Covid 19 and the Sacred Hoop

We are entering a difficult, perhaps unimaginable, time. A pandemic holds us in throe. None of us will escape untouched. Many already are experiencing significant sacrifices and losses. Whether they are personal, familial or financial, they are real. 

The daily posted numbers of those who have contracted the virus, and of those who have died, are staggering, but the sum of global suffering cannot be captured by numbers. If we haven’t already felt its inflictions, we almost certainly shall – either in our person, or in our families, or within our extended networks of friends, colleagues and acquaintances.  

There is no escape from a pandemic. 

“Pandemic” is an apt description. The word derives from the Greek “pan-demos” - “all the people.” It matters little to the virus whether we are rich or poor, devout or blasphemous, young or old, straight, trans or gay. A pandemic is no respecter of persons. All are vulnerable.

We like to think that we are self-sufficient, but we are not. We like to think that we can build walls to protect our way of life, but we cannot. We like to think that we are responsible only for ourselves and that which is ours, but the opposite is true. No state or country is, or can be, independent of any other. 

This truth is fundamental, and it extends beyond the human family. It includes the interdependent web of life on this bright and lovely planet floating in the eternal cold. 

In 1968 the United States and the Soviet Union were engaged in a space race. In December of that tumultuous year, we sent a spacecraft, Apollo 8, to the moon. On board were three astronauts. They would become the first human beings to see the dark side of our lovely, lonely companion. 

On Christmas Eve, as they orbited what Shakespeare called the “lesser light”, they looked back to home, to Earth, nearly 239,000 behind them. What they saw surprised even them, and it was transforming. Astronaut Bill Anders yelled for a camera. When he got it, he quickly pointed it toward the Earth and began taking pictures. What did he see? He saw what all the world now knows as “Earthrise”.  

Later he said, “Our Earth was colorful, pretty, and delicate compared to the rough, rugged, beat-up, even boring lunar surface… Here we’d come 240,000 miles to see the moon, and it was the Earth that was really worth looking at.”i 

Frank Borman, the mission’s commander, spoke of “the torrent of nostalgia, of sheer homesickness” that he felt surge through him when he saw the Earth against the utter darkness of space. 

The poet, Archibald MacLeish, put it this way in the New York Times:  

"To see Earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence as it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the Earth together, brothers and sisters on that bright loveliness in that eternal cold."

Is it odd to reflect on this celestial image as we contemplate the insidious spread of the novel
Coronavirus? Perhaps it is. But both realities communicate to us -- one through beauty and one through horror -- that we are one human family on one lovely planet, Earth. 

They both confirm the truth articulated so beautifully by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr: humanity is but a large and scattered family that has inherited a single house. Now we must learn to live in it together.

In Wuhan, after so many years, you can hear birds singing. The sky is no longer dark with fumes. It is blue and grey and clear. In the streets of Assisi people sing across empty squares. They keep windows open so that those who are alone will hear the sounds of family and friends all around them. Gina Mayerii observed on Facebook that the canals of Venice have become crystal clear. Dolphins are swimming near the Italian coast again. Deer are roaming the streets of Japan now and, in Thailand, the same with monkeys. China is experiencing a record-breaking reduction in pollution. The Earth, says Ms. Mayer, is showing signs of amazing recovery in the absence of human pollution. This, she believes, is an opportunity to restart society on a greener, more environmentally sensitive basis. 

The governor of one of our hardest hit communities also gets it rightiii. Covid 19, he says, is going to be transformative -- on a personal basis, a social basis, and a systemic basis. He asks: When this is over, how will our experience of Covid 19 have changed us? What can we learn from this? How can we grow from this? While certainly we are going to face more pain, deprivation and sacrifice in the weeks ahead, how will we come out on the other side? Will we be bitter, fearful and angry? Or wiser, stronger, and more resilient?

Years ago, anthropologist Margaret Mead was asked what she considered the first sign of civilization. Her students expected her to talk about fishhooks, clay pots or grinding stones. But Mead said that the first sign of civilization in the ancient world was a femur that had been broken, then healed. 

In the animal kingdom, she explained, if you break your leg, you die. You can’t run from danger. You can’t get to the river for a drink. You can’t hunt for food. You are meat for other prowling beasts. Animals don’t survive long enough for a broken leg to heal. But a broken femur that has healed is proof that someone took time to stay with the person who fell, to bind up their wound, carry the person to safety and tend to them through recovery. ‘Helping someone through difficulty is where civilization begins,” she said.iv

There is a story about a rabbi instructing her students. As they walked along one day, the rabbi asked, "How can we know the hour of dawn — the time when night ends and day begins?" At first, no one ventured an answer. They continued to walk.

"Is it when you can look from some distance and distinguish between a wolf and a sheep?" a student finally suggested.

"No," the rabbi said. They continued to walk.

"Is it when there is enough light to tell the difference between a grapevine and a thorn bush?" said another.

"No," said the rabbi. 

There was a long silence.

"Please tell us the answer to your question. How is it possible to know the precise time when the dawn has broken?"

"The dawn comes for each of us," said the rabbi, "when we look into the face of another human being - even a stranger – and recognize that she is our sister, or he is our brother. Until then, it is night. Until then, night is still within us."v

As the North American Interfaith Network, we are guided by a dream. It was first given to a nine-year old Oglala First Nations child, a vision he remembered down his long life. His name was Heȟáka Sápa, better known to many as Black Elk, one of the most highly regarded visionaries of the peoples of the Americas. Here was his vision:

       “I was standing on the highest mountain of them all, and round about beneath me was the whole hoop of the world. While I stood there I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being. And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father. And I saw that it was holy.”vi

One hoop. One planet. One home. Holy.

This was his dream. May it be ours. May it be so. 
Gilbert "Budd" Friend-Jones
Vice-Chair, NAIN
i Chelsea Gohd, New Apollo 8 ‘Earthrise’ Documentary is a ‘Love Letter to the Earth’, Space.Com. September 7, 2018.
ii Facebook post.
iii Andrew Cuomo. Press Conference, April 2, 2020. 
iv Remy Blumenfeld, How a 15,000-Year-Old Bone Could Help You Through the Coronacrisis, Forbes.Com, March 21, 2020. 
v A popular Hasidic story told with many variations.
vi John G. Neihardt and Ben Black Elk, Black Elk Speaks, The Great Vision, 1932, p. 36.
© Gilbert Friend-Jones, North American Interfaith Network
Copyright © 2020 North American Interfaith Network, All rights reserved.

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