My dad has a small frame on his desk at work that says simply “It’s not about you.” I have never asked him the story behind this frame, but I imagine that it could have been a gift or a Spirit-led purchase or just one of many random things that has accumulated over the years. Regardless of how it ended up on his desk, there is a lot of wisdom in its words. From the time of Moses to the present day, our clear direction as people of faith is to love God and love our neighbor. In Jesus we have the ultimate example of selfless love – dying for God’s enemies to make them His friends. Living a selfless life rather than a selfish life is our calling.
Selfless living is hard. We fight biological tendencies, human instincts, and temptations. Physically we’re wired to survive, and that means making sure we have enough to eat, sufficient rest, water to drink, and a whole host of other basic needs. To ensure we meet our physical needs, our instincts keep us thinking about ourselves. We try to make sure that we get what we need and what we want. These tendencies at their core are good, but they can easily be twisted against us to tempt us into selfish living.
This temptation is real and is always around us. In March, as COVID concern was blitzing across the nation, there was a run on grocery stores. Shoppers filled their carts well beyond their normal levels, leaving meat coolers empty, canned food shelves sparse, and gaping holes where toilet paper should have been. Fear preyed upon our instincts and told us to fill our homes with food and supplies before we couldn’t get them anymore. I would suspect that we were all pulled into this frenzy to some degree. Though we tried not to, Meghann and I certainly were sucked in a little. Pre-COVID, we typically got a larger batch of groceries every 2-3 weeks with a couple of smaller batches in between as needed. In the middle of March, we were nearing the end of that 2-3 week cycle and legitimately needed to restock our pantry and freezer. However, with the uncertainty and feeling of scarcity swirling around us, it was impossible to avoid buying both some extras of our normal items and some unusual-to-us things. Did we really need that extra jar of peanut butter or that box of frozen fish sticks in a house where my son is allergic to both? With toilet paper in extremely short supply in stores nationwide, was it the right thing to buy that package of scratchy, off-brand toilet paper for the time when we would run out of our regular kind at home, which could be as long as 6 weeks from now? Should I have really grabbed 4 cans of peaches instead of the 2 we usually would buy? Do we really need 24 bottles of water when we have more than ample reusable ones at home to fill with our reverse-osmosis system? Both chocolate and vanilla pudding in the cart when we rarely buy either? It wasn’t that we set out to clear the grocery store shelves or to stock our house floor-to-ceiling with supplies; in fact, we tried to avoid being “those people” who were clearing store shelves. All we wanted to do was to make sure we had enough for our family. Yet, like most everyone else, we contributed in some way to legitimate shortages in the stores with our purchases.
It’s easy to start to think defensive thoughts to rationalize our choices, like “well, we didn’t buy 20 packages of toilet paper like those people they showed in the news.” After all, we only bought a little more than we normally would buy that week, right? If we’re not careful, though, this kind of thinking can be a dangerous temptation to relativism. Regardless of the scale of our fear-induced acquisitions, buying more of a limited thing means there is less available for others. The scratchy toilet paper that I bought in mid-March still sits unopened in our house right now, as we have been able to buy the soft kind we all like since sometime in April. My purchase of that toilet paper that day, seemingly lucky at the time given that they were stocking only a few new packages on the shelf when I went by, could have prevented some other family who legitimately had none at home from finding any. Did that family have to drive miles to try another grocery store? Did they have to spend excessive amounts of their meager income to pay inflated prices from a price-gouging individual? Did they have to take health or safety risks using a bathroom in a public place, or did they sneak an extra roll home from their employer? I certainly hope that none of these scenarios happened. Yet, these seemingly basic, almost reactionary, decisions can have implications that we cannot see. Was my toilet paper purchase a selfish decision? I don’t know.
The COVID pandemic is showing us that the struggle against selfishness isn’t just a matter of the comfort of our toilet paper or the availability of our favorite foods. Our decisions, even when they seem small, matter in a big way. The choices we make on a daily basis are not just about ourselves.
While all incurable and potentially dangerous infections are challenging, COVID is especially hard for a number reasons. It’s possible to be infected and not know it, and you can spread the virus for at least a couple of days before you feel sick. You can be infected for as much as two weeks before you show symptoms, or you can be sick and have no symptoms at all. It’s highly contagious and is easily spread through ordinary actions like breathing, talking, and singing. The severity of the disease varies wildly, and whether it will be a major illness or a minor inconvenience for any one person can seem a bit like a game of roulette. COVID can kill as easily as it can be a nuisance.
These factors stack up in a vicious, and arguably evil, way. When you interact with anyone, you are interacting not only with that person but everybody that they have interacted with for the past couple of weeks.
Let’s imagine a hypothetical but realistic scenario. You spend a Saturday visiting with a family member whom you trust greatly and is being careful to avoid risky situations. The family member is not too “out and about” and is only going to essential places like work, other than visiting you. Sitting next to that trusted family member at work the whole week before today, though, was an office mate who had just been to a night out with a small group of friends in a restaurant celebrating a birthday. Though everyone in the office mate’s group of friends has been careful to avoid crowds, the group of people at the next table, who the office mate does not even know, has not. The people in this group aren’t openly questioning whether COVID is a real threat or outright rejecting distancing and mask wearing, but they all believe that since they are young adults who are otherwise healthy and not “high risk” that they don’t really need to be too concerned. One of the people in this group that night in the restaurant is unknowingly infected and very contagious. As he talks and laughs over a plate of tacos, he shares the virus not just with his friends at the table but also with the tables nearby, including the group celebrating the birthday party. Over the next couple of days, all who attended the birthday party begin to spread the germs in their own circles of interactions, including the office mate. Within a few days, all of the office mate’s workplace neighbors, including your trusted family member, are passing it around too. So on this Saturday, your family member, who isn’t going anywhere but work, is passing COVID to you.
The thing about COVID is that ordinary, daily activities, even with the best of intentions, spread the virus everywhere. Our normal activities and interactions create a complex chain of interactions that is much bigger than any one of the individuals in it. COVID amplifies our selfish decisions. The choices of any single individual – such as the otherwise healthy and unconcerned person unknowingly spreading the disease in a restaurant – affects a world that is much, much bigger than himself.
What if the “you” in that story has a weakened immune system because they just finished chemotherapy for cancer? Maybe “you” recently survived a heart attack or have asthma or are overweight or have some other health issue that you don’t know about yet, any of which could make it really hard to fight off a COVID infection. In the story, the person unknowingly carrying COVID in the restaurant didn’t intend to make anyone sick. It was just a night out for tacos with friends. If he would have known he was sick, he would have stayed home. Yet, you both now have become connected in this twisted way, even though you don’t know each other. The complex chain of interactions transmit our choices with far-reaching effects regardless of the best of intentions. It’s not just the sick guy in the restaurant. The co-worker who went to the same restaurant and later shared the virus in the office didn’t want to make anyone sick either. The family member who picked it up at work was trying really hard to protect you and was staying home other than essential trips to work. In spite of these efforts, the chain of connectedness that is our world still enabled the infection to pass far beyond the guy in the restaurant who made selfish choices, ultimately getting to you, a person who might now spend weeks in the hospital.
The simple, hard truth of the COVID pandemic is that it’s not about you. It’s not about your self-determined risk level or your desire to get out of the house or your life milestone you want to celebrate or your desire to hug that friend or your wanting that treat you think you deserve or your needing that vacation. COVID doesn’t care. Every single decision that you make is bigger than you. Every time you leave your home, what you do matters. We human beings are much bigger and smarter than COVID. Yet, our inability to look farther than our own noses continues to enable COVID to thrive. Our weakness to the temptation of self-focus blinds us to the far-reaching implications of what we do.
There is an alternative to selfishness. It is the lifestyle that Christians are called to. Love One Another. Love Your Neighbor. It’s not always easy, but it’s the right thing to do. In the time of COVID, loving those around us means remembering that your actions affect more than just you. They affect people you don’t even know and will never meet. It’s not about politics or self-interest or economics or any of that. At the end of the day, it’s about living how God wants us to live. So when you are debating about whether you really need to wear that mask or whether it’s ok to host that big group event or whether you should even worry about this pandemic anymore, try to leave a little space for the Holy Spirit. That quiet whisper can point us in the right direction and save us from our selfish selves. When you’re worn out, exhausted, and struggling to hold up against the selfish temptation to skip the mask and go to the big party, leave some space for the Spirit there too. The Holy Spirit of God knows it’s not about us. This Spirit will help us Love One Another.
Come, Holy Spirit.
Fill the hearts of Your faithful,
and kindle in them the fire of Your love.
Living in the time of the pandemic is hard for all of us. We are all faced with seemingly small yet very important daily decisions. When we do, let’s do our best to remember those simple words that guide us toward how God wants us to love:
It’s not about you.