this pandemic call forth from us the wisdom, courage, and grace we possess, that former generations have shown in times of trial. This requires that we dig deep, that we rise above, that we do what’s needed in this time.


In light of this pandemic, we’ve seen racism directed at Asian people, Chinese people in particular, for this virus. It’s horrific to see. It seems we want someone to blame. We want to know the origin of the virus. We want to punish the perpetrators. We want it all to stop, to get back to business as usual. Maybe we’ll know one day the source of the virus for sure, with absolute certainty, maybe we won’t. What we will know is how we treated one another when the pandemic was in our midst. We’ll know, as will future generations, how this was handled.


Our children are watching now. They are watching how we act and react, what we do, what we say. May they receive something, something strong as spider silk, and as pliable, that can last them a lifetime, that can see them through. May they see lessons of goodness, lessons of service, lessons of leadership that will help them in their future hour of need.