When we lived in Nicaragua, I spent six weeks a year visiting the U.S. I would tell my friends and family and churches about our lives in Managua, about the conditions in which our neighbors, some of whom I loved as family, lived. Frequently, and I mean almost always, my U.S. folks looked at me with this expression which I can best describe as “sympathetic disconnect.” They cared. They just didn’t get it.
Consequently, our visits were both my favorite time of year and a bizarre step away from what had become my real and normal life. I came to understand that, not having been there with us, there was no way these wonderful, compassionate people could get it. How would they? They didn’t live there. That’s one of the biggest reasons I encouraged some folks to come visit us. Those who did gained a first-hand grasp that I could not convey with words and pictures, no matter how hard I tried.
Now we’re in a pandemic crisis (that’s probably redundant) and I am reading and hearing about our healthcare workers literally putting their lives at risk to care for our sick family members and neighbors and fellow citizens while, at the very same time, I am hearing another group seemingly minimizing what is happening–and could happen–with this virus, speaking callously about those who will die, and complaining about life not going on as normal…
Yesterday, my nephew came into the world. My wife’s baby sister, Celeste, gave birth to a little boy. None of us were there with his dad Ben and Celeste, of course. We haven’t met this baby and won’t for some time, though maybe when they get home from the hospital we can go and serenade him from outside their window. We can’t go to the hospital and hold him, we can’t go hug Ben and Celeste, even though we live .4 of a mile from them, even though we share Sunday dinner together almost every week, even though our eldest, Rowan, lives with them and we are close to them as if they were our nuclear family. Even though we have walked through grief and suffering together. Even though I did the homily at their wedding. Even though I held Celeste as a baby (Kim and I were in college and dating then) and even though Celeste and I share a birthday.
Pulling these together: I am hearing from nurses and doctors and all health care workers and my friend Ken who works in a supermarket and I know, I know I have the expression of sympathetic disconnect on my face. I care. I’m afraid for my own mom. I read the numbers every day, cases and deaths, how much it’s increasing, how quickly it’s doubling. But I’m not carrying out bodies of people who just died from COVID-19. I’m not deciding whether I can do my job safely with a makeshift mask because my hospital has no regulation ones left. I’m not in the grocery store where the elderly woman is weeping in front of an empty shelf because I’m home, trying to do my part with social solidarity (aka social distancing).
So I get what’s happening and where I am in this because I suspect I’ve been on both sides of this line. My suffering right now is that my life isn’t “normal” and that I don’t get to hold this new baby and rejoice with his parents, whom I love dearly, at his arrival into this world.* My suffering, right now, is that I feel solidarity with those who are suffering much, much worse. I am terrified for the children in detention at the border and beseeching God for those innocent babies. I’m trying to figure out what little ways I can help from the relative comfort of my home, where I’m “stuck” but have it better than…dang near everyone else.
My suffering matters. It matters to me and it matters to God. I’m not going to alleviate anyone else’s suffering by dismissing my own or hating on myself for struggling with it. But I’m sure as heck going to do my best to keep my own situation in perspective in this big picture.
Your suffering matters. This isn’t easy for any of us. Those of us who suffer depression are not having an easy time of this, even if we’re safe and have plenty of food and supplies. Of course this matters, because you matter. God loves us and cares about our suffering.
And we’re spectators in a nightmare that other people are taking head on, daily.
I don’t say this disrespectfully to us. I certainly am not minimizing the suffering of those who are stuck home and can’t earn money to pay their bills. That’s part of this nightmare, for sure.
I’m asking, in this post, for us to pay attention to those who are fighting this in our front lines. Yes, post FB “Thanks!” to them. I’m doing that. I sincerely mean, “Thank you!” to all of you, custodians, grocery store workers, gas station attendants, truckers, every single health care worker, EMT’s and paramedics. But, to the rest of us, read their descriptions. Read what’s happening in Italy and Spain. Listen to people who are walking into hospitals every day.
“Sympathetic disconnect” happens because we can’t relate. The unemployment rate in Nicaragua while I lived there was over 50%. I quoted that figure frequently, and tried to describe what it looked like in daily reality, but we’ve rarely seen double-digit unemployment in the U.S., except those of us who lived through the Great Depression. We rightly described 10% as a crisis in the U.S. But one out of ten is not one out of two. I described a neighbor’s house burning down and her having to stay the night by the ashes because otherwise people would come and steal whatever was left. We prayed with her. Kim was able to give her ibuprofen and she cried, she was so grateful. It’s hard to relate when you haven’t walked through those ashes.
We lived and worked in Nicaragua for seven years because we had faithful people and churches (i.e. groups of people) supporting our efforts. They prayed for us. They shared their own money every month so we could afford to be there, afford to give and share, to buy the neighbors’ tortillas, to help a neighbor start a business, and have a preschool in our carport. All who supported us acted on their care for us and for the people in need whom we grew to love.
The folks who made our work in Nicaragua possible–many of you–weren’t less important because of those expressions of sympathetic disconnect. It wasn’t as if the dollars only helped if folks also could viscerally grasp and experience true, first-hand grief when our friend Alfredo suffered a near-fatal motorcycle accident. Of course they hadn’t met Alfredo. Our supporters’ actions mattered.
But, I must add, I struggled when people expressed sympathetic disconnect and then told us how to do our ministry. It felt ironic, because it often came with “I could never do what you do”—and then advice how to do it better. The difference between our situation in Nicaragua, where we were surrounded by people in crisis, and the current situation in the U.S., where we’re all in this shared crisis, is that most people didn’t have that strong of an opinion about Nicaragua but everyone has strong opinions about our response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In this analogy, we–the Rumley-Wells family in Nicaragua–are like the healthcare workers. Right now, our nurses and doctors are witnessing and intervening first-hand in this pandemic. You and I at home, practicing our social solidarity through staying put and doing physical distancing–are the missions supporters. We have looks of sympathetic disconnect because we are not deciding which patient gets a respirator when both will die without one. Not all of us can be the doctors and nurses and grocery workers and truckers right now. Not all of us could be the missionaries to Nicaragua. We weren’t all supposed to be. We didn’t resent the rest of you for not moving to Nicaragua; we praised God for you for giving so generously that we could help there through your support. We were immensely grateful for those who took the extra steps to understand what we were experiencing. But we needed the support to make our work happen. We got it. God provided. You stepped up.
You and I may not get this crisis from inside, but we have to trust the people who do, who are directly helping the suffering people right now. They know what they are doing. We have to find ways to support them. We have to pray. My friend Kari is sewing surgical masks in her home. We have to get creative.
If God gives me a firsthand role in this crisis, or in the aftermath, I’ll take it. A part of me would definitely prefer that. Sure, I’m scared, but I’d rather participate directly than from a distance. But the help I can offer right now is to stay away from others so I don’t spread the virus and make the pandemic worse. I can pray and pray. I believe in prayer. I can sit at my computer and encourage and remind everyone that we don’t have to watch people gasp for their last breath and die in order to be part of the solution right now. We do have to believe the Surgeon General and the epidemiologists, the nurses and the doctors, my friend Doug who oversees nine hospital pharmacies, the CDC and WHO, and everyone who knows firsthand that we are perilously close to a catastrophe. This is still a crisis. But we’re on the brink of a catastrophe right now.
The help we offer matters. We have our instructions from the folks on the front lines. As my wife says, “We are the back-up singers.” Here’s the thing to remember for the rest of us: we don’t know better than the people doing the job. I hate that I can’t hold baby Brennan. Hate it. But my part now is not to decide that my situation overrules that of the people in real danger. My part now is to accept that my small suffering is part of how I can help those facing much worse.
*And, by the way, what a time to arrive in the world!