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Coronavirus’s lesson about the deep connection between the physical and spiritual

COVID-19 is the very worst kind of news. On a warpath from Wuhan, it has inflicted enormous human suffering, savaged the global economy, and ripped apart the very fabric of daily life.

Ari Hoffman | Artist: Noah Lubin

Ari Hoffman | Artist: Noah Lubin

COVID combines the tools of the assassin’s trade — stealth, silence, ease of movement — with the worst of the terrorist’s capacity to inflict mass harm and instill widespread fear. A sadistic pathogen, it aims for the most vulnerable among us, drafting the healthy to be its accomplices and co-conspirators. If none of our hands are clean, we are all partially guilty.

Let’s admit the obvious: It is a pointless, senseless, slow motion tragedy. Likely hatched in a bat, spreading with the heedless arithmetic of wildfire, it should be no part of the world. But it is, and it is likely to remain that way for a while.

Crisis is an unpleasant yet often effective teacher, and while we shelter and quarantine, there are lessons to be learned to take into the post-corona era. Eventually, we’ll recover, but we will never be quite the same. Now, at this moment of uncertainty, is the time to imagine the future. Here are some basic truths:

We are bodies in the world Past generations knew that illness or war or hunger could fell them at any moment. Nevertheless, they loved and created and explored. Many of us have lost touch with this everywhere-danger and move through the world like Superman with nary an ounce of Kryptonite in sight. COVID reminds us that we are porous and vulnerable, and that everyone and every body is tied to one another.

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This shouldn’t paralyze us. It should set in motion the urgency to do the most important things, without delay. It should also help us realize that race and class peel away to reveal the important things, and that Kevin Durant and a butcher in Wuhan trade in the same molecules.

The spiritual is at home in the modern world Coronavirus attacks the body, but it also assaults the soul. Its spread has been enabled by all of the technology and connectivity that 2020 facilitates — airplanes, global business, a shrinking planet.

Our responses to it are likewise rooted in the tools of the technological revolution — social media, video-conferencing, FaceTime.

But a pandemic of this scale will call forth spiritual energies and yearnings long thought banished. Some of these might be crackpot cults and end of days hucksters. But many of them will be genuine attempts to find a language and framework for something so much bigger than us.

It should involve a deep dive into mortality and the human condition and the meaning of suffering, all things religion has been doing for millennia. Traditions as far apart as The Benedict Option and the Passover Seder are great lenses for meditating on the relationship between intimacy and isolation, the world out there and the hearth in here.

It is worth cultivating the slow pleasures The need for speed is everywhere. Internet connection, dating apps, Amazon deliveries, results of all kinds. But all of a sudden, the world is relearning the seductions of slowness — halting the spread of the virus, slowing the rate of transmission, halting the free-fall of the markets.

This lesson is transferable to our joys, too. Reading takes time, and so does journaling. But we should do both, because words will bind the chaos of the world to our own experience in this terrible time. Enjoy a slow glass of wine, the joy of a pre-game with no game to get to, or even one on the schedule. Interesting things happen when time stretches out.

Distance is not a metaphor In a universe of Facebook friends, Instagram likes, and Twitter followers, the hierarchies of love and life can seem extremely flat. But they aren’t. They are physical and real and they matter.

Now, closeness can kill, and distance can save. But isolation without solidarity is sterile, and crowds without intimacy is all noise and no signal. We have to get the ratios right.

This holds not only for people but for ideas, works of art and causes of passion. The recent anguish and anger over outbreaks in the Hasidic communities of Brooklyn that persisted in large, cheek-to-jowl gatherings illustrates that the ship of meaning and connection is not so nimble as to turn on a dime.

The lives of our tribes live in us, and our pattern of meaning is hardwired in ways sometimes difficult to see. Track who you miss, and who you don’t. Sometimes a little bit of a remove gives a lot of perspective.

At a moment when everything seems liquid and liable to melt, hard truths and durable wisdom appear on the horizon. Let’s see the stars through the shelter.

Ari Hoffman is a contributing columnist at the Forward.


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