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Thursday, April 9, 2020

Pandemic Times: Humanity Fights Back

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David Suissa
David Suissa is President of Tribe Media/Jewish Journal, where he has been writing a weekly column on the Jewish world since 2006. In 2015, he was awarded first prize for "Editorial Excellence" by the American Jewish Press Association. Prior to Tribe Media, David was founder and CEO of Suissa Miller Advertising, a marketing firm named “Agency of the Year” by USA Today. He sold his company in 2006 to devote himself full time to his first passion: Israel and the Jewish world. David was born in Casablanca, Morocco, grew up in Montreal, and now lives in Los Angeles with his five children.

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I can’t recall a time when life felt so dark and foreboding. Our economy is shutting down. Whole industries are crashing. Retail businesses are closing. Countless people are losing their livelihoods.

As if that weren’t bad enough, there is a genuine fear our health care system may be overrun by too many patients who have contracted the coronavirus. To prevent that disaster and “flatten the curve” of infections, our government has asked us to stay home, to freeze our lives, to no longer be the consumers who keep our economy going. Put another way: to prevent a medical disaster, we are virtually guaranteeing an economic one.

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Some worry that because we didn’t take such radical action early enough in the crisis, it may be too late to prevent a medical disaster. Other critics worry the cure may be worse than the disease, that the financial, emotional and societal toll will be too much to bear. Dr. David Katz, founding director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center, recently argued in The New York Times that there are “more targeted ways” to beat the pandemic than the mass approach. But that train, I’m afraid, has left the station.

Meanwhile, for the multitudes among us stuck at home, we keep hearing that things will get worse before they get better. Every rock bottom has a trap door. We are dancing with uncertainty, whether we like it or not.

And yet, despite all this darkness, despite all this fear of the unknown, I can’t recall a time when I have seen so much light and so much strength.

Humanity is fighting back.

“For the multitudes among us stuck at home, we keep hearing that things will get worse before they get better. Every rock bottom has a trap door. We are dancing with uncertainty, whether we like it or not.”

My email inbox overflows with hundreds of initiatives from activists, spiritual leaders, organizations and individuals who have decided to combat this disease with love, creativity and light.

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I never imagined I would stand on my sidewalk at sundown on Friday and sing along with my neighbors. Well, I did just that. Because all synagogues were closed, a neighbor decided it’d be a good idea to gather on the street and sing the soulful Shabbat melody, Yedid Nefesh. I’m hoping we’ll turn it into a weekly tradition — crisis or no crisis.

Programs have sprung up all over to help feed the needy and mitigate the economic fallout. Communities are joining hands to better leverage their efforts. Building on its past experience with other crises, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles has mobilized its resources to assist the most vulnerable and is coordinating its efforts with other groups.

Even our politicians in Washington are trying gamely to put partisanship aside in favor of the national interest — although we’re still not totally there on that front. Some habits die hard.

On the front lines, as Nick Bryant of the BBC writes, we have seen “the selflessness and bravery of [America’s] first responders – the nurses, doctors, medical support staff and ambulance drivers…[and] the ingenuity and creativity of schools that have transitioned to remote, online teaching without missing a beat. We’ve seen a can-do spirit that has kept stores open, shelves stocked and food being delivered.”

Individuals everywhere are chipping in. People are sharing phone numbers with the elderly and the lonely to offer simple conversation.

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I saw this story in one of my emails: Taran Tien and his sister, Calliope, heard their 78-year-old neighbor, a big classical music fan, was self-isolating. So what did they do? They put on some nice clothes, took their cellos to her front porch and gave an impromptu concert.

There are thousands of similar stories of people trying to do what they can with what they have.

We ought to retire the term “social distancing.” It’s really physical distancing. It may be difficult to touch one another physically, but we can touch one another emotionally and, yes, socially. We are blessed with technology that can do an end run around this nasty virus.

We also are blessed with our humanity. Nothing can stop that. These words of Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, which we put on the cover of the Journal last week, best capture the altruistic aspirations of the moment:

“Every hand that we don’t shake must become a phone call that we place. Every embrace that we avoid must become a verbal expression of warmth and concern. Every inch and every foot that we physically place between ourselves and another must become a thought as to how we might be of help to that other, should the need arise.”

I encourage you to watch a video the Journal produced with rabbis throughout our community (including Kanefsky) sharing their wisdom to help us deal with these trying times. These are spiritual leaders at their best, inspiring us to bring out the best in ourselves.

“Despite all this darkness, despite all this fear of the unknown, I can’t recall a time when I have seen so much light and so much strength.”

The great irony of this moment is that we’re facing an unprecedented crisis with an enormous amount of time on our hands. Stuck at home, many of us are asking: What can we do with this unexpected free time? Beyond taking health precautions and bingeing on Netflix, how can we be useful? How can we retain, and even double up on our humanity while being so physically isolated?

Among the many poems I’ve read that speak to these questions, here’s one of my favorites, by Kitty O’Meara:

“And the people stayed home. And read books, and listened, and rested, and exercised, and made art, and played games, and learned new ways of being, and were still. And listened more deeply. Some meditated, some prayed, some danced. Some met their shadows. And the people began to think differently.

“And the people healed. And, in the absence of people living in ignorant, dangerous, mindless, and heartless ways, the earth began to heal.

“And when the danger passed, and the people joined together again, they grieved their losses, and made new choices, and dreamed new images, and created new ways to live and heal the earth fully, as they had been healed.”

“We’re at the beginning of a collective journey, where the finish line is not yet in sight, where darkness and light will continue to clash.”

Those evocative thoughts remind me it’s not easy being a journalist in these harsh times. We don’t have the luxury of poetry. We must get the story out. But this particular crisis is too overwhelming for us to stay calm and professional at all times.

Yes, I spend most of my days as editor-in-chief focusing on how best we can cover this story from as many angles as possible. But my biggest challenge is balancing the darkness with the light. I feel this dilemma every morning on my podcast. How much bad news should I share? How much hopeful news? I worry that if I sugarcoat the darkness, listeners will see through it and tune out. But if I focus too much on it, listeners will get depressed and also tune out.

This is the dilemma we all face right now and will face for the foreseeable future: How do we balance the horrible with the hopeful, the dark with the light, the anxiety with the action?

Times of crises fuel anxiety. One of the biggest sources of anxiety these days is simply not knowing. We don’t know where we are headed. We don’t know how long it will last or how bad things will get. Will the economy crash? Will hospitals be overrun? Will we, ourselves, catch the virus, and if so, will we get the help we need? Can we protect our parents, grandparents and those who are most vulnerable?

With Passover around the corner, what will our seders look like? Who will sit around our tables?

“Here is what I do know right now: In the midst of a pandemic darkness, humanity is rising up to show that there still is plenty of light to go around.”

The anxiety weighs on us. Some of us respond by engaging in outside activism to help the world; others by looking inside themselves and asking deep, uncomfortable questions. For many of us, this is an opportunity to reflect on the things that matter most to us and how we can use this crisis to better ourselves.

Regardless of which direction one takes — outside or inside — it comes down to knowing how to deal with anxiety. Not all anxieties are created equal. There is productive and unproductive anxiety. As psychiatrist Jennifer Yashari writes:

“In the context of this COVID-19 pandemic … we do need to be anxious, enough so that we can practice hyper-vigilance around hand-washing and be responsible about social distancing.”

But when anxiety is unproductive, she adds, our minds engage in “obsessing and ruminating,” “cognitive distortions” and other “unhelpful ways of thinking, such as catastrophizing and fortune-telling.”

“This is the dilemma we all are facing right now and will face for the foreseeable future: How do we balance the horrible with the hopeful, the dark with the light, the anxiety with the action?”

The “warriors of light” stepping up these days clearly are channeling their productive anxiety. Can we all do the same? Who knows? There will be no shortage of anxiety in the weeks and months ahead. We’re at the beginning of a collective journey, where the finish line is not yet in sight, where darkness and light will continue to clash.

Can we remember the light in the darkness? That will be our challenge.

It’s tempting for some of us to draw grand conclusions about what all this means and where this is going. Yes, this moment feels biblical, but let’s stay humble. Let’s not pretend we can know the unknowable.

Here is what I do know right now: In the midst of a pandemic darkness, humanity is rising up to show us there still is plenty of light to go around.

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