People maintain physical social distancing as they attend Mass for the first time in two months at a church in Madrid May 18. CNS photo/Sergio Perez, Reuters

Cathy Majtenyi: ‘New normal’ means addressing our fears

By 
  • May 30, 2020

We’re entering uncharted territory on our COVID-19 journey. As jurisdictions across the country roll out plans to ease pandemic restrictions, never will our faith be more needed, or tested, than in the months to come.

It’s going to be a tough battle. From mid-March, we’ve been operating under states of emergency, tuning into briefings outlining scary statistics and following instructions that drastically changed our behaviours so as to flatten the curve, actions that appear to have worked.

History will judge whether or not these measures were ultimately the right approach, both in the short term and for long-term consequences. For the immediate future, the focus should be on getting back to normal or, more accurately, a “new normal.”

It’s going to take time. A 2009 study found that it takes an average of 66 days for a new habit to be formed, although it can range from 18 to 254 days depending on the person.

We’ve formed many new habits in the past 70 or so days: staying at home, avoiding contact with the elderly and vulnerable, keeping a six-foot physical distance from others, sanitizing frequently.

In the “new normal,” these measures will likely continue for a while. The important thing is to shift our mindset from operating out of a reactive “pandemic” mode into one where we become aware of the thoughts behind the behaviours that may, by now, have become habits.

It’s all about the “renewal of the mind” as spelled out in Romans 12:2.

Not surprisingly, topping the list is fear. This virus, and all the publicity surrounding it, has understandably injected much panic, anxiety and other negativity into most peoples’ lives.

Pope Francis has repeatedly urged Catholics, and humankind in general, not to “yield to fear.” His Easter vigil homily referring to the biblical account of the women finding Jesus’ tomb empty was particularly powerful: “Then, too, there was fear about the future and all that would need to be rebuilt. A painful memory, a hope cut short. For them, as for us, it was the darkest hour.”

We need to be “messengers of life in a time of death,” he said.

To do that, we need to confront and successfully manage our fears. There are numerous passages in the Bible regarding God’s love, steadfastness and providence, persisting to the end, and other encouragements to move forward in faith and love in fearful times.

It’s essential that we turn to God with our fears. During the pandemic, the phrase “social distancing” — a grave misnomer, considering that the concept is actually referring to “physical distancing” — has infiltrated deep into our subconscious.

Indeed, 57 per cent of Canadians surveyed — 64 per cent in Ontario — reported feeling anxious and stressed when they leave their homes to go out in public, according to a survey released May 12 by the polling firm Leger and the Association for Canadian Studies.

Acting on fears of being physically present among strangers, or even family and friends, may cause us to turn inward and, if we’re not careful, become increasingly self-focused, the very antithesis of the Christian call to love and care for one another.

Fear frequently turns into anger, causing us to say and do things that clearly go against God’s word.

Turning our anger towards others has resulted in a number of disturbing incidents of racism against Chinese Canadians. In one particularly horrendous case, the CBC reported that a man who mistook a young Indigenous woman as being Asian punched her in the face and told her to “go back to Asia” when she sneezed in public due to her allergies.

We may be judging and criticizing people for taking — or not taking — the virus too seriously. We may snap at people in the grocery store who we think are standing too close to us. Those who advocate a speedy “back to business” timeline are pitted against those calling for a slow “human health first” approach, potentially causing deep divisions in society.

As in the case of fear, the Bible has much to teach us about anger.

In the coming months, we can look to Pope Francis’ Vatican COVID-19 Commission as a roadmap on how to move forward. The commission has five working groups focusing on: acting now for the future, looking to the future with creativity, communicating hope, seeking common dialogue and reflections, and supporting to care.

This could become our personal or parish guide on the renewal of our minds as we create, and navigate, our “new normal” world.

(Majtenyi is a public relations officer who specializes in research communications at an Ontario university.)

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