for Dr. Sarah Bradford, one of my heroes
Words matter. This is especially true in a crisis. How we talk about the coronavirus impacts how we think and react to this pandemic.
I say we should avoid all language that evokes the metaphor of war.
I realize people often use this imagery in reference to disease—she battled cancer, he fought to the end. Certain people are courageous when facing their own mortality. I also believe that doctors, surgeons, nurses, and other healthcare workers are heroes in every sense of the word. They are “in the trenches” and “on the front lines.”
But the metaphor of war is problematic. It is violent. It evokes fear.
I do understand the urgency of our times and that, in some cases, people in (so far) less-affected areas may treat such practices as social distancing with a cavalier attitude. Such naivete will cost lives. I understand that people evoke the war metaphor as a means to rally the troops and instill the deadly seriousness of this crisis.
But we can motivate people more positively and more effectively with a different metaphor.
The body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body (1 Cor 12:12).
You may recognize this verse from the New Testament, but the metaphor is even older than the first millennium. Today, when we speak of the body politic, we are evoking the ancient Greek idea of citizenship. When we speak of anything that is “corporate,” we draw on the Latin root for “body.” The metaphor for a group of people as one body is found in a variety of world religions and indigenous cultures. The idea that we are all connected and reliant upon one another is trusted wisdom that has stood the test of time.
How, then, could this body metaphor change how we talk about the coronavirus?
If one member suffers, all suffer together with it (1 Cor 12:26).
Each person is aware of his or her own personal health, whether it is good or bad, and no one is immune to suffering. Not everyone is sick or hurt in the same ways, yet a person can relate to the experience of illness. During a national and global pandemic, we need to cultivate these powers of empathy.
My wife and I have three young children. In my nuclear family, I know that, if one person suffers, then we all suffer together. But the bodily and spiritual connections are not as readily apparent with people, say, in China or in Seattle or even in my own neighborhood. Despite all of our social networking technology, we Americans are increasingly isolated. Recently, poet Sherman Alexie diagnosed our culture:
Maybe the true pandemic is
Of a shared and common
War is, at best, a necessary evil. “A shared and common decency” is one of the first casualties. Yet, if we conceptualize ourselves as part of the same body where another’s suffering is actually our own, then empathy can lead beyond mere decency to compassion—literally “suffering with” others. And compassion is a form of love.
The passages I have quoted from 1 Corinthians precede the famous love poem in Chapter 13: love is patient, love is kind…this “kind” of love, however, is not only familial or romantic. It is also sacrificial love, meaning that individuals care for others even at the expense of their own health. This is the true heroism of healthcare workers. An ancient rabbi went so far as to claim that there is no greater love (John 15:13).
For all of us, words matter. Rather than talking as though we are war with an invisible illness, we must inspire healing care for one another—the one human body in the one, shared world.