Well, what I feared when I was researching the piece I wrote here two weeks ago on responding healthily to the coronavirus has happened. It’s here. And not just one death, as it was then. More. We still don’t know even close to the scope of how many cases there are in the US, because of the lack of testing. But things—major things—have been closing. It’s exhaustingly stressful and overwhelming for many of us—those who are taking it seriously and trying to convince those who aren’t serious enough yet that their denial is going to kill people. This week’s article is addressing this current situation by reminding us of the complexity and fragility of our pandemic care ecosystem, and how each of us needs to do what we can to affirm the dignity of all as much as possible (but not fix everything on our own).
I’ll also of course dive–in this long and messy piece to fit a long and messy time (thanks for your patience! you’re all in isolation and have time to read it, right?!?!?! ;))–how unhealthy strains of zero-sum thinking can seep into theologies (and also live in other ways of looking at the world) in ways that seep into our bones and make us feel so unworthy that they actually threaten to derail us from helping others.
Falling Over Doesn’t Make Us More Worthy
Because here’s the thing: NO ONE is served if those of us who are in the know are dropping like flies from exhaustion, or from the extra physical stress that makes everything worse when you think something you’ve done makes you somehow unworthy of connection to other human beings.
And yet there are no perfect solutions in this messy situation either, and we aren’t well served by pretending there are. In the remainder of this admittedly long article, I’m going to dive into why all of this is important as well as at least one or two factors why it’s so hard to keep ourselves and others on track in the midst of this mess.
Putting On Our Own Oxygen Masks as an Act of Self-Care that CAN Help Others
But yes, it comes down to this: Some of us need to put on our own oxygen masks by getting rid of our own shame spirals so that it can be collaborative and not zero-sum, and that we need to remind each other of that. And some of us will need others to be healthy enough to remind us. And we’ll all need each other in these ways at various points along this journey.
True Confessions about My Former Judgyness
Speaking of oxygen masks, do you want to know what’s sad-funny? My whole life until recently, every time I heard a flight attendant say that at the beginning of a flight, I was internally judgy about it.
I was sooooo uncomfortable with the inner conflict I’d internalized because of the unhealthy parts of theology I’d been taught as a child that I projected unworthiness outward onto this very sensible advice they give at the beginning of all flights.
I Was Judgy about Monks Too!
I had learned this lesson so well that later when a monk suggested this might be a practical spiritual suggestion for loving each other well—that we each take care of ourselves for each other rather than looking to others to do it—I projected that outward as really weird fringe advice as well.
But Now I Know Better, and Am Trying to Do Better, as Maya Angelou Sort of Said
But life is often about movement and growth, and I get it now. I mean, I have my moments still, of course, because this zero-sum thinking becomes pretty deeply sunk into my wounds at times.
But on the whole, I get that in some situations and for some people at some times, we do need to take care of ourselves, and that we need to do so in order to be able to keep help others out. And that sometimes they would also need to take care of themselves to help me.
And that it’s not about not putting the oxygen mask on, at all—whether it’s us or someone else that does it—but whether we’re all in this together and wishing as many people can be granted dignity in this world as is remotely possible.
The Hard Part for Tenderhearted Perfectionists
And yet none of that will be able to wholly fix everything, or keep the mess from being messy—and its not supposed to be our job to fix everything, ever, especially individually.
It’s just our job to do the best we can, where we are, with what we’ve got. As T.S. Eliot wrote in the midst of WWII, in a similar state of mess in the world in many ways: “For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.” (That’s in his poem Four Quartets.)
So yes, this is the point: This pandemic thing is a huge f*ckingly horrible challenge that’s constantly evolving. No one can fully control it or know everything about it or prevent it by themselves, but trusting the best practices the epidemiologists have laid out for us is a big start.
And the suckiest part is this—people are going to die. People already have. And people have gotten deeply hurt. We need to grieve that, and all the difficulties that come up along the way, as we need to.
We Can’t ALWAYS Be Grieving, Though—We Each Have Other Work to Do Too!
But we also need to realize that lots of other helpers—all of us, really—are needed to work to put on our own and each other’s oxygen masks to help along the way of reducing the negative impact on our whole society—in fact, our whole world.
(For those who are fans of Jesus, he was, after all, all about offering healing to people at every turn!!!)
To many of us here in the US, we’re an incredibly uncomfortable people with interdependence and instability, so a lot of this is going to take a lot of grieving out our feels and working through shame spirals in order to put on and keep on our oxygen masks and keep the oxygen literally flowing to as many of those who need it as possible.
It’s incredibly ironic, and oddly fitting, in light of this that what we’re depending on is each individual’s willingness to isolate themselves from other humans out of love (but only physically, and for a time).
Thinking Only a Few Are Worthy Is the Problem
Other than those who are obviously and malevolently making it all worse for those populations they think ought not live anyway (and I’m glad I’m not in charge of knowing what happens to them, frankly), the rest of us are for sure no less worthy of care and concern by self or others than the rest of us.
And the biggest danger in this situation that I see beyond the virus itself is thinking in those terms.
In short, it’s complicated. But I know in the midst of the complexity that this much is true: we need not to give into the desire to assume that some lives ought to matter more in this pandemic than others. Or that some of our actions or resources or skills make us more worthy of life than death.
When Worthiness Becomes Wrapped Up with Beliefs about Survival
The problem is that we too often get stuck in this idea of worthiness, and I can already see these fractures in my own anxieties this past week as well as those of others. But the thing is we’re all in it together. And the more we see the world as a necessarily zero-sum place in which one person ALWAYS wins at the expense of others, or one person ALWAYS has to lose so that others can win, the more that stops us from seeing how our actions to help ourselves help us keep helping others.
It’s important—ALMOST as important as IMMEDIATE SOCIAL DISTANCING THIS WEEK (for more on that, read this post all the way through)—that we remind ourselves of this principle.
A Weirdly Darwinian Strain of Theology
Especially, as I’ll explain in a bit, those of us who have been socialized into the unhealthy cultural belief and theology that it’s always and forever and wholly selfish to take care of our needs—that we ALWAYS need to go last.
This kind of view oddly can be just as reinforcing of this zero-sum view of things as philosophies that aggressive views that project negatively on other people. It’s just that in this case, the negative projection is directed inward. It’s a view that hurts us rather than others—and if all humans ought be considered worthy (and as I said, I believe they should be, at least in theory, because I’m not perfect 😉 ), neither is great for us OR others.
An Example of How This Internalized Shame Hurts Us and Others
Case in point: Earlier this week, I completely flipped out—not, as one might expect, because I didn’t have resources to take on this pandemic. On the contrary, I flipped out because I DID. Because I thought ahead enough, and bothered to put on my oxygen mask first, I thought surely that choice was somehow hurting everyone else?
Looking back at it, I can see now that it was an irrational reaction—and even at that time I knew I was really anxious and my brain wasn’t dealing well with things. In turn, that internalized shame reaction was what was really keeping me from being there for others at that moment, rather than that I was prepared for the pandemic.
This Is SOOOOO Important
But our neurobiologies sometimes get really confused, for good reason, about what will and will not actually help us and others survive with dignity in a given situation. In this case, the toxic parts that had seeped into my childhood theology had weirdly derailed my neurobiology from knowing what was good for both me and others.
In short, it had convinced me that I ought to feel bad about having an oxygen mask even when there wasn’t necessarily a shortage at that time.
The Toxic Parts of a Complex Theology That Ultimately Harmed Me
In this case, I had grown up with a relatively healthy idea of worthiness in some ways—after all, our theology was all about figuring out that none of us was more righteous than others. AND YET there was always this incredibly zero-sum training at the same time, that all of us also had to be equally unworthy in many ways, and that you were the worst of the unworthy people if you cared for yourself, somehow.
Which was incredibly in conflict, and rightfully so, with this teaching that God and others were supposed to love us and find us incredibly worthy because we were made in God’s image.
(After all, isn’t the message of the Cross that shows up in substitutionary atonement the idea that we’re all offered oxygen masks and are loved enough that we should accept them?)
Such a Mixed Bag—But Parts Hurt Me and Others as a Result
So yeah, it feels like we were on the WAY to healthy ways of looking at the world, but this insidious zero-sum side of things had sunk deep down inside of me to the extent where, in this crisis, I was actually interpreting my following directions from experts in the subject of the crisis as actually immoral things to do.
And—to make it worse, that old “all of us are unworthy deep down” part had encouraged me to internalize the idea that I myself was unworthy of taking steps that were, after all, recommended to me because they were the best practices for the common good: my good as well as those of others.
Not MORE Worthy or Moral Either
Which didn’t mean that my having listened to these best practices sooner, or having the education to seek them out and sort through all the confusing information, etc. etc. etc. made me somehow more moral or worthy of survival either. (My childhood theology seems to have followed “best practices for humanity” on that, and I’m thankful for THAT training.)
But Can Help Others!
What it did mean, on the contrary, that my being ahead of the curve was bound to be able to offer others who weren’t there yet a (virtual now, because of social distancing) hand up.
The Problem With Zero-Sum Views
As I emerged from this shame spiral I’d sunk in, I started to see that my shame had trapped me in seeing the world not as a collaborative ecosystem, but ALWAYS AND ONLY as a zero-sum place where if one person wins another person ALWAYS loses, always and forever and, importantly ONLY. And that somehow this win and loss is ALWAYS tied to whether someone ought to be able to survive or not. And that in turn was connected to this idea of goodness and purity and righteousness.
Which, again, was the exact opposite of what my childhood theology was SUPPOSED to have taught me. But as I’ve said, there were contradictory, and it turns out, incredibly toxic, elements that made their way into my bones anyway.
Back to This Week’s Shame Spiral
So yes, because of all this inner conflict in the theology I was raised with, my body and brain were experiencing an incredible amount of anxiety and stress which was wholly unnecessary and hurtful to me this week. And that sucks.
What I’m thankful for is that I’ve been learning the tools to get through this sort of thing, and I’ve learned that using them is something that helps me put on my oxygen mask so I can help others put on theirs.
It’s Complicated, This Ecosystem
I also know that sometimes it’s true that I’ll need someone to take care of me for them as well as me, and I’ll need to take care of someone else for me. And that all of this makes an incredibly beautiful and complicated ecosystem.
And Flawed/Wounded/Diseased—We Need to Keep Working Toward Healing Our Systems
And yeah, as I pointed out, some patterns will show themselves to be universally hurtful, and some people will be unnecessarily and hurtfully exploitive and cruel or just dumb, and we need to draw attention to that and try to change those things, absolutely. And listen to the people who know best in a given situation what is needed (and know those people can’t control everything either!).
Way Beyond Zero-Sum
But this is the thing: life is wayyyy more complicated than the fact that if I lose, someone else automatically wins, always and forever.
And I thank God for that, with all my heart. Because can you imagine, if in order to help others, we ALWAYS had to sacrifice our own needs? That we could never find ways for all people to have their needs met as much as possible, and networks to support that as well as we were able?
The Lie of the Win-Lose Dichotomy
Oh, wait, though, that’s what the toxic parts of the systems we grew up in have unhelpfully ingrained into our bones so much that our stress responses believe it at times like these.
BUT—and this is almost as important for us to all understand as the idea that social distancing is important right now—IT’S NOT TRUE, that zero-sum lie. It is sometimes—with some situations, and with some things—but not all of the time, and not even when it comes to resources nearly as we think it does.
Bonus???: Zero-sum Views Are Often the Root of Other Unhealthy Views Too
I had been close to believing, without realizing it, the same kind of logic that convinces us that if we let dark-skinned immigrants come into our countries there will somehow be fewer jobs for all of us.
That may seem to those of us who are progressive as though it’s a very different situation than whether there’s enough soup mix and masks to go around. But the truth is, only some of even this extreme very stark situation IS really straightforwardly zero-sum.
The Easily Distinguished Win-Lose Parts!
Yes, if the government and people in power don’t offer the assistance needed to help people through these times, more people will die. THAT is zero-sum. That is stark. If the oligarchy wins the battle for greed, a lot more people die—and often those who society already sees to be the “least of these” (you know, those who Jesus told us to see God in in Matthew 25).
That fact—that people in power are killing lots of people if they don’t do the right thing—is definitively as true as the fact that the kid who bought up 17,000 bottles of Purell to try to make a fortune out of them is descriptively an exploitive asshat who needs to reconsider his life choices.
The Rest of the Situation Is Much Messier
But the rest of us, those who aren’t just purely trying to save ourselves from having to face the problem head on, but are stocking up out of the deep desire to protect both ourselves and our health workers and the most vulnerable among us from the worst effects of what this epidemic could be? That group of us who are trying to help ourselves, and keep ourselves from collapsing into endless anxiety so we can keep working for the common good?
Well, no. In those cases, that’s not a cut-and-dried zero-sum situation at all. In fact, that’s a situation that’s HIGHLY mutually beneficial.
The Unhealthy Zero-Sum Parts Are Making Things Worse
I know this, too—the partisan divide isn’t the only thing causing people to be in denial right now about the need to socially distance. It’s a big contributing factor, sure, but not the only one.
But it is a big factor in people not knowing the urgency of what’s going on. See, the avalanche of fascistic rhetoric lately has made the news feel unsafe to many on both sides of the aisle. It’s natural that people would take breaks from that kind of ongoing negativity in order to stay sane and continue to be able to pour out to their families and in their work.
Be Patient with Those Who Just Don’t Know or Understand—Including Ourselves
For those, let’s be patient about explaining to them what’s going on even while explaining the urgency of it all. And let’s recognize they might need a minute or two to grasp the enormity of it all and catch up.
Let’s also realize that none of us, however prepared we’ve been, has been doing this perfectly or are currently doing this perfectly or are going to be doing this perfectly. Those of us who caught on earlier aren’t necessarily either more or less “righteous” than those who are just catching up, and that’s important to recognize.
Because if we start to see stocks of cold medicine or toilet paper—or even a self-righteous abdication of those things—as some sort of sign of righteousness, well, that’s simply not true. If that’s the case, that meme joking about washing our hands like Pilate would be much more disturbing than it is.
Some Things ARE Clear—But Most Are Not
That dude with the Purell? Those people in huge places of power pushing hard against paid sick leave for people? Sure, these are terrible, exploitive, evil actions.
But in the part of the ordinary population where we’re BOTH trying to get by ourselves AND trying to help others? Let’s not beat ourselves or each other up about it too much, shall we?
We’re Going to Need Each Other in the Mess
After all, we’re going to need each other.
Those of us who have been too busy helping others to take care of themselves may well find more supplies in the store in a day or two.
But they also may need stuff—carefully soaped up or Lysoled and dropped off outside their houses—from those of us who have enough for now.
And those who are in areas where people don’t have enough money to stock up that much are going to need those who are delivery drivers to take extra good care of themselves for them. And they will also need those of us who DID purchase enough not to be overtaxing those delivery drivers and putting them, us, and others at risk by doing so.
We Need to Listen to the Situation—and We Won’t All Get the Same Answer
It’s an ecosystem, friends. And it’s a messy situation. Many are ignoring the social distancing protocols in dangerous ways, and they need those of us who recognize the danger to gently and urgently educate them as fast as we can.
But the world, and those in need, also need us to stop occasionally and take care of ourselves. Because we do no one else good if we keel over and allow our systems to run down so when we somehow hit a stray germ we’re more likely to become really sick.
THAT—that’s what all these social distancing protocols are trying to avoid.
Let’s Not Equate Illness with Immorality, Please????
And yet—AND THIS IS IMPORTANT TOO—if we do catch the virus and it gets bad, we all must remember there’s no shame in that either. This thing is going to hit a large chunk of us, the experts believe—and I believe them—EVEN WITH social distancing.
If we fall prey to the idea that those who stay well are somehow more virtuous or worthy than those who are not, we fall prey once again to this fatalistic, frankly Nazistic idea that this virus is good, that it will “thin the herd of the weak links.”
It’s important to remember right now that it’s this kind of zero-sum purity thinking that we’re meant to fight. Because this thinking is flat out wrong, and my weird assumption that I wasn’t worthy of survival because I had stuff put me in danger of being enough out of commission to let this lie continue to hold sway in more places when I could be working to stop it.
Let’s Stop Blaming the “Least of These” for Their Complexly Caused Problems
In reality, the large bulk of those who survive this pandemic will not somehow deserve it and the large bulk of those who die will not.
And maybe in many cases, all of that will be combined with some unwise decisions people made.
The deaths will result from complex forces of nature combined with some really evil choices made by those in positions of power recently combined with the way our society was unprepared because of a series of unhealthy patterns in our society, yes, absolutely.
But it’s really, really complex beyond that to see where the blame lies in these deaths BECAUSE of the same thing that has caused this pandemic to move so fast: our complex global ecosystem.
Isolation Is Right for the Moment for as Many as Possible—But Not Always and Forever!
And while we can pick apart for days the unhealthy aspects of our systems of globalism, there’s no inherent purity in us isolating ourselves from the world, or in our houses, even in times of pandemic. We do it because it’s been proven to be our best shot at preventing more deaths than is necessary, NOT because it’s inherently the righteous thing to do.
Let’s remember that, and remind ourselves of that, please?
PLEASE, ONCE AGAIN, FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS HOLY, SOCIALLY DISTANCE yourself as much as is humanly possible right now, for the greater good.
Just Remember Those Who Genuinely Can’t Aren’t Immoral—And We Need to Help Them
But remember, there will always be those who genuinely can’t isolate in a pure way for really good reasons. And that’s often because they’re serving us.
Escaping Toward Collaborative Frameworks
We do need to remind ourselves and each other to work toward the common good, sure. But let’s remember not to put our worthiness at stake as we do so, please? It just doesn’t help anyone.
Yes, by all means we need to point out the toxic crap and call out the primary perpetrators and enablers and the ways individual actions make things worse, where that’s clear.
But as we do, let’s work to remind each other we are all worthy of oxygen masks, please, friends. It will help us all to survive as well as possible.
A Final Charge
Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let’s continue to do what we can where we are with what we’ve got to speak up against the unhealthiest of the responses going around these days, to gently persuade those we can, to take care of ourselves the best we can, and to grieve the things we can’t change. We can do this thing.
Looking to try to understand the stress basis underneath all of this and how to most helpfully and assertively intervene toward the common good in these times? Our free “Assertive Spirituality Guide to Online Trolls” will help you with this! To get it, sign up for our weekly email newsletter in the top bar of this site or by clicking the box when you comment on this article. Once you’ve confirmed your email address, we’ll send you the link to the Guide to Trolls in the final welcome email. We hope you’ll stick around (and what else healthily burns off more stress while in quarantine than fighting for the common good online with a bunch of other likeminded folks), but you can unsubscribe at any time.