Each of us has our own pandemic story that intersects somehow with our culture’s larger story; our own micro-stories written on the margins of a macro-story. My 2020 story felt like de ja vu, because I was diagnosed with cancer one year before the pandemic. For me, 2020 began in 2019.
What my doctor didn’t say on that January day in 2019 was that my life would never be the same. What he did say was that the biopsy was positive. (In the strange lexicon of the medical world “positive” is bad and “negative” is good. Sort of like how in the pandemic world “essential” workers actually meant expendable workers.) I had prostate cancer. The doctor said some other stuff, too, but after the word “cancer” everything else was just mush. This was all intensified because I was talking with my doctor while attending a conference hosted by someone dying from prostate cancer. To say that rocked me is an understatement. In an eerie bit of foreshadowing, the dying man was the only person in a ballroom filled with hundreds of people wearing a mask.
Cancer and COVID are both grim, world-shaking realities. It’s a challenge to integrate them with the hope of our faith. What sense do we make of the senseless?
Cancer and COVID are both grim, world-shaking realities. It’s a challenge to integrate them with the hope of our faith. What sense do we make of the senseless? As the multiple vaccines bring some light to our long, tragic pandemic tunnel, how do we get our minds around the staggering cost? There is loss everywhere, beginning with human life. Almost everyone has lost a loved one or friend. But there is more—careers, businesses, motivation, education, churches, opportunity—so many things have been devastated. And while we can total the dead, and maybe even estimate the economic impact, it’s impossible to measure the psychological or spiritual toll
Our uneven response to COVID has taken pages from the same playbook I used when facing cancer. What follows are some reflections on cancer and COVID, and a beginning attempt to sketch out where we go from here.
Survival strategy one: Minimize
A few days after the doctor’s call, my wife and I were in his office and he spent an hour interpreting the biopsy results and explaining treatment options. I could share details of the biopsy, but in the interest of decorum, I won’t. As I mentioned, my problem, like so many men of my vintage, was in my prostate. Just imagine the avenue they might take to explore that area. The biopsy was a disturbing, dehumanizing experience.
I had stage I cancer. Slow growing. Certainly not as serious as the prostate cancer the man I’d just been with at the conference had. He had been diagnosed at stage IV. In comparison, what I had didn’t even seem like cancer. The doctor was a urologist, not an oncologist. There would be no chemotherapy involved. Friends told me, “If you’re going to get cancer, this is the cancer to get.” I was lucky.
But I didn’t feel lucky. I didn’t feel much of anything. Rather than fully absorbing the news and its invitation to confront my mortality, I made my first steps into denial. I convinced myself that if I simply endured I would get to a place where life would return to normal. That’s been our approach with COVID, too. Tough it out and it will end. But I’m convinced there’s no going back to “normal.” There’s only life before or after the pandemic.
I told myself I didn’t really have cancer, yet I knew better. I was conflicted—while I desperately wanted others to know and understand what was going on with me, I downplayed it at every chance. Fear does that. How many times have you heard someone say that the coronavirus was “just a kind of flu”? Minimizing an existential threat—cancer or COVID–manages it in our emotional and cognitive worlds. Unfortunately, our denial doesn’t minimize the threat in the real world.
Statistics offer routes into minimization. When I mentioned my fear of the pandemic to a friend, I was quickly told I shouldn’t be afraid because if I got it, there was a better than 98% chance I’d recover. In this sort of thinking, death only happens to other people and is not that big a deal.
That number, 98%, was familiar. When my wife and I sat in my doctor’s office, he went through a pathology report that showed the extent of the cancer in my tissue samples and said there was a 98% chance I would survive for a decade if I chose not to be treated. That sounded great. Why do anything? This wasn’t serious at all.
But here’s where my thoughts diverged from the thinking of the pandemic minimizers. I started to think that it sure would stink to be one of those two guys who died knowing they could have treated the disease. In some instances, 98% isn’t that great. I wouldn’t drive on a bridge that was 98% completed. I would get rid of my car if it only worked 98% of the time.
My doctor then said that prostate cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in men and that waiting would give the cancer a chance to grow. Eventually it would metastasize to other parts of my body, like my leg bones, which would result in a slow, painful death.
The two treatment options were radiation or surgery, and even though radiation made it sound more like real cancer, I decided to have surgery to remove my prostate.
Survival strategy two: Ignore the truth . . . and lie
Cancer did not create an ideological conflict for me. But for many in our culture, the coronavirus has. As I mentioned, my doctor spent an hour educating my wife and me about my disease. Sadly, our country wasn’t treated the same way. Instead of explaining what we could expect, our former President said the virus would magically disappear. He began saying this in February, 2020, and repeated it a staggering number of times since. Here’s an all-caps Tweet of his from the end of October: ALL THE FAKE NEWS MEDIA WANTS TO TALK ABOUT IS COVID, COVID, COVID. ON NOVEMBER 4TH, YOU WON’T BE HEARING SO MUCH ABOUT IT ANYMORE. WE ARE ROUNDING THE TURN!!! Hundreds of thousands of Americans have died from COVID since then.
When ideology is threatened by fact, ideology wins, at least in the short term. And as we all saw, the pandemic became a partisan issue. Although the virus didn’t care what party someone was, response to the pandemic was predicated by party affiliation.
For reasons I will never comprehend, out of what Thomas Lynch calls “the dry socket of his humanity,” our former President downplayed the science and placed a losing political gamble on not telling the truth. He became Denier-in-Chief. If he had shared what he was being told from the beginning, simply put on a mask, and expressed sadness about the mounting death toll, not only would we have had a much more unified response to the pandemic, but the re-election he so obviously coveted would have been his. Instead, the United States has the highest infection rate and highest death rate from COVID-19 of any country in the world. It didn’t have to be that way.
Survival strategy three: Individualism
A few men came forward and told me they’d had prostate cancer and that I’d be alright. For the most part, though, I was on my own—I wasn’t invited in to some sort of community of survivors. Prostate cancer is a disease of older men, the least likely group to sit in a circle in folding chairs and openly share their feelings about what they’ve gone through. The “rugged individualist” is a huge part of the American male myth. It’s hard to undo. What might happen if we remade those iconic John Wayne Westerns and had the hero struggle with incontinence? How about if a woman came onto him and he said, “Sorry, ma’am, but I can’t. I just had a little surgery that has left the spirit willing but the flesh weak”?
Our pandemic response touched that individualism central to the American character. The key word on those “Don’t Tread on Me” flags is “me.” We have a strong libertarian impulse, and mask mandates and ordered shut downs deeply offended many as an assault on their personal liberty. This libertarian “you can’t make me” energy was stoked by the former President, who operated with the same individualistic mindset. “Public health” was a foreign concept, and the idea of self-sacrifice for the common good was incomprehensible.
Although the libertarian impulse showed itself all over the country, it was perhaps worst in my home state of Michigan. In the first days of the pandemic heavily armed “patriots” walked around the state capitol to protest mandated shut downs and in the summer of 2020 a plot to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer was exposed. In the “you can’t make this stuff up” category, the conspirators met in the basement of a vacuum cleaner shop I’ve frequented. (It’s never good to watch a consequential news story unfold and think, “Gee, I better find a new place to get vacuum cleaner filters.)
I’ve often heard that in America we live by the axiom “the squeaky wheel gets the grease” where in Asian countries it’s “the nail that sticks up gets pounded back into place.” Is it any wonder Asian countries have managed the pandemic markedly better than the United States?
Then the government tripped over itself
I trusted my doctor and followed his counsel. Surveys on trustworthiness say that we trust local medical authority far more than those up the ladder. Medical authorities on state-wide or national levels aren’t trusted. Dr. Fauci became a polarizing figure. Dr. Birx was reviled by both the left and right. This became problematic.
If you don’t trust government authorities, and your central thesis is “government is bad,” it’s hard to rally that government for good when you need it. Among the most puzzling of his gaping inconsistencies, our former President consistently worked to undermine and dismantle the structures of the very government he was supposed to lead. And then along came the pandemic. We desperately needed a coordinated federal response and were unable to do it. How do you deal with these monumental failings while tens of millions of your people get sick and hundreds of thousands die? Deflect, deflect, deflect. Blame China. Call it a hoax. Say the virus will magically go away.
Adjusting to the “new normal”
I don’t have cancer now. I should be happy, yet instead, I struggle at times with feeling depressed. There are unpleasant side effects. Parts of my body just don’t work the same. Boy parts. (See the proposed John Wayne movie above for details) Cancer treatment, even for a cancer as uninvolved as mine, involves tradeoffs.
We are, as a nation, struggling with depression. Our grief has not been able to play out in usual ways—we’ve lost hundreds of thousands of loved ones without having bodies to touch and reckon with. Significant emotional adjustments need to be made and denial does us no favors as we struggle to make them.
I mentioned that the pandemic felt “apocalyptic” to a friend the other day, and she said that was just the right word if we keep in mind the Greek meaning of “apocalypse” as a revealing. For someone who thinks of himself as self-aware, my prostate cancer revealed how easily I slip into denial. Similarly, the pandemic has revealed unpleasant things about our culture. For some, life before the pandemic, the “normal” life we desperately want to return to, wasn’t so great. Was your normal really “good”? Think of business travelers who have been grounded for the past several months. The pandemic has revealed that many of them never needed to travel as much as they did. They can just as effectively and far less expensively do their work on platforms like Zoom. Yet some of them are already on the road again. What’s that about? In many cases it’s simple: they just don’t want to be home.
For most of us, “normal” meant full speed ahead all the time. How often before the pandemic did you wish for a chance to take a serious nap, watch the sunset, or just wear flannel pants all day? Now, after months of a simpler existence of bread baking and game nights, it’s time to ask if we really should get back to our “normal” compartmentalized and fragmented lives.
The pandemic has also focused a huge spotlight on America’s inequities. The economic impact is harder on less-educated people. The health impact has been more severe for people of color. How much of the denial of the pandemic has to do with not wanting to acknowledge these unpleasant truths?
We have no way of beginning to measure the impact of the pandemic on young people. Yes, the virus is far more deadly for the elderly than the young. However, I’m thinking of the mental health impact and educational impact. The virus has traumatized an entire generation. How will this trauma manifest itself in years to come? Many are having a hard time dealing with the isolation. A high school administrator spoke to me recently about the unparalleled number of kids in his school getting failing grades in rudimentary classes like Physical Education. We forget that a lot of kids don’t like school to begin with. Add in the complexity of the pandemic and they’ve simply tuned out.
What about the church?
My surgery was in a city about 45 minutes away from home. My pastor asked more than once what time my surgery was. However, on the day of surgery, she didn’t come by before we left for the hospital. I assumed something must have come up and then was delightfully surprised when she walked into the pre-op room to pray with me moments before the surgery. It had never been her intention to come by our house. She was at the hospital, where the action was. That act of care stays with me as I think about the church and the pandemic.
The toll on pastors has been immense. They were required to quickly master unfamiliar technologies while they couldn’t attend to the dying in person. The polarization around the pandemic presented intense pressure to reopen or stay closed. Churches could, and did, become “super spreader” locales, and pastors were pushed to make public health decisions when there were no “right” decisions to be made. All of this would have been complicated enough, but 2020 brought racial justice protests and a contentious election as well. What did white pastors think about Critical Race Theory or Black Lives Matter? Would the pastor be willing to stand prophetically for racial justice or employ arguments that reinforced the white status quo?
Every church has been hurt economically by the loss of people having a collection plate passed in front of them weekly. No one knows to what extent people will come back when all churches are open. On top of all this, it seems inevitable that the randomness of the virus has pressed the accelerator pedal on secularization trends that began decades ago.
And yet, for all of that, how individual congregations will fare goes back to my pastor showing up at the hospital. Those who have consistently chosen highly relational and highly pastoral options throughout the pandemic will come out of the pandemic better than others.
The church I attend chose to use interactive technology and we’ve experienced many positives during the pandemic. Although Zoom puts new barriers between people, barriers that exist in our sanctuary don’t exist online. We’ve spent a year in each other’s living rooms and congregational members who were shut out before the pandemic, like seniors in care facilities, congregants living out of town, and those with disabilities, have been able to be included. And let’s face it—it’s far less complicated for parents to get their kids to come down to the living room and gather around a screen on Sunday morning than to get those kids fed, cleaned, clothed, and out the door on time to make it to church. Sermons have been shorter, and lay people have participated in every aspect of our service, including preaching. If we measure worship excellence by congregational engagement, we’re thriving.
In contrast, those who went with a streaming service that could be consumed at any time are finding many people have moved on. If church is just a show to watch, there are more satisfying shows to watch elsewhere. Other congregations with more resources put on a better show, and there’s no end of things to watch on Netflix.
Then of course there are the “faith over fear” congregations who simply went on like the pandemic didn’t happen. But it did happen, and many people stopped attending out of caution. These congregations missed the opportunity to come together in different ways, to learn, and to embrace new technologies that have animated other congregations. These churches won’t be moving adaptively into the future; instead they will continue to jog in place.
Life will never be the same again
Every few months, I get a blood test and see my surgeon. Strangely, even though I don’t have a prostate, my prostate cancer may return. Ongoing testing must be done. There’s a sense that my cancer is over, and another sense that it isn’t.
How will the pandemic end? There won’t be an end date. The virus has receded, but COVID-19 (and its variants) will be with us from this day forward.
How do we integrate the grim realities of 2020 with the hope of our faith? Saying “faith over fear” has come to mean using faith as an excuse to stick your head in the ground and deny reality. I prefer a line that Wendell Berry uses in his great poem “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” when he says, “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.” That’s what we’re called to: joy, after considering all the facts. Berry closes his poem with “Practice resurrection.” How can you find joy after considering all the facts? By living in the knowledge that a resurrection has happened.
Resurrection means cancer and COVID are not the end of the story. They are not the last word. Jesus Christ, the alpha and omega, is the last word: a word of joy, a word of hope, a word of laughter, and a word of resurrection. I am hopeful about the vaccines, but that’s not what ultimately brings me comfort. You and I already know where our only comfort in life and death lies.
How true – your life will never be the same, our lives will never be the same. So how will we use this time to tune our lives to the whispers of the Spirit who keeps wooing the church.?
Thanks for sharing this next episode in your journey, our friend.
Glad your comments are coming monthly in the daily Buechner meditations.
Thanks. Words we need to hear and heed. Live the Resurrection.