When we moved into a new convent 30 years ago, our furniture resources were minimal; in fact, they were pathetic. Still, with some handouts from friends who were moving or redecorating, we were able to gather a motley arrangement of the basics. However, we did have to buy some bookcases.
In the process of looking for the best deal, we came to learn one of the scariest phrases in furniture shopping- “Assembly Required.” Failing to comprehend the challenge of these words, we found ourselves sitting around looking a bit like this guy:
It wasn’t pretty but it was definitely educational. Commandeering our various individual talents, and applying them together at exactly the right moment, brought surprising success. One held the right panel steady, one the left. Someone glued the fasteners just when needed, while another secured them to the stabilizing back panel. Then we held our breath and tiptoed around the result for the rest of the afternoon.
Besides getting some decent bookcases out of the exercise, we were reminded of a truth we hear frequently in these coronavirus days: All of us are in this together.
“These times,” as we have come to refer to them, offer us the opportunity for so many learnings. One critical one for me rests in that phrase “All of us.” Yes, “all of us”—just who are we?
I think we’re pretty accustomed to the “us” part. We learned it as kids. We’ve practiced it a lot, as in “us versus them.” “Us” is often people on my team, who look like me, who live near me, whose names I know. “Them” is usually the other guys who are competing with me, who look different from me, who might scare me, whose names I can’t pronounce.
Perceptions like this neutralize the meaning and the power of the words “all of us.”
But life keeps trying to teach us to balance our “us” with “all.” The current crisis is a massive learning opportunity. But it isn’t our first. Other global plagues have challenged us to look beyond our manufactured boundaries to understand our fundamental unity. These have included the ravages of war, climate devastation and the societal fragmentation of realities such as racism, imperialism, nationalism and consumerism.
However, the urgency of some of these crises has been lost on some of those not directly impacted by them. Presumed immunity can lead to an ignorant indifference.
Perhaps the hidden blessing of the current global outbreak is that we remain indifferent at our own personal peril and the peril of those to whom we are closest. Breaking through that indifference may lead us to the realization that there is no one on Earth to whom we are not close. What happens to “all” happens to “us.”
Just five years ago, Pope Francis, in his encyclical, Laudato Sí, reminded us of our fundamental unity as sisters and brothers. Quoting the Patriarch Bartholomew, leader of Orthodox Christians, Pope Francis wrote:
As Christians, we are also called “to accept the world as a sacrament of communion, as a way of sharing with God and our neighbors on a global scale. It is our humble conviction that the divine and the human meet in the slightest detail in the seamless garment of God’s creation, in the last speck of dust of our planet.”
I believe this may be the most profound challenge of our current situation. At the end of the physical, psychological, economic and political trauma, we ALL will walk away as changed people. But will we walk away together? Will we remember that the first COVID-19 death in China was one of us? That the Italian nurse who died serving was one of us? That an American in a vaccine trial is one of us? That the nameless immigrant or refugee who died from lack of access was one of us?
God has given us a world marked with the words “Assembly Required.” We are participants with God in the ongoing creation of the Divine Masterpiece. After “these times,” will we commit to build the world that God desires—a world where no one is “them”?
After the brutal discipline of the coronavirus, may we have learned a lesson long resisted: as we work with God for the fullness of life and Creation, let us never again use the word “us” without truly meaning “all of us.”