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Lessons from a pandemic: A letter to my children

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Dallas Thornock, a fifth grade student at Westmore Elementary School in Orem, right, and his mother, Melissa Thornock, spray one of Dallas’ teachers with silly string as teachers from the school parade around Alpine School District neighborhoods to show support for their students on Monday, April 13, 2020. The school moved to remote learning on March 16 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ivy Ceballo, Deseret News

Dear Children,

Someday, you will tell your children about the year of the coronavirus. It has been a long six months, filled with upheaval, uncertainty, suffering and strife. But it has also been instructive. When you tell them what it was like to have the world turned upside down in a week, I hope you’ll remember the important lessons it taught us, assured that every experience — especially the difficult ones — can teach us better ways to be, if we will remember. 

I hope you’ll remember what we learned “coming home” during the months when all of us were together, all day, with nowhere to go. And how even in the midst of anxiety about the unknowns of a pandemic, we couldn’t help but feel grateful for a pause on life, for uninterrupted time together that reset our focus and strengthened our closeness. Even as we struggle to create it sometimes, that closeness is worth everything to protect; it is the central source of strength for all of us. 

But social and economic challenges have a way of exposing disparities between those with more and those with less. While we were feeling grateful for a “pause on life,” there were many experiencing real and devastating effects — children in impoverished, troubled and stressed-out homes facing increased risk for all types of abuse; families facing starvation as the global food supply chain was disrupted, further impacting the hundreds of millions of  who already struggle to secure their daily bread; and of course those suffering the deaths of loved ones who were taken by COVID-19. 

I hope you’ll remember how our little struggles to get toilet paper, figure out Zoom and make sure each trip to the grocery store lasted weeks, might have blinded us to the suffering others were experiencing. Remember our widowed friend, bound to a wheelchair herself, who refused to forget the suffering of others? When she heard of a spike in hospital reports of child abuse cases, she organized outdoor activities for the children in her neighborhood to provide them a safe time away from home. She showed us how to live the mandate that remains constant whatever the turmoil that may surround us — hold fast to our faith, and reach out in compassion and service to others.

I hope you’ll remember how it felt when every institution and business seemed bent on helping us — your teachers Zooming their lessons into our home, P.E. coaches leading us in exercises as a family, artists and musicians freely sharing lessons and messages of hope though their own careers had been upended, even the neighbor who dropped off toilet paper. For a brief time, we experienced a world united in compassion amid suffering and confusion, responding to our shared vulnerability by reaching out and lifting however they could. 

But we also experienced profound division and strife. Facing uncertainty in everything that seemed to matter — lockdown or not, wear masks or not, open schools or close them down — made it incredibly tempting to “prematurely seize on scientific claims and preach them as though they were orthodoxies,” sure that our “favorite scientist, or journalist is the only who has ‘figured it out’, as scholar John Jalcevic insightfully described . As we replaced reason with dogma, we became “blind to anything that seemed to go against our own prejudices and political loyalties.” But answers to problems as complex as a pandemic only come through patience, hard work, withholding judgment, being honest about our limitations and building trust to find answers.   

I hope you’ll remember what we have learned about our vulnerability. It’s easy to grow comfortable thinking that nothing will ever happen to change the life we falsely believe we have secured through our own efforts. In the last six months, you’ve experienced an earthquake, hurricane-like winds, and something “1,000 times smaller than a grain of sand” wreak incredible havoc and bring the global economy “to its knees.”  When we remember our vulnerability and dependence, we are more likely to be grateful for the generosity showered on us by others, both seen and unseen, and to want to share what we have.

For surely nothing is more devastating than the division among us. It doesn’t seem to matter how it happens — through political parties, racial inequality, sports teams or divisive social issues — as long as it fosters contempt, and vilification of the “other,” we become weak when we are divided. Facing problems as a complex as a pandemic, weakened by division, can tear us apart. But it does not have to be that way, as we learned from the first months when we united together to face something none of us understood, but to which we all felt vulnerable. These are precious lessons, the gift of a significant challenge we are still working through. I hope you will remember.

Jenet Jacob Erickson is an affiliated scholar of the Wheatley Institution at Brigham Young University.