Clarification or Insensitivity
I've often wondered lately why we grow insensitive to hardships in the course of time. When I think how I felt for weeks a year ago, it strikes me very much. I now see the same things quite differently. To put it down to nature's self-protection doesn't seem to me adequate; I'm more inclined to think that it may come from a clearer and more sober estimate of our own limitations and possibilities, which makes it possible for us genuinely to love our neighbour; as long as we let our imagination run riot, love of one's neighbour remains something vague and abstract. Today I can take a calmer view of other people, their predicaments and needs, and so I'm better able to help them. I would speak of clarification rather than of insensitiveness; but of course, we are always having to try to change one into the other. I don't think we need reproach ourselves just because our feelings grow cooler and calmer in the course of time, though, of course, we must always be alive to the danger of not seeing the wood for the trees and keep a warm heart as well as a cool head.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in a letter to Eberhard Bethge
22 April 1944
I worry sometimes that I'm becoming too desensitized to the moment.
I read today that this is Florida's fourth straight day of record-breaking coronavirus deaths. 257 people lost their lives. In total, nearly 7,000 Floridians have died so far.
But numbers are starting to lose their potency for me. In early May, I preached a sermon about how I thought it was a bad idea for the state to begin their reopening plan because the state's plan was effectively to sacrifice working people to the GDP and increase the wealth of the CEOs who made up the state's COVID-19 task force. I remember feeling very upset when I was writing that sermon. At that time, 65,000 Americans had died. That number is now up to almost 153,000.
These days, I feel an almost eerie coolness when confronted with the insanity of our COVID-19 response, both locally and nationally. 257 Floridians died? Not surprised. We were going to get here, anyway. No mask requirements and the continued dissemination of misinformation? I wouldn't expect any less. Jared Kushner's national task force scrapped a nation-wide testing and tracking plan, deciding it was more politically expedient to just blame the governors of blue states? That's just American politics. The fact has long since sunk in that we've had tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths and many more unnecessarily grieving family members. I've already felt for too many. I don't know what I have the capacity to feel for, anymore.
Bonhoeffer wrote the words above from a prison cell. Bonhoeffer's predicament is different from ours, of course, but it has plenty to say to us now. The feelings Bonhoeffer describes, of having trouble reckoning with trial and nagging anxiety about the future, were his own, not those of an entire nation. Likewise, the hardships he mentions are also his own, though they are linked to the sufferings of the people of Europe under Hitler. Bonhoeffer was a pacifist and vehemently anti-imperial pastor in Germany's Confessing Church. He joined what is now known as the "officers' plot" to assassinate Hitler and worked as a double agent, traveling Europe secretly spreading the message of an internal coup to high-ranking church officials and trying to raise support for the new government the Abwehr (the special operations wing of the German military hatching this plot) hoped to found. Bonhoeffer grappled intensely with questions about whether his part in an assassination was just, about what would happen to him and his family if he were found out, about what terrors interrogation and imprisonment by the Nazis would yield. He wrote the letter cited a little more than a year after his arrest and a little less than a year before his execution. The revelation expressed—that since some of his worst fears have been realized he is no longer bound by them, that his liberation from these feelings of anxiety have led him to a better and more concrete love of others—is striking. On the one hand, it reveals a kind of subordinating emotion to reason that is not unusual for an educated German man in the 1940's. On the other, it suggests that feelings of goodwill, thoughts and prayers and hope and whatnot, that often stem from very real caring and sympathy don't always lead to observable compassion. In fact, they can be a distraction from it. Our love must never be made abstract, it must be written into our service, our cycles, our systems, and that takes intent and sober decision-making, not just goodwill.
I wouldn't say that I have suffered anywhere close to the extent that many of my neighbors have during this brutal pandemic. I have not (yet) contracted the virus, nor do I have an immediate family member who has. That said, I still go to work in person about thirty hours a week (I am privileged to do the rest at home). I am an emotional caregiver for most of these hours, and the spiritual fatigue I feel as a caregiver to families in multiple contexts who are bearing the cost of our state and national governments' mismanagement of COVID-19 has worn on me. But it has strengthened me, too. No longer am I longing for any semblance of "normalcy." No longer am I receptive of saccharine corporate nonsense of us "all in this together." No longer do I have the naivete to actually trust the moral fiber of about 99% of our public officials. I'm over all that. I just want well-funded, socialized medicine. I just want a congress that doesn't see the lives of its constituents as a raw material to be mined for the comfort of the wealthy. I am too tired of seeing people in crisis who haven't seen their sick spouse in months because Jared Kushner thought it might be politically advantageous for her to die; too drained from being a listening ear as families worry about the payment of medical bills that would be unheard of in any country that cared for its citizens. I am spiritually exhausted. But this has two logical conclusions: jaded defeatism or elected determination toward change. I am doing my best to seek the latter.