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Has the pandemic refocused our lives on what really matters?

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A sign to thank front line workers is taped to a pole outside of LDS Hospital in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, April 1, 2020.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

I noticed one of those emails the other day; the kind that, a mere month ago, seemed to confront my field of view wherever I looked.

It went something along the lines of “candidate X is lying about subject Y to cover up his misdeeds, blah, blah, blah. …” Or perhaps it had an urgent tone to it, warning about impending doom caused by the success of some liberal or conservative agenda. The memory of it is blurry at this point.

Those emails, mostly from tediously predictable special interest groups, haven’t gone away. It’s just that I don’t notice them anymore. They always seemed trivial. Now they sound insulting, as if the sender hasn’t looked out the window to see the deserted streets. 

If the sender is like me and countless others, that view would reveal the window well of a basement, where I spend my working hours these days, hunkering against an advancing microbe. Clearly, we have more important things to think about now.

That’s the perspective a global pandemic can bring.

Truthfully now, when was the last time you gave serious thought to the upcoming presidential election? It’s still out there. It is, despite everything, important. But today, other things are more important, like family, personal hygiene and life itself.

Years ago, while cleaning out the home of a newly deceased relative, I found a journal my mother kept at age 13. The year was 1939. She was a Norwegian girl, living in Oslo, who should have been obsessed with the angst of early adolescence and the discovery of boys. Instead, the dark cloud of a continent crumbling under the boots of Nazism and fascism had focused her attention on more serious things and made her sound remarkably mature.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had recalled all its American missionaries home from Europe. She described a meeting held to say farewell to those serving in Norway. She described a feeling of loneliness and abandon. She asks, “What will become of me?”

Later, when I was young, she described to me how church meetings at that time were filled to capacity with members who hadn’t set foot inside a chapel in years. They were there in search of something that had become lost in the placidity of peaceful life, but that suddenly seemed urgent.

Robert Nicholson, president of the Philos Project, a group that promotes Christian engagement in the Middle East, sees clear parallels between this time and those long-ago war years. 

“Today the world faces another moment of cataclysm. Though less devastating than World War II, the pandemic has remade everyday life and wrecked the global economy in a way that feels apocalyptic,” he wrote in a recent op-ed published by The Wall Street Journal. This, he speculates, could be the start of another religious revival.

Nicholson notes the obvious, that life until a month ago had been “deceptively easy.” 

He quotes British historian Herbert Butterfield who, in his 1949 book “Christianity and History,” wrote about the complacency of modern conveniences. 

“Men may live to a great age in days of comparative quietness and peaceful progress, without ever having come to grips with the universe, without ever vividly realising the problems and the paradoxes with which human history so often confronts us,” Butterfield wrote, noting that people of the 20th century were “particularly spoiled.”

Our ancestors, in contrast, mostly had “a terrible awareness of the chanciness of human life, and the precarious nature of man’s existence in this risky universe.”

I wouldn’t dare compare our pandemic hardships directly with the cruelty and violence of World War II. Nor can I really understand the desperate feelings my mother had as a 13-year-old, wondering what the coming war would bring. 

But I agree with Nicholson that the sudden disruption of life’s plentiful and easy routines seems to be pulling us naturally toward a confrontation with things that matter most — family, the health of distant loved ones and, yes, the meaning of life, a pull intensified by the fact many churches have closed their doors out of necessity.

Perhaps this pull isn’t felt by all, but it at least ought to bring the pettiness of our former existence into high relief.

Nicholson writes: “The past four years have been some of the most contentious and embarrassing in American history. Squabbling over trivialities has left the public frantic and divided, oblivious to the transcendent. But the pandemic has humbled the country and opened millions of eyes to this risky universe once more.”

Everyone should work to reduce the effects and severity of the pandemic. We should hope it abates soon and demands no more lives.

But we should be grateful, as well, if this grim reminder of mortality helps us refocus on the things that matter most.