The Virus and My Apocalyptic Son
May 4, 2020
Our five-year old son will soon graduate from the pre-school that he has attended since he was two. Like most graduations in 2020, the ceremony isn’t going to be what was expected by his parents, who were anticipating a tearful rite of passage towards his next grand step of kindergarten. Instead, it will be remote, diminished, just like his class hours that went from six hours a day of embodied romping about with art, music and experiments, to one hour Zooming in the corner of our living room, with classmates reduced to pixilated squares, each less accustomed to being muted than the next.
We are clear with him about why this is happening. ‘The Virus’ is the explanation for why most things are not what they were. The virus is why he can’t go to school, why he no longer is learning to swim, no longer playing with his beloved friends or clambering about on a playground. The virus is why he wears his tiny mask with a pirate over his mouth when we go on our short walks outside and veer away from people everywhere. The virus is present, close to home, all around, transforming Walter’s home in Chelsea into a neighborhood without neighbors.
For three weeks, during what felt like the height of danger and death in NYC, Walter and his younger brother, Glenn, never went outside. Instead, they looked through the windows at the buildings of New York City – shouting, clapping and banging on drums at 7 p.m. every night for healthcare workers and for all of us. A few weeks back, the teachers at his school asked the students to take a picture from their favorite window where they were sheltering in place. Walter picked the one in our living room and insisted that the photo be taken at dusk when the setting sun reflected orange and red on the concrete and glass buildings of Chelsea.
Students were asked to write a story about the view out the window. Walter’s story was titled ‘The Crazy Story’ and it started with these lines:
“Once upon a time, there was a city full of buildings. One day, the sun was not rising up.”
And the story continued its strange theme,
“Then something worse was happening. All the buildings were wobbly. Crashing into each other. They used the magic wand again. Then something really bad happened. Everyone was falling off the buildings, the humans were switching buildings. So the humans put a magic rainbow. Every building was having little cracks, so then every day they glued them back. And it turns out the whole earth was upside down.”
I should mention here that Walter found the story he had written as very funny, not at all dire, but rather fantastical and like most fantastical stories as true as any fact you might tell him. I, however, was struck by the theme that the city he lives in is falling down, falling apart – where the whole world is upside down. Perhaps it is the minister in me, but I read my young son’s story as apocalyptic literature with resonances from the Book of Revelation with its great imagery of radical transformation and realignment of the world.
A few years ago, I interviewed the great religion scholar, Elaine Pagels, who had just published her book: Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation and I asked her about the positive spiritual lesson that we can learn from the Book of Revelation. She responded:
“I felt it was worthwhile to see how religion appeals to us. How John wraps up all our fears into a gigantic nightmare — everything you could be afraid of playing out in this terrifying drama — but you don’t see it end in tragedy. It is not like Shakespeare where you have bodies all over the stage; but, actually, it ends in a vision of new hope and justice and a new world. So, for me, it is a sense of how much we need hope when we live in a world with so many dangers.”
Then last week I shared ‘The Crazy Story’ with her and asked her how she was now thinking about the Book of Revelation in this time. She wrote me:
“Living in the shadow of the coronavirus, as we all are, I said to friend, an Israeli psychologist, ‘surely this demonstrates–with perfect clarity–how interconnected we all are–not only all humans, but all species–and how we need to cooperate. He replied, ‘Some people conclude the exact opposite: now they have to scramble harder than ever to get whatever they can, take advantage, make sure they’re on top and not on the bottom.’
After writing about the Book of Revelation for several years, intrigued that this 2,000-year-old book still galvanizes such intense reactions, I came to see that apocalyptic thinking has shaped our cultural responses to crisis–to envision such opposite–and extreme–outcomes. Apocalyptic thinking also teaches us to interpret conflict in terms of good vs. evil, heaven or eternal hell fires. What we need now, instead, is to pay attention to what’s actually going on, so that we can make choices that lead to the outcomes we hope to see.”
Almost as if he was responding to Prof. Pagels, yesterday, Walter wrote a story for his school’s yearbook called, ‘The Beautiful Rainbow.‘ While there are similar themes to ‘The Crazy Story‘ – it has a distinctly different ending.
“A volcano was heading towards a rainbow. A beautiful rainbow. The lava was in the street and everyone’s houses. But then they got someone to sweep away the lava. The volcano was under the ground, then the volcano was rising and they got everyone to start sweeping to put it back under the ground. Birds were chirping over the rainbow. An asteroid was trying to hit the rainbow, but then the birds pushed it back into outer space with their beaks. The birds protected the rainbow!”
‘The Beautiful Rainbow‘ is full of threat, with destruction imminent and one can easily replace the images of the lava rising up and the asteroid crashing down with the virus that surrounds Walter’s world. But ultimately, like Dr. Pagels hoped, Walter is telling a story of hope and interconnection. It is a story of people working together to keep the lava at bay and birds banding together to push the asteroid back out to space. Walter’s last story offers a vision for a world in which the virus shall be no more, where we chirp and sing with joy and all recognize, protect and share this beautiful rainbow we call earth. May it be so.
American Civic Life