Anxiety is creeping into the hearts of Americans. In a recent conversation I had with a member of my congregation about going out to a restaurant, having recently received her second vaccine, she commented, “I feel like I am becoming agoraphobic.” She lamented that as she was standing outside the front of her house and a UPS driver leaned out of his truck to wave hello and she jumped back in horror. “I never would have done that before Covid,” she said. She recognized that she is becoming increasingly anxious about returning to life and doing something as simple and common as going out to a restaurant. What can she do, she asked me, now that the plague seems to be subsiding, at least to some degree?
One of the side effects of Covid is this new phenomena that I can only call “Covid re-entry anxiety.” Can we go out with other people and be unmasked if everyone is vaccinated? Can we socialize at a restaurant, go on a plane, take a vacation and truly relax if we are with other people? I am one always to trust the medical professionals, but I am seeing tremendous confusion, conflicting messages and an ever-growing fear about what life is going to look like when we leave our “bunker”-like homes.
In truth, I think that it might be more difficult to re-enter society following the pandemic than it was to isolate ourselves from it. Looking at the Five books of Moses, there is a subtle but profound difference between the books of Exodus and Numbers. Both essentially tell the same story; that of the people of Israel journeying in the wilderness on their way to the promised land. But they differ in tone. Exodus is decidedly more hopeful than the book of Numbers. In Exodus the people are leaving Egypt; it is full of promise, covenants, a few back slidings (the story of the golden calf) but mostly that of future imaginings.
Numbers, on the other hand, is so much darker. There is the Korach’s rebellion, the people constantly complaining about their lack of food and water, Miriam’s criticism of Moses’ choices, the sin of the spies who didn’t believe in either themselves or God’s promise and the apostacy at Ba’al Peor.
Change is always difficult; leaving a place can often be less stressful than arriving at a new one. As the people of Israel left Egypt they believed in a brighter future. But as they got closer to the reality of settling the land, and all the work entailed, they were overcome with fear and self-doubt.
When we physically leave a place , even if it includes packing and planning, there is usually a tone of hope and expectation. Arriving, on the other hand, is so much more difficult, for it is here that we confront harsh realities, fear and insecurity. We often know what we are leaving but are filled with doubt and uncertainty when we are arriving. The same applies to our response to Covid.
As hard as it was to isolate, I think it can be harder to reenter. What are the new norms? How can we protect ourselves and our neighbors? When will it truly be safe to travel by air, go to a hotel or a restaurant? When will our sanctuaries be full?
We must, following the death of over 500,000 Americans, mourn our loss but then “put one foot in front of the other.” We must focus on the tasks in front of us. We might see going out for dinner or speaking to another person in the grocery store as a common, or meaningless act, but in light of the past year, it is a holy act. It is a courageous act. It propels us out of the pain of yesterday, empowering us to normalize our lives again.
We must get out, live our lives and embrace our time with one another. Keeping safety at the forefront, let us not be paralyzed by our fears; rather let us go forth, and re-enter social life which gives us joy.
One in a series of columns submitted by members of the Wissahickon Faith Community Association.