Recently, I published a blog post urging religious leaders in the United States to explore the concept of “societal chaplaincy” as a tool for responding to the unprecedented depth and magnitude of the COVID-19 coronavirus crisis. The US has not had any direct, long-term experience with national trauma and loss.
Societally minded leadership among persons of faith (lay, rostered, and ordained) will be necessary for helping persons and communities name the losses they have experienced, the grief they carry, and the resources already in their possession for rebuilding life on all levels. The skillsets of “societal chaplaincy” can be of direct assistance.
The main backdrop of that blog post was my sense that Americans, alongside people from many other countries, are facing widespread trauma. Although federal, state, and some local leaders are talking about “reopening” for the sake of the “economy,” many citizens and residents are not convinced that the danger has truly passed.
Americans are experiencing widespread confusion as political leaders and manufactured street protests demand an easing of restrictions while public health analysts warn that moving too quickly could have disastrous effects. Muddled leadership enhances our collective trauma.
Ripples and Waves
In the time that has passed since I offered that first blog post on how the concept of societal chaplaincy could provide a constructive, healing response to collective trauma, the post has been distributed and discussed in several spaces. I have been fortunate to gain new friends and conversation partners in the process. In the meantime, the American experience of COVID-19 continues apace.
The American experience of this pandemic has been markedly different than experiences in Europe. For every country in Europe, the challenge of the pandemic has been plainly national. Compared to the geography or population of any country in Europe, the US is massive. Here, the pandemic experience is state-by-state or, at the most, region-by-region.
The US media landscape, on the other hand, is most often national. The result is that when New York City began experiencing a crest in the wave of new infections and, later, deaths, the entire country was told that we were seeing “signs of hope.” When, soon after, the White House began talk of “reopening,” governors in states where infection rates have not yet stabilized set those processes in motion. Media perceptions rather than epidemiological data seem to be driving American policies.
Americans are thus torn between two realities. One reality is that the trauma, loss, and grief of the COVID-19 pandemic is a national experience. The other is that while other geographic regions of the United States are feeling direct impacts, their cities and regions may look healthy. When the wave reaches additional areas, likely in the Fall and Winter, the national narrative of self-congratulation and reopening will have moved on.
One challenge facing leaders who would put societal chaplaincy into practice is that the ripples and waves of grief, trauma, and loss in their communities will not be immediately recognized or named within national narratives of having won the war against the “invisible enemy.”
Circles of Loss and Grief
Americans have been saturated with media narratives about the experience of COVID-19. We see the ever-increasing death toll and short, representative obituaries. Celebrities with the disease warrant extensive coverage. Stories of medical heroism are interspersed with reports of unprecedented employment and commodity market collapse.
Individual experiences of the pandemic can be overshadowed by these huge, overarching narratives. This is especially the case if our experience is only tangentially related to the direct impacts of unemployment, infection, and death. Unless we can locate ourselves in the center of the narrative, our experiences may be merely quotidian and mundane.
A colleague of mine, seeking to name the losses and grief being experienced in his household, mentioned a sixth-grade daughter who is both deeply frustrated with online learning and deeply saddened that friends couldn’t be present for a birthday party. These losses aren’t featured on primetime news; they are no less real.
Within a different sphere of concern, a friend employed in the corporate world shared that we are seeing a shift in how office collegiality is being approached in the new working-from-home normal. While the beginning of this experience saw people eager to join online ‘happy hours’ and chat rooms designed to preserve social connection, fewer and fewer people are participating.
This opting out has coincided with more pointed questions about job security and inquiries about repurposing parental leave policies to respond to the needs of children staying home from school. The novelty of the situation has worn off and deeper currents of anxiety have set in.
As we ponder the magnitude of COVID-19, these shades of anxiety, loss, and grief—indirect effects left unaddressed by broader media narratives—need to be named and worked through no less than the direct experience of unemployment or death. We are participating in a tremendous, global experience of grief and loss, not all of it immediately apparent in this phase of the journey.
As I reflected on this, I happened to view a short BBC documentary about the town of Nördlingen, Germany. Nördlingen is a quaint medieval town in Bavaria, between Nuremburg and Munich. Here it is, covered in snow:
In some ways, Nördlingen is like many other German towns. Rothenburg, another medieval walled city just north of Nördlingen, comes to mind. But there is a striking difference. When seen from the air, the city center of Nördlingen is almost perfectly round. Check it out:
The short documentary I watched explained that the town, in addition to being featured in the original Willy Wonka film, was built in the impact crater of an asteroid that collided with Earth roughly 10,000 years ago. That explains why the town center is almost perfectly round.
But there are layers to the story. When the asteroid collided with the earth, immense pressures interacted with graphite already in the soil, creating a type of rock called suevite. That rock contains millions and millions of tiny diamonds. While Nördlingen’s buildings contain an estimated 72 tons of diamonds, they are also found in the landscape all around; the soil glows when hit by the sun, glinting like shards of glass. Here’s Nördlingen and its surroundings:
What does this geological trivia have to do with societal chaplaincy and the recognition of grief and loss? It occurred to me that if we or the people we are seeking to help have not been affected directly by COVID-19, the effects are still here, all around us.
Even if we have not been jammed directly into the impact crater—where people have lost their jobs, or have been infected, or have had a family member die—we are part of the COVID-19 landscape. That landscape has been irrevocably changed, with new geologic formations, new gullies and canyons. Every person has their own perspective on our collective reality of trauma and fear. These diamonds have been formed within us.
How are we called to respond to this trauma, this anxiety, this ongoing fear? We could put all of our resources toward the people in the crater. The truth, however, is that those losses can be more readily known, named and addressed. What do we do with the broader dispersal of trauma that we might call societal trauma?
The situation outside the direct impact crater is more mysterious. Getting to the truth of what is there requires some level of excavation and awareness. It requires a willingness to go on journeys of exploration.
The COVID-19 impact diamonds of loss and grief demand attention. People will begin polishing the diamonds of their own experience with the tools they have around them. Sometimes, people have excellent tools passed down through family systems or communities of faith. Others will respond to their pain with other available tools, including xenophobia, racism, and scapegoating.
To address the needs of society as a whole, we need to work through individual experiences of loss and grief so we can foster an outward turn. Healing and reconciliation need to come not for individuals alone, but for our communities, our countries, and the world. That process begins with us.