Uncertainty and Grace
What should we be doing in this pandemic? Approaches differ, and feelings run high. In America at least there are protests against stay-at-home orders, protests led by everyday people and by elected officials. There are also calls to photograph and publicly shame those who flaunt the orders, again by everyday people and by elected officials. If we stay at home, we’re told, we will save many lives by slowing the transmission of the disease, allowing medical professionals to handle their patient load and come up with treatments and a vaccine. We are also told that if we stay at home perhaps 130 million people will starve as a result; even if farmers are able to produce enough food, it can’t get to those who need it if transportation, processing, and retail businesses can’t work.
Who is right? Will staying at home or going back to work result in more people dying? We don’t know, because our actions and policies right now are based on predictions, and people, even (especially!) experts, have never been great at predicting. It’s good that researchers of all sorts are gathering data, reanalyzing the results daily, and adapting their predictions, but we may never know what the right thing in this situation is. Even when future historians look back and consider what we should have done or if we did the right thing, there will be no agreement, any more than there is about dropping the bombs on Japan or interring Americans of Japanese descent in camps.
These decisions – how to handle the enemy in times of war and how to respond to a pandemic – are not just practical decisions; they are ethical, too. Practical decisions are made by considering a goal and the best means of arriving at it. Ethical decisions, on the other hand, have to be made on the basis of what is right, not necessarily what is effective. These two are not – should not be – in conflict with each other. Ideally practical and ethical thinking work together to arrive at the best solution given the restraints a particular situation imposes.
Right now, however, we are in a tug of war between practical and ethical considerations because of insufficient data. I’m speaking only of the well-intentioned here; not everyone is trying to make decisions based on ethics or effectiveness. Some are selfishly insisting on doing what they want to do regardless of the results. Some are concerned about advancing an ideology, world view, or electoral platform regardless of the facts. Some avoid information out of fear; others don’t have the education or resources to understand the issues.
I am assuming that you are well intentioned and well informed and want to know what to do. I hope you aren’t looking to me to tell you, because like everyone else, I don’t know. However, there are a few things to bear in mind in the midst of the chaos:
First, there is no “right” answer to be found. We are not in the situation of the game show contestant facing three doors, who gets a new car if he chooses right or a case of ketchup if he chooses wrong. There is no door for consequence-free human expansion of population, production, and profit. Behind every door is contraction, and that contraction will come with pain.
Second, as I pointed out in my last post, we must aim for balance, not conquest. This is hard. The balance imposed by nature usually means tragedy from a human perspective: the death of children, years of poor crops, wrenching decisions of what is necessary and what can we live without. If we were already living in balance with our resources and the species around us, the tragedies might loom large personally, but societally they would just be ongoing corrective measures. However, our whole species has created imbalance on a previously unimaginable scale. The consequent correction may also be unimaginable. We are starting to get a inkling of what it looks like.
So what should we do with these realizations? I understand that I’m not being very encouraging; it may seem as if I am advocating despair. I’m not; by all means don’t despair. Despair, after all, arises from the mismatch between what we expect and what we get. If our expectations are realistic, results shouldn’t provoke despair.
Instead, what we should do is embrace uncertainty and extend grace.
People feel stressed about many things now; embracing uncertainty removes the stress of struggling to figure out the right thing to do, and extending grace removes the stress of being judge and jury to our neighbors. If we accept that there isn’t a magic bullet to avoid sickness, famine, and death, then we don’t need to hate the neighbors who are staying in or the ones who are going out. Sure, one group may be moving in the right direction and one may not – but we don’t know which is which. We also don’t need to feel guilty if we get sick or if we don’t. The problem is much bigger than individual choices today.
Accepting uncertainty and extending grace is just as important on a societal level as it is on a personal level. The pandemic itself won’t cause a breakdown in civil order, nor will suffering or scarcity. Those challenges might even draw us closer together and spur creativity in facing the future. What will cause the breakdown of civil order is selfishness, scapegoating, and setting up opposing camps: in other words, the refusal to embrace uncertainty and extend grace.
These are hard times for all of us. Let’s not make them harder by sowing strife and thereby losing the comforts of solidarity in suffering. Now more than ever we should cry, like the narrator in Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,”
. . . let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
Is this uncertainty too bleak? Then remember the grace, too:
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
(Gerard Manley Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur”)