On a morning when I awoke to find that my country was on the verge of closing its final international border to unnecessary travel, I couldn’t help but find the opening words of the Psalm portion a little jarring: “He strengthens the bars of your gates.” (Ps 147.13). Indeed.

Never in living memory have we given so much attention to borders and, really, boundaries of all kinds: what we’re allowing into our country, who we’re allowing into our homes, placing limits on our in-person interactions, closing doors to restaurants, washing our hands, and trying (most of us unsuccessfully) to stop touching our faces. These are all about boundaries. What we’re letting in. What we’re keeping out.

But we know that microbes aren’t the only things that we can pass on from one another. We also spread our ideas, beliefs, neuroses, and feelings. Social scientists refer to these as social contagions. The most famous of these is the so-called scapegoat mechanism, which I’ve written about before in light of its impact on the life of Jesus. But more generally, fear and anxiety are two of the most contagious of these emotional pathogens. They spread so quickly and are no less dangerous, as they can lead to all kinds of counter-productive and damaging expressions at times like this: already — and these are still early days — we’ve seen panic, hoarding, false-bravado, suspicion of neighbours, and, yes, even scapegoating.

And so, we need to be careful of just not what we’re exposing our bodies to, but what we’re exposing our hearts and minds to too. It’s important to stay informed, particularly in a rapidly changing situation, but does it serve us to be constantly refreshing our news feeds? It’s okay — it’s even needful — to step away and give our minds and hearts a break. Likewise, we are in a time when we must keep our physical distance from friends and family, but we have never had so many tools for connecting to others remotely. It’s good and necessary to keep reaching out, to stay connected as much as possible.

Just was we need to be careful about what we’re letting in, we have to be careful about what we’re letting out of our minds minds and hearts too. What is, so to speak, the emotional version of coughing into your elbow?

I think this is well worth thinking about, and I encourage you to do so. But one thing that comes to mind for me is to think about how you process your feelings; and just as importantly, think about how the people with whom you are sharing them process theirs: Some people find it helpful to keep on talking through their thoughts and feelings as a way of managing their anxiety; but for others this constant rumination is a ruinous temptation that leads them into anxiety. Know your friends. If they need a break, give it to them. Let them change the subject. Don’t insist and persist in having a conversation that disrupts their hard-fought emotional balance.

The point in all this is that even in — especially in — our isolation, we are in this together. As John Donne famously said while himself sick from an epidemic illness and in quarantine,

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; … any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” (Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation XVII)

Anyone’s death — anyone’s sickness, anyone’s sorrow, anyone’s distress — diminishes us all. We’re in this together. We owe it to ourselves and each other to be kind and gracious.

And, whether physically or emotionally, cough into your elbow.

One thought on “Contagion

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