The world is changing all around us.
For students in high school and college, it can feel like everything has been cancelled or is about to be cancelled. School. Church. Youth group. Field trips. Movie theaters. Everything.
The gymnastics tournament you’ve been training for all year? Cancelled. The musical you were supposed to perform in next month? Cancelled. That mission trip you’ve been fundraising for? Cancelled. That visit from an out-of-town friend? Cancelled.
If something hasn’t been cancelled, it’s been postponed. Everything is up in the air. Will you be able to start college in the fall? When will your dad be able to go back to work? When will life get back to normal? Or will everything only get worse?
In light of this uncertainty and disruption, I want to share five things young people would do well to remember.
[Also, here’s a summary of everything you need to know about COVID-19 from our editor-in-chief, Christopher Witmer.]
1. This has happened before.
Now, I don’t mean COVID-19, of course. And I don’t even mean pandemics — though those have occurred repeatedly throughout human history. (Including five pandemics with over a million deaths in the last 100 years.)
What has happened before (and will happen again) is a widespread disruption of life as we know it — a dramatic change of plans we could have neither predicted nor stopped.
(That is not to say no one can predict or stop these things from happening, but simply that young people, whose lives are unalterably affected by them, are often powerless to predict or stop these changes. It happens outside our control.)
Of course, we enjoy these stories in books.
The Pevensie children would never have discovered Narnia if they weren’t sent off to live in the country as German bombers hammered London.
And we’re all glad Frodo Baggins fled the Shire with the Ring of Power — even though it completely disrupted his life and everything he ever planned for himself.
This theme of disruption is explored in books because it is experienced in real life. Both C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were young men when World War I broke out — an event that reshaped the world and changed the entire course of their lives.
Youth Interrupted by WAR
Tolkien wrote in the preface to the Second Edition of The Lord of the Rings:
“One has indeed personally to come under the shadow of war to feel fully its oppression; but as the years go by it seems now often forgotten that to be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years. By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead.”
In his autobiography, Lewis recalls the first bullet he heard “whine” past him after enlisting in the British Army as a teenager. “At that moment there was something not exactly like fear, much less like indifference: a little quavering signal that said, ‘This is war. This is what Homer wrote about.’”
For modern young people, COVID-19 could be our first bullet. That moment in time where we realize the stories we’ve read in books, studied in history classes, and watched unfold in summer blockbuster films is coming to our neighborhood.
For my parents’ generation it was the draft lottery — stealing 2.2 million young men away from their studies, their careers, and their sweethearts and sending them to fight in the jungles of Vietnam (while between 30,000 to 100,000 young men evaded the draft by fleeing to Canada and millions more engaged in other forms of evasion and anti-war protesting).
For my grandparents’ generation it was World War II. Both my grandfathers fought overseas in the deadliest conflict in human history (with fatalities between 70 and 85 million). My Grandpa Sato lost his leg and had to wear a prosthetic for the rest of his life.
I’ve heard students complain (understandably so) about their high school or college graduations being disrupted. They won’t get to walk across the stage. They won’t be able to graduate with their friends. It is a real loss, but let’s put it in perspective.
After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, my grandmother, who was a 16-year-old Japanese-American, was rounded up with other Japanese-Americans and placed in internment camps around the country. She was handed her high school diploma through a barbed wire fence by a gym teacher who thought she’d like to have it. No ceremony. No celebration. Just reaching through the barbed wire to grab her diploma while armed guards watched from the gun towers.
(Here’s a picture of my grandma around this time, along with her actual high school diploma, and a picture of the kind of barbed-wire fencing used in the Japanese Internment Camps.)
EXIle, Slavery, AND Famine
Let’s not forget the biblical examples.
Daniel, Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego were in their early teens when they were stolen from their homeland and taken into exile in Babylon (where they spent the rest of their lives).
Joseph was seventeen when he was sold into slavery by his own brothers. He spent the next 10 years as a slave and three more years in a dungeon before emerging as the Prime Minister of Egypt and saving the world from a global famine.
For my Christian readers, this is why the Apostle Peter exhorts us, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12).
Yes, everything is crazy right now. No, we didn’t choose this and we certainly don’t like it. But we shouldn’t be surprised, not really. This has happened before.
2. This is (probably) a big deal.
In the early days of World War I, few people in America imagined how problems in Europe could impact the rest of the world so deeply. But of course, they did — and 16 million soldiers and civilians were killed before the Allied victory.
After the “war to end all wars” (as World War I was called before World War II came along), no one imagined the Spanish Flu of 1918 would kill three times more people than the war itself. But of course, it did — and 20 to 50 million people around the world lost their lives.
Now, I’m not saying COVID-19 is as serious as a world war or as deadly as the Spanish Flu. Only time will tell whether the predictions we’re hearing about tens-of-millions of infections and American hospitals being overwhelmed are true.
But can we at least acknowledge that there is historical precedent for these predictions to be true? Really bad things do happen. Back in 1914 we thought we were too advanced as a society to have a global war. But we were wrong. Then we thought we were too advanced to ever do it again. But we did, only 20 years later.
Now we’re supposed to believe we are too medically advanced to ever have a devastating pandemic? That we’ll never again run into a virus or pathogen powerful enough to cause widespread death? That we could never be caught off-guard and flat-footed by a serious threat that overwhelms our medical system?
RememberING SWINE FLU, SARS, AND EBOLA
I have personally lived through fears about Bird Flu (1997), the SARS pandemic (2002-2003), Swine Flu (2009-2010), and the Ebola outbreak (2014-2016). All of them inspired dire worst-case scenario predictions — not unlike what we are hearing today.
Fortunately, due to the hard work of thousands of health professionals, breakthroughs in treatment and prevention, and careful containment measures in other countries… None of those outbreaks lived up to the initial hype here on US soil.
Could that happen again with COVID-19? Of course.
But just because we’ve managed to “dodge the bullet” several times in a row doesn’t mean it will happen again. The city of New Orleans had weathered dozens of hurricanes over 150 years before Hurricane Katrina brought it to its knees in 2005.
My point here is not to argue that COVID-19 is “for sure” the big pandemic that will live up to the hype — but instead to push back against the perspective that it couldn’t possibly live up to the hype. Yes, it could. History shows that it could.
And right now, all the numbers I’m seeing and the reports I’m hearing from doctors, patients, and personal friends living under lockdown in Italy convinces me this is different than any of the outbreaks we’ve experienced in the last 25 years.
This Looks Like The Real Deal
I’m not going to attempt to argue with you or lay out the entire case. But let me make this observation… too many smart people with competing financial interests and political affiliations are taking decisive, costly action to mitigate the spread of this virus for me to believe it is all media hype and public hysteria.
This is a situation where actions speak louder than words.
Swine Flu never shut down a major sports league at a cost of billions of dollars in television revenue and ticket sales. It never cancelled Broadway. Never put entire countries into lockdown. Never overwhelmed a nation’s medical system like COVID-19 has done in Italy.
Peru and Argentina are closing their borders. Iran is digging mass graves. The mayor of New York City says, “we are dealing with a challenge, a crisis we have never seen in our lifetimes.”
The conclusion I have reached (which I urge you and your parents to consider) is that this is either the largest, costliest, most well-coordinated and bipartisan conspiracy ever. Or else these diverse leaders truly believe we are dealing with a great threat and are acting accordingly.
3. You are not invincible.
After initial reports emphasized that young people are at little risk of contracting COVID-19 or experiencing serious illness, health officials have started singing a different tune as new reports come out of Italy and younger patients are starting to require treatment.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said yesterday, that younger people “are not immune or safe from getting seriously ill.”
“There are going to be people who were young who are going to wind up getting seriously ill,” he said on television. “So, protect yourself. But, remember, you could also be a vector or a carrier. And even though you don’t get seriously ill, you could bring it to your grandfather, your grandmother, or your elderly relative.”
Fear VS. PRUDence
Some people will accuse me of stoking panic and hysteria by saying these things. That is not what I am trying to do. Instead, I am trying to encourage what the Bible calls prudence. To be prudent is to “show care and thought for the future.”
The Book of Proverbs says, “The prudent sees danger and hides himself, but the simple go on and suffer for it.” (Proverbs 27:12).
God doesn’t want us to live in fear. But He does want us to be prudent. That means doing our best to stay informed and taking wise precautions against the danger we see coming.
I agree with those who say we don’t need more panic and hysteria. But that’s not the same as saying we don’t need to take precautions. Panic is bad. Prudence is good.
4. You can make a difference.
I realize this can feel overwhelming and even depressing — especially given that the hardest days and weeks are probably yet to come. Staying at home with school cancelled can be exciting for a few days, but with no definite end in sight… it can feel daunting.
(And I just want to acknowledge right now that some of you are stuck in abusive situations where “staying home” is a nightmare. That is a horrible situation and I encourage you to use whatever means necessary to get help from trustworthy adults.)
When facing an uncertain and potentially dangerous future, all of us can relate to Frodo when he tells Gandalf, “I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.”
And how does Gandalf respond?
“So do all who live to see such times; but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
These lines were written by a man whose own young adult life was upended by an unexpected world war. (Yes, I know the exact quote I shared is from the movies, but Gandalf’s lines are almost exactly as Tolkien wrote them).
Tolkien learned a critical lesson as a young man we must all internalize today: “We don’t get to decide what happens to us, but we do get to decide how we will respond.”
How Will you respond?
Right now your family, your church, your community, your country, and your world are in peril. That peril has cancelled your life and threatens many of your future plans. You don’t like it and you didn’t choose it. But you do get to respond.
How will you choose to respond? Will you whine and complain and make your parents feel bad about decisions they make to keep the family safe? Get into fights with your siblings and raise the stress level in your house unbearably high? Hole up in your room and leave your younger siblings to navigate these scary times on their own?
Let me tell you right now… You have the power to make these next few weeks miserable for your family. You also have the power to make them more bearable.
What if you organized games and activities for younger siblings? Volunteered to take over the laundry? Cooked a meal so your mother could rest? Brainstormed a movie night schedule where everyone gets a turn picking the movie?
Or think outside the home… Do you have elderly people in your neighborhood or apartment building? What about people with chronic health conditions? What if you helped organize a plan to deliver groceries to their door so those at greatest risk of COVID-19 in your area could avoid the crowds and long lines at the grocery store?
A Lesson From Clara Barton
As a teenage girl, Clara Barton became a volunteer nurse to others in her village when a deadly smallpox epidemic washed through the area. Encyclopedia.com reports, “Barton eventually caught smallpox herself. But even though her recovery was long and difficult, she never regretted the assistance that she had provided.”
Is it any surprise that later in life Clara founded the American Red Cross and became an “angel of light” on the battlefields of the Civil War — delivering needed medical care and supplies to wounded soldiers? It all started with how she chose to respond to the needs around her as a young woman.
This current crisis could feel like the end of your life. But consider that it might just be the start of a new adventure… an adventure where you can make a real difference in the world.
I’m not saying this crisis is good. But sometimes the best things happen in response to the worst things.
5. This world is not our home.
Throughout history things like wars, natural disasters, and plagues have served as stark reminders for millions of people that we are not in control and we won’t live forever.
Even if COVID-19 turns out to be the biggest false alarm in pandemic history… facing our own mortality and the mortality of those we love will be a vital takeaway from the experience.
Personally, I have no grandparents still alive, but my father is 68-years-old and has underlying health conditions that make it likely he would die from the virus. He brought this up himself and my entire family agrees with his assessment. This is a scary and sobering thing to think about.
I don’t want to lose my dad.
In addition, I have friends in Italy under lockdown and many, many friends who suffer from extreme chronic illness who are particularly vulnerable as well. It is very likely that several people I know will die from this virus before all is said and done.
What about you? Could death touch your life? If this virus is as dangerous as it seems and overruns our healthcare system as many people predict… the answer is almost certainly yes.
But even if death passes by… will it do so forever? Of course not. As my dad likes to say, “None of us will make it off this planet alive.” Death is as much a part of life as birth.
Life On The Other Side
C.S. Lewis was remarkably frank about death in his children’s books, which surprised many people. But it should not surprise us. Lewis confronted death at a young age and it forced him to gain perspective. It forced him to remember this world is not our home and that “there are better things ahead than any we leave behind.”
Lewis understood that “neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).
This understanding of death, born from facing death head-on as a young man, enabled Lewis to see this world more clearly and look forward to the world to come. He closed The Chronicles of Narnia with these words:
“And as he spoke He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story, which no one on earth has read; which goes on forever; in which every chapter is better than the one before.”