As we yearn for life ‘B.C.’ — before coronavirus — let’s not forget its lessons

The cafeteria at Most Holy Trinity School in Detroit is empty, except for a few volunteers passing out food to students and their families, in March. Like an episode of the “Twilight Zone,” our empty buildings and streets are eerily quiet, yet echo with spiritual lessons for us. (Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic)

I’ve been experiencing some weird side effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

For example, the obsessive critiquing of television advertisements. They are now divided into two categories: pre- and post-pandemic. When I see pre-pandemic ads of happy people celebrating clear skin, fast food or car insurance, I am filled with alarm and resentment.

How dare they stand so close to each other, for Pete’s sake! Talking and touching, being lighthearted without masks and gloves. Are they out of their minds?

Watching a pre-pandemic television show — which is just about every show except those where musicians and news anchors are broadcasting from their basements — I feel a kind of trepidation for the characters.

They go about their contrived comedies or cops-and-robbers showdowns completely unaware that the entire world is about to come screeching to a halt. They, poor naive fools that they are, have no idea that the big challenge they will face is not some sitcom farce but how to stay six feet apart from everyone else in a grocery store.

That is unless their show is situated in Georgia, where people will have to come up with creative ways to stay six feet apart while getting a tattoo or their nails done. That would make for an interesting reality show, come to think of it.

Recently, I began thinking about the neutron bomb. For those too young to remember, the neutron bomb is an enhanced radiation weapon designed, as the 1980s rhetoric put it, to kill people but leave buildings intact. I thought about the neutron bomb when I went back to my office one day to fetch something I needed.

It was eerie walking through the quiet halls, as if a time machine had dropped me back into March 14, the last day those offices were occupied. Everything looked as I remembered, yet all the people, poof! The building was still here, but the people had vanished.

COVID-19 is a viral version of the neutron bomb: The department stores and barbershops and restaurants are still standing, as empty as a scene out of “The Twilight Zone.”

We can’t help but contrast now with then. One moment, record low unemployment. The next moment, 26 million seeking unemployment checks. One moment, oil at 50 dollars a barrel. The next moment, oil traders paying people to take their goo, and gas at 97 cents a gallon in some places.

One baby boomer joke circulating on the internet is that we all feel like teenagers again: Gas is cheap and we are grounded.

We seem stunned by the whiplash of these rapid changes. Some of us — volunteers, health care workers and first responders most of all — have heroically risen to the occasion. Elsewhere, we see citizens pitted against citizens, political scapegoating, and even the willingness to sacrifice the few for the financial needs of the many.

As is so often the case, there are spiritual lessons here. We want to return to the way it was just a few months ago, but we are absolutely not in control. We hope, but we must endure. And in our endurance, we are challenged to think of the needs of others: Our children. Our parents. The poor. The elderly. Our neighbors. The strangers near us in the supermarket.

Hardship reveals our character, tests our resilience and humbles us. We will get through this, but we won’t be the same. I am hoping that our deep divides, our angry polarities, might ease and we recover the meaning of the aspirational phrase on our pocket change: "E pluribus unum." Out of many, one.

Erlandson, director and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service, can be reached at [email protected].