[The Lord said to Moses,] “I am going to send an angel in front of you, to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared. Be attentive to him and listen to his voice; do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression; for my name is in him. But if you listen attentively to his voice and do all that I say, then I will be an enemy to your enemies and a foe to your foes.” — Exodus 23:20–22
Campaigns and elections don’t usually center on public school curricula, unless they’re campaigns for superintendent of schools, which — last I checked — isn’t an elected office. This past week, however, races from my neighboring town of Guilford, CT; to the state of Virginia; and to a certain extent all over the nation, took into consideration education about racism.
The candidate defeated in the contest for governor of Virginia lost in-part because of unpopular comments suggesting that teachers know more than parents do about what their kids should be learning. Was that comment extreme and ill thought-through? Taken out of context? Surely. But it landed with a particularly loud thud in the ears of parents who have been in the recent past functioning as their kids’ teachers, trying to blend working from home with supervising online school.
Here are some take-aways from this particular political post-pandemic poop in the punch bowl:
- Parents don’t like it when it’s suggested that they’re stupid.
- Parents don’t like it when politicians propose taking their power away.
- Parents have barely begun to process the resentment that built up when so much of their own agency was obliterated during the pandemic.
And we can substitute the word “people” for parents. Heck, I can substitute my own name. As if pandemic lockdowns weren’t bad and hard enough, we in many ways got used to them. This past week, I had a conversation with a colleague about the strained mental health of virtually the entire university community we both serve. She pointed out that our students had formed quarantine bubbles with people just like them. Now, they’re coming out of those bubbles, and they’re rusty. Rusty are we all.
I hated educating my ministry students at Andover Newton Seminary at Yale Divinity School from home more than I could even begin to process when it was still going on with no end in sight. The part I disliked the most was that our students were so sad to be apart, and there was nothing I could do to fix it, no matter how hard I tried or how badly I wanted to.
Now, they’re back together, and when they encounter conflicts with each other, I want to make those conflicts go away. “Aren’t you just glad that you’re able to even be in the same space, occasionally loathing each other, but in three dimensions?” Both then and now, both when isolation was our biggest problem and when friction is, we can’t get over, under, or around that which is difficult. We’ve got to go through that door.
Last year, it was hard to be apart. This year, it’s hard to come back together. Parts of reentry have been tough in ways vast and obvious. Moving out of the homogeneity of family or quarantine bubble, into the diversity of civil society: hard. Letting go of control of our children’s days: hard. Being away from our pets: hard.
Some reopening challenges are small, but take the toll of a thousand papercuts. For example, we all got used to the permanent name tags provided by Zoom. Now we have to identify people relying on much more limited data: hair, forehead, eyes. Do you have any idea how many of my students are women with longer brown hair? I didn’t either until now.
A second example: masks make reading social cues difficult, especially around humor. I pride myself (probably ill-advisedly) on the occasional joke that’s right on the edge of grossness. I’ve had to scale back on those except with people I know very well, because the eyes people make when they’re offended versus amused aren’t data-rich enough to tell me if I’m forming a connection or harming the future possibility of one.
When the Israelites prepared to enter Canaan, God sent with them an angel. The angel wasn’t there to protect them from enemies, but to protect them from themselves. God promised the angel would help them, but only if they listened to the angel and followed its instructions. “Be attentive to him and listen to his voice.”
As we reenter community life, bumping into each other, and chafing against friction to whose absence we became dangerously accustomed, we can’t just ask God to come with us. We need to be attentive. We need to slow down, turn to the angel, and ask, “How must I become different, inside and out, in order to manage this different world?” And then, whatever the angel tells us, we have to change ourselves, and do it.