Am I My Brother’s Keeper?

Blogger’s Note: This was meant as a parish bulletin column for next weekend, but it seems appropriate to post it now.

As coronavirus news reached a fever pitch this past week, a friend shared the reality of the threat for his wife, whose immune system is compromised. While he would never suggest that everyone change their behaviors to accommodate the needs of him and his wife, he urged people to understand that just because you might weather the virus with no lasting effect doesn’t mean your neighbor would.

Our world is flush with information; society is rampant with anxiety on the best of days; and we don’t like facing mortality or being blamed if we fail to act. All these things make us ripe for the Enemy’s picking. Who is the deceiver, the accuser, the divider? Who benefits from the disintegration caused by sickness and fear, quarantine and “social distancing”?

On the other hand, who inspired Cain’s infamous question (Genesis 4:9), “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Our thoughts, words and actions either contribute to the spread of this virus and the fear associated with it, or they diminish it. They either divide, or they unite.

Jodi and I went out to dinner a few days ago, then stopped to pick up a few groceries. As reported everywhere, Walmart was out of toilet paper. On the way home, we stopped at Coborn’s and got two packs, one for us and one for a friend who asked. We didn’t purchase extra…but at home, we discovered that we had an unopened pack in our cupboard.  Why were we so sure we needed it? No doubt we were swept up in the reactionary rush of it all—and unconsciously contributed to the problem.

So what can we do? We can slow down and become stewards of our thoughts, words and actions. We should take time to examine what is causing anxiety, anger or fear in us, asking for the light of the Holy Spirit to see our thoughts and emotions clearly and deal with them prudently. We should be mindful of our words, understanding that, in our zeal to reassure our brothers and sisters that the world is not ending and God has things well in hand, we further isolate those individuals for whom the threat of this illness is real and serious.

And we should consider our actions—not only their direct effects, but their appearance to others. My older daughter came home from her work in a local bakery the other day and said she realized, while rearranging the pastries, that her actions and appearance matter to people who are on edge about this virus. “Even though I’m healthy and not that concerned about it myself, I know that what I’m doing affects them,” she said. “I can try to help by not spreading my germs in case I am somehow sick and by not doing things that make them wonder.”

I’m proud of her. Whether it’s leaving that last bag of rice on the shelf for someone who really (even if only psychologically) needs it or receiving Communion on the hand instead of on the tongue for the peace of mind of the minister or the person next in line, these little sacrifices that matter.

God’s answer to Cain’s rhetorical question was yes. It’s not about me. It’s not about you. It is, as always, about them.

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