How COVID-19 Threatens Our Hope

What I mainly want to do with this blog is to talk about hope in the church, especially after decades of numerical decline, and about how we share our hope with the world. But now that I’ve laid out the basic building blocks, I feel a sense of urgency to talk about how a similar pattern is playing out with the whole world in the pandemic.

To recap, basic hope is made up of agency, the power we have (or not) to achieve a goal, and pathways, our knowledge (or not) of how to do it. If those things are in place, we have hope. Sometimes hope is lopsided: for instance, I know how to do something but don’t feel that I can (high pathways/low agency). We find a more profound sense of hope, though, when we seek agency and pathway from beyond ourselves, such as from God. I call them “practical hope” and “ultimate hope.” What’s more, part of how adults learn is by forming habits of expectation— we come to expect patterns to continue. But if we just let that expectation form without thinking about it, it’s seldom a good habit that forms.

My Three Daily COVID Briefings

Every day I read three news briefings on the pandemic. In the first weeks back in March, I read much, much more than that, and it was driving me crazy, so I limited myself. (If you’re curious, they’re from the New York Times, COVID Act Now, a consortium of universities, and the daily numbers update my local newspaper, the Lincoln Journal Star.) I believe quite strongly that it is essential to keep up to date with the latest. Plus, I feel it’s vital to my work as a pastor both to help lead decision making and to communicate with church members.

What I’ve noticed is that I really hate opening the emails that contain those briefings. I do not believe that it is too strong of a word to say that I dread opening them. Part of it, I suppose, is that they’re all evening briefings, and I’m already tired from the day. But I think the more significant factor is that there is bad news every single day, probably without fail. Often, it's so overwhelmingly bad that we can’t comprehend the scope of what’s going on. It's true that there is finally some good news mixed in, like progress on the long road to vaccines, but it's almost darkly comedic how often a good news vaccine headline is followed by something like a new death record that's been broken. At least for now, the only serves as what a psychologist might call intermittent reinforcement, which is far more potent than if 100% of the news were bad.

Eventually, the light bulb went off over my head: I’ve formed a bad habit of expectation. Because the pattern is that the pandemic has been getting worse nearly every day for eight months (longer if you were following it in China), my brain has come to expect more of the same in every evening briefing email. I know that when I open them, which I must do, I will be forced to reckon with a higher number of deaths, increasing signs of more to come, and an even more profound sense of emotional and mental exhaustion.

Maybe it’s not “dread” I feel so much as “bracing for impact.” (Ok, so that’s basically the definition of “dread.” I’m a big Star Trek fan, though, so saying “brace for impact” at least offers a tiny bit of escape from reality. Not really.)

The Long Term Effect On Hope

What effect do our bad habits of expectation have on our hope? As you might expect, it’s not good. At first, back in March, there was a sense of practical hope, which is to say agency and pathways: we can shut down the economy, and while the cost is great, it will slow the spread. And it did slow the spread! It bought time for researches to develop a vaccine.

But with pandemic fatigue, governmental inaction (at least at the federal level), and continually increasing cases, it starts to seem as if our personal efforts are minimal, a bucket brigade against a tsunami. For me, I see the pathway of mask mandates and further shutdowns, but I have no agency to make them happen. I have the power— the agency— to wear a mask myself, but I don’t have the ability to get others to wear theirs.

After a while, slowly, drop by drop, our practical hope erodes as we watch things get worse and worse, with too little we can do about it. If we are people of faith, then ideally, we hang on to our ultimate hope, our certainty that God will see us through this and bring good from it. But if this keeps up much longer, or if the winter is as bad as is feared, then even our ultimate hope may face ever-increasing doubt.

Keeping the Hope

So what do we do about it? How do we keep our hope even in trying times?

First, remember that our hope is eroded by bad habits of expectation. If you read my post on the topic, then you know that it’s about “uncritically examined” habits of expectation, or in plain language, it’s worst when we let the daily news shape us without thinking about it or even naming the fact. Having named it, we now have new agency to say, “Yeah, I’m expecting bad news because of where we are in the arc of this story— but I also remember it’s an arc that comes out on the other side.”

Second, hang on to your ultimate hope! My categories of practical and ultimate hope help us talk about these things, but the end truth is that hope is hope. If your so-called ultimate hope is strong, then it cannot help but spill over into your practical hope— or, more simply said, if you believe that God is building a “new heaven and a new earth” in our midst, then eventually you also expect to see it going on even on the darkest of days.

These are not easy times. But God is still God! It’s worth guarding our sense of hope not only so we don’t lose hope ourselves but also so we can be a source of hope for those around us. In times like these, we ALL need it!

So does this resonate with you? How have your news reading habits affected your sense of hope?