Holy Saturday

I last wrote on this blog nearly four years ago. That time – early fall of 2016 – was poignant for a few reasons, but especially because of big changes to the American political landscape that were about to occur. Back then, I thought maybe I was beginning a new series of essays that would appear in the ensuing months and years. It did not happen, however, partly because of some very confusing things that occurred in my personal and professional life, as well as the public sphere. I’m hoping this will be the new beginning I was thinking about in that less complex and troubled time.

As the name of this piece implies, I began writing it on the day between Good Friday and Easter this year, which happened also to be my birthday. It is perhaps easy to take too seriously the convergence of such occasions, but please understand that, considering the way Easter bounces around each year, this kind of thing does not happen all that often for me. I can remember over the years my birthday falling on both Good Friday and Easter, as well as Palm Sunday, but this is the only time I can recall it falling on that mysterious day in the middle.

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Good Friday 2020. As William Faulkner would say, “The day dawned bleak and chill.”

The day is also known variously as Black Saturday, the Saturday of Light, and other iterations falling within that range, depending on the religious tradition being consulted. This suggests considerable confusion about what the day falling betwixt the darkest and brightest days of the Christian calendar could possibly represent from a spiritual point of view. I struggled with the confusion that entire day, and into the next, realizing that experiencing the tug-of-war between doom and destiny is certainly a part of what Holy Week is intended to evoke.

But what a year for this to happen!  I, like most others, am now “stuck” at home and left to ponder the meaning of life with an intensity that quite honestly had not occurred to me since those fateful fall days four years ago. The current and unanticipated pandemic is causing all of us to think about ultimate questions in a way we did not anticipate just a few short months ago. For me in my professional work, this also leads to thinking more deeply about agriculture, food systems and our need to sustain life on Earth without simultaneously threatening the quality of life, though I’m rather certain these ends can only be achieved simultaneously.

To that end, I have noticed some very distinct trends emerging as the COVID-19 pandemic experience is playing out that have a bearing on quality of life issues. There are several that could be mentioned, but these three are particularly interesting to me:

  1. Food supply chains are being disrupted in predictable though seemingly contradictory ways. In some cases, while some farm products are being dumped, buried or applied back onto fields, grocery store shelves sit empty and lines at foodbanks are longer than ever seen.
  2. Underlying medical conditions are emerging in reports from around the world as the most reliable predictor of how patients who are stricken with the new coronavirus will fare. I’ve seen estimates as high as 80% of related deaths being associated with various iterations of metabolic syndrome lurking in the background.
  3. Racial and ethnic disparities are represented in the disease and death rates well beyond what is warranted by their relative populations. Disturbingly, this is as true now as it was in the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, and in other socioeconomic circumstances since, suggesting that we’ve made little progress in this regard over the past century.

{Note: The links contained in the bullets above provide only examples, not the exhaustive data that is available in each case.}

The apparent inter-relatedness of these observations is a compelling argument that what we have here is a systemic problem. It’s instructive to note that most any kind of major disruption, whether medically centered or not, would likely show similar patterns.  When you look at all three of these trends together, it’s in fact hard not to conclude that we are in big trouble, though not primarily because of this new virus. There’s an old saying that “when the water is running low, you can see where the rocks are.” Point being, those structural hazards persist even when you can’t see them.

My post from four years ago ended on a note of optimism, but it’s much harder to be optimistic now.  It’s not as though solutions don’t exist. I have written before that we live at an awkward point in history where we know far more about what steps can and should be taken to fix our biggest problems, than we do about mustering the courage to enact them. Looking ahead, I think there are at least four critical success factors that must hold sway if we are to move ahead with confidence and reasonable hopefulness, as follows:

  • Communication – Transparency is the key here, and nothing that borders on marketing will do. Our trust in institutions has been badly damaged in recent years, whereas clear, consistent and totally forthcoming communication is what we really need to insist on from all our leaders.
  • Collaboration – It’s time to realize that, even when friendly competition is seen as a boon to progress, it will be the ways in which we work together, across all artificially constructed barriers within our minds, that ultimately will make the difference between thriving and mere survival.
  • Innovation – Scientific advancement and new technologies are indeed necessary right now, but not all impactful innovation occurs in a laboratory. New ways of thinking about things may be the most critically important innovation, and for that we need the arts and humanities, as well as the benefit of wisdom from diverse sources, including from ancient times.
  • Transformation – This is a scary word for some, but one we will need to embrace to forge a constructive path forward. Whether you’re more comfortable with the concept of creation or evolution, we need some of that mojo right now. Transformational thinking is the new sustainability.

We do indeed live in a time of transition. Our situation as a society is much like mine on my Holy Saturday birthday, emerging from darkness and trying desperately to move toward the light. There is no guarantee of success, and we don’t even know what “success” will look like right now, except that it would be, as we used to hear on Monty Python’s Flying Circus, something completely different. This is just as true for each of us individually. Our personal ability to claw through sometimes overwhelming and internally hidden barriers of darkness and stagnation may be the necessary precursor to positive change on a grander scale.

Tomorrow cannot be a repeat of yesterday, in very realistic, fundamental and profound ways, because yesterday – at least our most recent version of it – is nowhere near what we are capable of achieving, nor what we must aspire to if life as we know it on this planet is to be considered worthwhile.

7 thoughts on “Holy Saturday

  1. I’m hopeful (though perhaps not yet optimistic) we – people, communities, the environment, our food system – will emerge on the other side with some lasting silver linings to this crisis. Wishing you all the best, Brian!

  2. Glad to see that you’re back … now that I’m “retired” (at least part time), I’ll really be looking forward to more of your insightful writing.

  3. Welcome back and Happy Birthday. All valid points. For too long society has emphasized competition at the expense of cooperation. In days past the country pulled together to survive. We need that same spirit of compassion and one-ness now more than ever.

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