I’m a priest and public health professor. Here’s my advice for rethinking the holidays this year.
We all struggle when reality does not conform to our desires, and this year, a virus we all wish would disappear continues to course through our communities. As the holidays approach and we all long for a moment of normalcy, we must admit that reality is not what we would like it to be. We are all, therefore, faced with the difficult choice of what to during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently recommended that Americans not travel for Thanksgiving. The United States now has more new daily cases of Covid-19 than in the spring, when we had little knowledge of how to mitigate its spread. And a large, indoor extended gathering without masks is our best way of assisting the virus in its pursuit of survival.
When reality refuses to conform to our will, we have at least three options.
The most tempting response is to slip into the comfortable delusion that there is actually no divergence and act as if the world is as we imagine it to be. This is the response of those who pretend that the virus is still a hoax or as if it has not killed a quarter of a million Americans. As we sit back and imagine the holidays, I suspect we have all spent a little time entertaining the possibility of making the holidays a brief exception to an otherwise frustrating year. But we normalize this reality at our own peril.
As the holidays approach and we all long for a moment of normalcy, we must admit that reality is not what we would like it to be.
A second possibility is to try to change the world so that it better aligns with our desires. We see this approach with activists promoting racial justice or banning abortion. If the world is not as we would like it to be, then it falls on us to bring the two closer together. The wisdom of this approach depends on whether we can actually modify that part of reality. While I would like to believe that we can suppress the virus in the weeks to come through aggressive public health measures, the last eight months have revealed that is simply not realistic. We might lessen community spread, but nowhere near to the point where holiday gatherings will be low-risk.
The third option is to adjust our desires to reality, finding grace that might be more obscure than we would like but that is nevertheless present. This should rarely be our first option. Hopes and desires are often good and holy things, and we must pay attention to what they are telling us. The collective hope that we can return to normal during the holidays reminds us of the importance of ritual and the goodness of personal connections. What can we do when what we sincerely hope for simply is not possible?
I work with college students, many of whom begin their studies in pre-med hoping to enroll in medical school four years later. For a variety of reasons, most of them must eventually face the fact that medical school is not in their future. It is often a difficult moment for them, but it is also a moment of possibility. After allowing the appropriate space to mourn the life they had imagined, I then ask them to consider what possibilities life has that they never paid much attention to because they were so convinced of this one way forward. For those who give themselves over to this task, grace abounds. It is not as if their original desires were bad, but they had never given themselves the freedom to imagine where else they might find life. This has been and is one of our fundamental spiritual tasks during this pandemic: to find a way to appropriately lament what is not—but to avoid getting stuck there and instead creatively consider what could be.
There is no definitive answer for what any of us should do over Thanksgiving and Christmas, but our answer must be grounded in the real world.
Some will choose to travel and spend time with family this holiday season. Preventing disease is not the only objective in our lives. Many rightly point out the mental and physical toll that comes with extended isolation. That is why everyone must prudently consider whether the benefit is worth the risk and if so, how to reduce the risk as much as possible. For those who choose to travel, there are many practical steps that can be taken to minimize the risk of infection. For the celebration itself, there are ways to minimize risk as well, such as gathering outdoors, regularly disinfecting surfaces and wearing a mask except while eating.
It appears there are several effective vaccines on the horizon. Perhaps that is even more reason to forgo travel and gatherings in the coming months. Those we keep healthy and alive are the only ones who will reap the benefits of that medical advance. I say this not to engage in fear-mongering but to again call us to acknowledge that reality can sometimes be harsher than we would like.
Our consideration of the holidays must be based in the facts in an ever-changing world. Perhaps that change is the possibility of vaccines being distributed in early 2021, pushing us away from travel at the moment. Perhaps that change is that a loved one is declining, which may be more reason to travel and spend time with them. There is no definitive answer for what any of us should do over Thanksgiving and Christmas, but our answer must be grounded in the real world. Even though our present reality is not what any of us would hope for, it is far better than the false worlds we like to build for ourselves.
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