A Crucible

May 22nd, 2020

“But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the Lord.” – Malachi 3:2-3

The pandemic is a crucible. Every person on the planet is being refined. Each individual is finding out who they really are, and they are getting a better understanding of everyone else.

It’s not pretty.

I am thinking specifically about how the COVID-19 virus is affecting our personal relationships. In a way, the current situation reminds me of how it felt thirty years ago when HIV and AIDS were ravaging the country. Prior to the onset of the HIV infection, there was a consensus of sorts that a person could have sex with anybody (or anything) and not have dangerous physical consequences. AIDS changed that idea in a hurry. Suddenly, people were aware that an intimate relationship had possibly lethal costs. There were serious risks involved.

COVID-19 has upped the ante. Now, just a handshake could mean illness or death. Each man or woman has to re-evaluate what is the danger to themselves, and what is the danger to the other person, whenever they meet in the flesh. We live in a new world, where every physical encounter requires a roll of the dice.

It helps when scientists and competent government officials can give people guidance on how to deal with the situation. Sadly, we are getting confusing messages. We are learning that there is no such thing as perfect safety. We are discovering that continued separation also has health costs. I know this from painful experience. Now, in an effort to revive the economy, various restrictions are being relaxed. Many rules no longer apply, and those that still exist are not enforced.

The lockdown forced us all to withdraw from a number of interpersonal relationships. We were required to be away from most other people. A couple months of that gave me a sense of what people were really important in my life, and how much I wanted to be with them. I have also got a sense of how important I am to other people. There has been a sorting process, separating casual acquaintances from true friends. Sometimes the depth of a relationship is defined by risking physical contact. Sometimes a real friendship shows itself through the willingness to remain apart. Every human connection is different, and there is often the potential for hurt and misunderstanding.

I wrestle with these relationships, and how to maintain them. Sometimes, the question is not about maintaining a bond with another person. Sometimes, the question is about how to let it all go.

Yesterday I drove across town to talk with a friend of mine from the synagogue. We pulled out a couple chairs and sat in his driveway, basking in some rare sunshine. Could we have spoken with each other using Skype or Zoom, or some other electronic means? Yes, we could have done that, but it wouldn’t have been enough. I am by nature an introvert, but even I need to be near a friend at times. Perhaps our meeting was selfish on my part, but it was good for my mental health. I was told before I left that our talk was also important for my friend, and by extension, for his wife. My friend’s wife told me this. Were there risks ? Yes, of course. The three of us, by mutual agreement, accepted these risks. We kept our separation, and did our best not to exchange germs, but nothing is 100% safe. Nothing.

I want to visit our oldest son in Texas. We talk on the phone nearly every day, and that is a very good thing. I know that sometimes his PTSD from the war gets the best of him. I feel the need to go down to Texas and just sit with him, and listen. I fear for him. Once again, I feel that using electronic means to communicate is not sufficient. My son and I need to connect in a close, human way. I need to look him in the eye when he speaks to me. He needs to physically see me too.

A few people have told me not visit until there a vaccine, or some other guarantee to prevent infection from the virus. I translate that to meaning: “Don’t come. Ever.” Perhaps I am misinterpreting the message. That could very well be. However, I truly believe that COVID-19 is here to stay. It will move around the earth’s population, and mutate. A vaccine that works this year may not work in the next. If a person tells that they don’t want to be close to me until they feel completely safe (and that is absolutely their right to say that), then I have to conclude that I may never see them again. We’re done.

I don’t want to get sick, and do not want to infect anybody else. I wonder how to do that and still retain my humanity.


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